Legends of Circumstance

The Whitecross Gallery opens its doors to a strange cabal of anti-heroes...

Detail from "Rosie Wilde" Ryan McClelland, 2006
There is a peculiarly romantic fascination in British society with the notion of the anti-hero. Perhaps it's got something to do with the nation's much feted 'love of the underdog', but it seems that no matter how misplaced our affections – no matter how violent and malevolent the figure in question may appear to be – we take anti-heroes lovingly into our hearts. If you're in any way unconvinced, just drop phrase 'anti-hero' into conversation at the pub tonight. It's more or less guaranteed that within minutes someone will be talking about A Clockwork Orange in a way that could lead you to believe that mugging, knifing, raping and beating your way through adolescence with viciously amoral glee is just about the coolest thing you could possibly do. There are, of course, thousands of similarly adored fictional anti-heroes – Pinky in Brighton Rock, Beckett's Molloy, David Thewlis's self-loathing Mancunian in Naked – but there are also very many real individuals to whom society seems a suffocating anathema, and it's precisely those faceless hordes that Legends of Circumstance at The Whitecross Gallery celebrates. Featuring artists Adam Dant, Frances Disley, Dave Evans, Mikey Georgeson, John Hewitt, Mark Hampson, Peter Lloyd, Ryan McClelland, Laura Oldfield Ford, John Strutton and James Unsworth, this show shines a light on the marginalised likes of Morris Dancers, science-fiction writers and cowboys, and explores the myriad reasons why we always fall in love with the outsider. We caught up with the curators and participating artists Dave Evans and Frances Disley to find out more...

Dazed Digital: What does the notion of 'anti-hero' mean to you?
Dave Evans: For us, the anti-hero is anyone who embraces ‘negative’ human characteristics to get the things they want. They could be angry and loud or stubbornly silent, but whatever they are they generally rub people up the wrong way until they get to where they want to be. This friction is what makes these characters so appealing. As much as we hate to admit it, we love the rebel and the bad guy. The anti-hero also makes us feel better about our own sly quirks, while the traditional hero makes us feel a bit inadequate.

DD: Who is your all-time favourite anti-hero and why?
Dave Evans: I’m working through an obsession with pulp science-fiction books at the moment. I love everything about them, the crazy utopian ideas, the lurid covers, and the outsider nature of the genre itself. It’s chock full of anti-hero’s, in the stories and the writers themselves. I’ve become particularly smitten with Philip K Dick, his books are great to read and he was an amazingly interesting character. He was an obsessive writer who was both paranoid and deluded, but he created beautiful, mind-bending stories that manage to be both fun to read and thought-provoking.
Frances Disley: My all-time favourite anti-hero would have to be William Blake. His work was a product of his rejection by the art world and society ingeneral. He was pretty much unrecognised during his lifetime but was a genuine visionary.

DD: What were your concerns when you set about curating the show? What did you want to get across to the viewer?
Dave Evans: I’d just read The Dangling Man by Saul Bellow, in which a depressed would-be writer gradually shuts himself away and alienates himself from a society he can’t figure his place in. We realised that it was a common dilemma that most people struggle with at one time or another – whether to tow the line or break the rules. So, we thought it would be a great theme for a show that everyone could identify with.
Frances Disley: We’re also both big fans of direct, unmechanised processes, so that was a deciding factor, too. The artists we selected all have a hand-made element to their work and most of them are quite obsessive about it. That started to tie in with the emerging anti-hero theme.

DD: Do you think that contemporary society is turning us all into outsiders?
Dave Evans: Contemporary society excludes or includes depending on how you look at it. Sure, community is breaking down – we’re becoming more isolated in our homes, on the internet and watching TV alone or in tiny groups. We can, however, also go to Oxford Street and immediately join the massed ranks of global consumers. I get a certain amount of comfort from doing that sort of thing, but it’s pretty shallow compared to regular contact with family, friends and neighbours. For us, Laura Oldfield’s Ford’s work really communicates this lack of meaningful social progress in favour of ‘progress’ as defined by consumerism and big business.

DD: What do you think of the perception of artists as outsiders?
Dave Evans: People like to have a stereotype of the disenfranchised artists as the classic outsider squirreling away in their studio. In the show Mark Hampson’s faux pub signs nicely explore and debunk this mythologizing of the artist. The day-to-day reality for most is much more complicated though. Artists make art for lots of different reasons, a minority are genuine oddball outsiders, but some are money-orientated business people, wannabe celebrities, hobbyists, whatever. It would be nice to think there was a common sensitivity that runs throughout all artists but I’m not sure there is.

DD: Do you have any favourites among the pieces exhibited?
Dave Evans: I’m sure we’re not meant to have favourites as curators, and to be fair, we love the work of all of the artists in the show. Having said that, I personally like John Hewitt’s drawings of ex-punk morris men. They’re lovely drawings and there’s an enjoyable playfulness in the imagery that I don’t see that much of in the galleries that I visit around London.
Frances Disley: I should be on the fence on this but I have a special connection with Laura Oldfield Ford’s work, I’ve lived around the areas she’s based some of her drawings on so I can identify with the spaces and people she represents and the potential impact of the changes that are taking place.

Legends Of Circumstance is at Whitecross Gallery June 12 – July 4
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