Dibnah in Lights is hard to miss. The name of that legendary Yorkshire steeplejack flashing in red, white, and blue bulbs against the green felt backdrop of a repurposed snooker table is the first piece that greets you as you walk through Grove Collective’s doors. This piece by Mitch Vowles, a sculptor who works with found objects to draw out their cultural and personal contexts, nestles easily amongst Connor Murgatroyd’s pastel-hued still life paintings of anthuriums, signet rings, Sinatra albums and a scaffolders A-Z, and film photographer Alfie White’s hand-printed images of boys at Brixton bus stops, on Tottenham blocks, and playing in Burgess Park.
It is opening night when I first see these works together, and the small gallery located just off Battersea High Street, which opened its doors for the very first time this January, is packed out, with masked patrons moving sweatily between its rooms and jostling for position on the pavement outside. At one point we are asked, very sweetly and with a smile, to please stop spilling out onto the road and into its oncoming traffic.
History’s Shadow Marks the Beginning is the new group show curated and hosted by Grove Collective, a joint endeavour by editor and curator Jacob Barnes and gallerist Morgane Wagner founded with the desire to “ease bottlenecks that prevent artists from selling their work”, and to make “art from a diverse range of practitioners available to an equally diverse collector base”. This, their fourth in-person show and seventh counting the gallery’s innovative virtual reality exhibitions held throughout lockdown, a platform by which History’s Shadow… and all past and future exhibitions will be available indefinitely, takes its title from the largest of Conor’s featured works, one that proves a fitting shorthand for the kind of thinking that drew Grove to showcase these artists’ work together.
All three young men, explains Jacob Barnes, the gallery’s co-director, “interact with their practice’s history, and work within, whilst also embodying an excursion from those traditions”. Conor’s penchant for still life and British iconography for instance, reminiscent of John Bratby’s still lifes of the 1950’s, which saw cornflakes, chip fryers and mustard jostling for position in kitchen tables, is offset by an influx of contemporary and hyper-personal references, whilst Mitch too entwines the traditions of readymade sculpture and video – stemming from the early 20th century and late 1980’s respectively – with deep connections to his own personal history. The sensitive and youthful eye which Alfie brings to a humanist street photography tradition that began with the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson is steeped in his personal connections to the people and places he captures. A native South Londoner, that corner of the world is one he moves confidently through, so at home that his subjects either trust his quiet friendliness or don’t notice him at all whilst he shoots, ridding his work of any potential for detachedness or pretention.
Alongside these interactions with the historicism of their respective artistic practices, there are other linkages between this painter, sculptor, and photographer which draw their work together, despite their distinct mediums and subject matter. The artists’ personal histories, drawn out of familial and geo-cultural experience, and the interplay these experiences have with class and masculinity colour every aspect of History’s Shadow. The latter, Jacob tells us, was at one time intended as the show’s central theme, before the curators realised it wasn’t quite big enough as a concept to encompass exactly why they were drawn to these artists, and the possibility of showing their work together.
Indeed, it’s apparent that no phrase or theme is quite “big enough”, or accurate enough, to capture exactly what it is that is so palpably connective in their work. This ineffable something is, perhaps, tied up in the artists’ youthfulness, and the sense one gets of their playfulness and the guts to make quick, bold decisions in their art. “It’s so much about a decisive moment,” agrees Jacob; the half-second Alfie has to click the shutter to get that perfect swirl of smoke rising from his subject’s joint, Conor’s gathering and grouping of talismanic objects, Mitch’s decision to take home the set of family photos he found down the back of a pub sofa which would eventually form part of Earnie, a collage of those images on the back of a fruit machine.
From this “decisive moment”, these artists work backward, rearranging and positioning objects, or scanning, developing and printing photographs, in order to shape their ideas into the final forms we eventually see. Here, one notes another reflection, this time between the artistic and curatorial practice which combined to make History’s Shadow Marks the Beginning a reality; the genesis of a group show such as this, Jacob describes, is oft a similar flash of inspiration, of feeling “so strongly that they belonged together, but not knowing why”. This sense, he says, is not “necessarily a logical one, but because there’s something in me that needs to do it”.
Devoid though this urge may be of coherent logic, it makes perfect sense, upon observing their work together, one gets the sense that these artists, and their art, exist in the same universe. It’s easy to envision the three young artists bumping into each other at a pub or a park, or to imagine the titular rottweiler at the centre of Conor’s painting bounding over to join the scrapping dogs in Alfie’s shot of Brixton high street, before curling up round the base of Mitch’s fruit machine whilst its owner tries his luck with a pocketful of shrapnel. “This is it,” says Jacob; “This was our attempt to put words to that…they exist in this universe that isn’t so easy to wrap your head around, but feels so visceral”.
History’s Shadow Marks the Beginning at Grove Collective Featuring Connor Murgatroyd, Mitch Vowles & Alfie White is available to view virtually indefinitely via the Grove Collective website
Emily Blundell Owers is a freelance journalist, artist, poet and illustrator based in South London. Her writing spans art, fashion, beauty, music, and poetry, and her art takes the form of portraiture, sculpture and weaving. Across all mediums, she has an interest in the personal and political empowerment of creating, and the intersection of high and pop culture. For more details, get in contact here.