REVIEW: Driving School by David Bellingham @ Phoenix Gallery, 19/01/19-24/02/19

The Verse’s Jake Francis reviews David Bellingham’s exhibition ‘Driving School’.

The first driving lesson. For many, this event holds a remnant of mental scarring. A recollection unavoidably relived each time a sibling or relative buys their first theory book. The traumas associated with such a memory can be varied and distinct. That unequivocal stench of the handbrake slammed on in mid-panic, the rollercoaster of mounting your first curb, or the sudden realisation that 30 miles an hour feels like the speed of light. These stimuli of red faced alarm during this new experience has, for many, remained potent; a physical threshold of youth screeching into adulthood.

It is within this multifaceted experience that the artist David Bellingham has taken unexpected residence; crafting an experience of everything but absolutes. Consisting primarily of a reception, ‘learning area’, and service kiosk, Bellingham has repurposed our memory of the driving school into the gilded halls of contemporary art; a subversion that intentionally takes us a little time to readjust to. It is within this repurposed staging, however, that Bellingham offers a dialogue of faint familiarity and categorical questioning. A formalised metaphor for learning, mistake making, and risk taking.

Impressively utilising the various backbones of conceptual art practice, Bellingham offers a cadre of installations, sculptures, prints, and interactive gestures to fully engrain our senses into this Frankenstein of an experience. Unsurprisingly earnest when one considers his curator (Turner Prize nominee David Shrigley), Bellingham sidesteps the viciousness associated with much contemporary art. Instead, justifying his thematic decision making with that of adaption, opportunity and the inquisitive:

What I try to do in situations like this is to look at what the space makes possible. I had this general idea that the show should be about driving -I’d been making these L plate pictures which are oil paintings on board…and I thought ‘well I’m working on these so let’s make a ‘driving school’ show – let’s extend those’ – it wasn’t some laboured idea, it was just a response to a group of pictures I was making… It’s not so much narrative but there is a sort of logical pathway through the works – dictated by the space itself.

Although Bellingham’s honesty is well-appreciated, there is a far too coincidental parallel with this adopted scenery and his creative mission; one that brings meaning to the once overlooked. Like a driving instructor, the artist encourages us to adapt to symbols and ideas anew. Reverse engineering our assumptions in a reminiscent yet bewildering context. It is in this persistent aim and its subsequent totems that the artist permits a rare experience for today’s art spectators: a welcoming accessibility with interpretations aplenty with a vacant agenda. In Bellingham’s company, horseshoes no longer echo their intended wearer, ladders lead to nowhere, and the road sign averts instruction in favour of contemplation; it is clear that everything and anything is not how it ‘should be’ and is ‘what it could be’. For the artist, a toothbrush becomes a paintbrush – the absurdity of its conception matched only by our own restrictive thinking.

For those with a passing knowledge of the arts, the amputation of the symbol is two-fold; Bellingham sparing neither ‘high’ or ‘low’ for his abstractive mincer. Not only is the fabric of our daily meanderings brought into visual debate, but too are the practices of established thinkers and linguists. With the artist referencing sacred cows such as Sol Lewitt and Bruce Nauman, it is clear that the gospels of well-kept ideas have no safe space to gather in; all is up for grabs and all is to be reassessed. When talking with Bellingham, one gets the idea that the previous is always present. Our expressions consisting of an inevitable amalgamation of experiences, intentions, and perceptions. Bellingham’s works are perhaps best quanti?ed by a famous phrase once coined by philosopher Soren Kierkegaard: ‘we live forward, but we understand backward’:

I feel that the mode of address in the work is, in a sense, more than one voice asking a set of questions. In each piece there are quotations from contemporary art and literature, there are quotations from friends and references that I’ve half forgotten…

Disparate only in medium, the show maintains its sense of fun and effortless engagement. Pulling both on your intimate and public selves, Bellingham asks you to honk a horn in one work, and contemplate voyeurism in the next; it is an exhibition of the playful and the philosophical.

From the very beginning of the show, our host offers nothing but probing entertainment and delectation of upheavals. Like a fun house at the carnival, Bellingham presents to us that which we see every day, with each element doused in a twist of speculation and the performative. By playing with both mainstream and domestic symbols, Bellingham’s driving school instigates its own hazard perception test; one that requires your appraisal and analysis at every turn.

The question of the work is over articulated in a way, there’s no solution to the question. Duchamp said ‘there is no solution because there is no question’. I’d refute that because I think the artwork, in a way, is a mode of questioning. You propose a question in that particular way and then the reader then attempts to answer it or think it through the ways they want to. Not necessarily coming to a solution – but approaching the question by maybe thinking ‘what are the problematics of that question?’

Driving School is hosted at Phoenix Gallery and is open until the 24th February – admission is free. The gallery is open for visits Wednesday to Sunday 11am – 5pm. For more information, please visit the following sites:

Jake Francis

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