Anti-Social Realism is an unnerving mix of hyper-realism and mad, angsty dream world. But it goes further than this.
On first look the show appears to be battling these two simple realms, but the more you explore, the more surfaces begin to warp and fall apart - apparent photographs revealing themselves as paintings, ordinary scenes giving way to sadistic undertones, then coming full circle back to dull reality. It’s an ambitious move for an intimate gallery space, with a lot of competing styles, but it works very well.
Realism and surrealism have long battled it out for king of the actual real - and the winner really depends on whether you think it’s what we see that’s real, or what we don’t see (but is nonetheless most definitely there) that is more real. This battle is played with endlessly in this exhibition, with an anarchic edge to many of the works, unearthing a world of political secrecy and digital shaping of reality. Above both the high realism and gross surrealism within this exhibition, is the sense of ‘genuine truth’ as quoted from Gustave Corbet’s famous line. It is the genuine truth that matters; the realism of the vessel for this truth matters little. It can come in the form of a stark, documentary style photograph, or a painting with very little grasp on physical form.
One work that sums up many of these elements, is the brilliantly eerie Moon Suits, by John Stark. It is a work that on first look appears to be a Jeff Wall-like photograph of men in bee keepers masks, that takes on an unnerving feel the more you look at it. The strange, otherworldliness of the thick suits, the masked faces and the crowding of figures begin to look horribly sinister - are they running an experiment? Is the one on right actually a hooded teenager? Are they about to cause some pain? Similarly, as you approach, the photograph reveals itself to be an intricately painted canvas, working with a light and line quality more akin to photography. It is the sense of looking slightly further than the surface, that is played with so brilliantly amongst a wealth of photographers such as Wall and Crewdson - that is taken one step further here, in a total break down of reality.
There are other works that push in a different direction - the ghastly but engrossing Pandora’s Box by John Greenwood offering a grotesque mishmash of naked body forms that suggest at a hallucinogenic reality - entirely removed from the literal world, yet at one with the subconscious, bringing with it a sense of truth about the human mind, its’ repulsive quirks and the darker recesses of the imagination.
It is a lot for one small exhibition to be covering, but it is the mad clamour of works and styles that pull everything together. It is the uneasiness of seeing the styles, forms and surfaces of works, so perfectly normal in one and so barbaric in the next, that really draws out the questions. What is reality, and is our typical understanding of ‘realism’ really the best way to get the truth across?
Anti-Social Realism will be running until May 9th at Charlie Smith London, 336 Old Street, 2nd Floor, London EC1V 9DR
Words by Emily Steer