Reviewing Bank Job

Reviewing Bank Job art exhibition - image by Rowan Newton
Review of Bank Job exhibition at the new London West Bank Gallery.
We made our way to the 'Bank Job Urban Art' opening day at the London West Bank Gallery, located in a building which had previously been a high street bank. When we got there it was in full swing, with a large diverse crowd in attendance.
The gallery is spaciously spread over two floors and the curators had used this huge exhibition space to its full potential, not only with the art work exhibited, but also by providing live bands upstairs. With no immediate neighbours, the sound limits can be pushed to fun loving levels without the typical restrictions on spaces of this nature.
There was no single theme to the exhibition, other than unifying different approaches and sensibilities in urban art under one single event named 'Bank Job'. A playful take on the fact that the building used to house a bank ( and therefore wealth), and now exhibits an array of urban art, some of it with a very hard hitting political message.
A case in point was the painting 'Cheese Eating Surrender Monkey' by Cosmo Sarson, where two American soldiers are covering the head of a prisoner- ‘Le fifre’ - with a Macdonalds paper bag. Not entirely a new theme, but arresting and thought provoking nonetheless - with a fresh and powerful approach.
  'Cheese Eating Surrender Monkey' by Cosmo Sarson
Cosmo contextualises it by saying: “Inspired by Manet’s painting ‘Le fifre’ in which a young boy playing a fife symbolises the French notion of freedom, equality and brotherhood. Painted on to the same material that US Army uniforms are made from, this painting alludes to an incident when France criticised the invasion of Iraq and US foreign policy. It led to the widespread renaming in America of ‘French fries’ to ‘Freedom fries’ and the French were famously denounced as ‘cheese eating surrender monkeys’.”
The Manet reference is interesting: he is one of the first 19th-century artists to approach modern-life subjects, to make observations of social life and used the near-monochrome effect in painting. Manet painted contemporary subjects such as beggars, singers, gypsies, people in cafés, and bullfights. He also took a long time to be recognized as a painter of merit.
 'Cheese Eating Surrender Monkey' is painted in a classic style and is set in a middle eastern landscape . It has a restrained, almost monochromatic, colour range . The monotony is broken by the depiction of the arrest of the subject and the McDonald's logo. There is a sense of desolation, loneliness and distance and, despite this, the painting has the ability to bring a strong message to the foreground. 
This paradox , distance and proximity, is ever present and lends the image a great deal of power. This is true in different ways of course, but ultimately I feel it applies to all of the characters depicted: the soldiers, our freedoms, freedom, equality and brotherhood as inspired by the French Revolution, youth and innocence, acts carried out in our name away from the public eye.... and so on.  There's a sense of humour of course, but ultimately this painting contains a strong depiction of the truth that lurks behind such situations.
Interestingly too that the edges of the frame, in darker tones, resemble pixels: the digital means by which modern media and the world is available at the touch of a button from the comfort of our private spaces, a statement on the power of the digital media in an increasingly internet dominated world. It also re - addresses the old modern argument about images loosing their reference to reality, when we are swamped by them in our culture and society.
The painting is a striking reflection on modern times and the increasingly alarming actions that governments pursue in 'our name'. It is as if one has stumbled across this image whilst strolling through the corridors of politics, among the labyrinth of modern history, where a door is open for everyone to see this recurring event. 
With it's challenging content and style, it stimulates one to reflect both outwards and inwards. That is to say that besides its message, the painting is also reflexive as an object. The classic approach suggests the poignancy of history repeating, whilst also questioning our perceptions of high art. I like it.
More candid perhaps but equally striking was the portrait of a Cuban man - Emerging from the shadows of beaten and cracking paint is the face of “Luis” smoking a cigar by Catherine Howells.
  Luis - by Catherine Howel.
When I first looked at this image from a distance, it appeared as if the face was coming out of paper printed at the end of ink cartridge. The surface is in fact metal (a piece of a car or of a gate) and the portrait was painted within areas of the metal panel that have lost their original colour. There's a grat deal of dignity in this portrait as well as honesty in its painting style. There's a sense of time gone by, as well as of something timeless.... but we all know the political realities of Cuba; from the economic embargo to the old classic cars that still today drive around Havana. Undoubtedly there's a prevalent sense of history as well as wisdom that comes with old age. The subject of the painting doesn't look unhappy, but rather as if he's looking at tourists who have walked into his drinking joint in Havana. He is looking at us, at the outside world, looking at him. It's certainly engaging... We are witnessing each other from two very different realities. Despite the corroded surface and unassuming style, there's a great deal of humanity in this portrait, as well as an unexpected sense of balance that makes it very captivating.
The exhibition has a pretty varied collection – these two examples illustrate a range of approaches and sensibilities to be found at the 'Bank Job' exhibition. The size and versatility of the space gives an indication of the ambition of the London West Bank team.
Just Another Mickey Canvas 
Located in a boundary between the very edges of Portobello and the more urban Queensway, this gallery sits in a slightly incongruous place. It's like an outpost of urban art with all its intrinsic rebellious flair and vigour, set as it is amongst such clean, polished surroundings. However this might be its making as, let's not forget, this is a commercial space too, and sales are paramount for its survival.
Overall striking and ambitious, this exhibition and gallery are well worth a visit – why not make it a regular destination? We certainly look forward for more from the London West Bank Gallery and wish them every success..
We strongly recommend it. 
For related listing with address, please see London West Bank Presents: Bank Job
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