One of the special things about entering cueB Gallery in Brockley is that you pass through a colourful café bar directly to the gallery located at the back. It’s a nice transition between dimmed light / funky decoration and the clean white gallery space, which comprises only one room. As it isn’t separate from the café, you can slip in and out between two spaces- a bracing combination of fine art and socialising that breaks down the borders between.
The works on display are surprisingly traditional – abstract with a hint of brutalism and naivety. As such, the paintings by Tadeusz Machowski, Witold Pazera and Alexander Zabhalcik are strong pieces that refer back to a history of great art understood in the ‘West’ as much as in the ‘East.’ My personal favourite is Witold Pazera’s White Landscape III, an abstract work with intriguing colour combinations, in which figures and things are sketched out so they’re just about recognisable. Pazera’s also a satirist, and the way he combines his two professions creates a nice tension between colour and lines, thrown together almost randomly on canvas.
Apart from the abstract works, there are two very small but amusing sculptures by Jakub Glinski (one is entitled Not sure if I am a gas station or rocket station!) and two paintings by Gabriela Chichowska, an illustrator who won the Opera Prima Prize at Bologna Children’s Book Fair. All together, it’s a wild mix of figurative and non-figurative painting and sculpture, brought together in a small space.
But why are these pieces exhibited together? Surely there must be more to it than that they’re all by Eastern European artists? Actually there is: Curator Kasia Machalek handpicked the works after meeting the artists at a festival in Poland where for a week they organised lectures and discussions and worked in a shared environment. Machalek is herself an abstract painter and graphic artist, and was in a position to choose her personal favourites – the exhibition thus reflecting her own working practice, as she works in the styles on show. This is an inspired – and very personal – way of curating and, being so subjective, a curiously democratic one too: it includes different media, mixes well-established artists with new ones, and includes a range of styles. Overall, this is great.
Yet there’s the title of the exhibition, which is slightly misleading: ‘The New East’ promises something that would show us why the work could be considered Eastern. It’s also strange there’s no real sense of diversity, as one might expect from a category as broad as ‘East’ – in fact, only one artist (Belarusian) is from outside Poland. In a way, the term ‘East’ or ‘Eastern’ gives importance to the artists simply for where they are from, which doesn’t do their fine work justice. We live in a time when the strange duality between East and West should, one might think, be broken down. And while the curator surely aims to do this, the exhibition title evokes just the opposite…
Having said this, ‘The New East’ is a great exhibition: all the pieces are engaging and find the right level of seriousness without ever falling into self-importance. Also, as they’re not exhibited in sequence by artist, walking through the exhibition is all the more varied, and there’s a perfect quantity of works for the gallery space.
This is the first exhibition Machalek has curated in Britain, and really shows her drive to connect artists from the East with buyers and an audience from the West. This is an admirable effort, and it comes off well. Yet it might have been even more satisfying had it included her own story of how and why she picked these artists, and what they mean to her.
‘The New East’ at cueB Gallery, 325 Brockley Road SE24, continues till 24th May 2015 (opening hours Monday-Saturday 9 am – 4.30 pm, and Sunday 10 am – 4.30 pm). The exhibition is supported by the Polish Cultural Institute, London.