Art Review: Rachel Howard & John Copeland, Newport Street Gallery ‘Mixed Results’

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Currently on display in Damien Hirst’s Newport Street Gallery is a joint show from artists Rachel Howard and John Copeland. What links these two is unclear; in fact, so incongruous is the mix that it jars. And the over-arching result is that of a mixed bag, with the different emotional tones and intentions of the two artists creating a lopsided experience.

But let’s start with the positives.

The display of Rachel Howard’s Repetition is Truth collection marks the first platforming of a female artist at Damien’s gallery, an achievement that has taken almost 2.5 years to attain. Interestingly, the works were also a commission from the Murderme Collection (the name of Damien’s personal collection of art) and makes a wonderful return, of sorts, for the woman who was Damien’s first assistant.

And the result is certainly welcome.

Rachel’s works consists of a take on stations of the cross, inspired by the infamous photo from Abu Ghraib. Her original painting of the scene of torture in the Iraqi prison is actually on display at the Imperial War Museum in their current contemporary art show on the legacy of the War on Terror. But here, the image is used as a starting point for a series of contemplative works, a series of huge canvases that see the slow emergence of the infamous black box on which the prisoner stood, as if it’s a form of plinth.

The effect is haunting and powerful, and the themes of suffering and state-sanctioned violence that connects Jesus’s crucifixion and the abuses in Abu Ghraib are well made.

The same cannot be said of John Copeland’s collection on the floor above. Its title is ‘Your Heaven Looks Just Like My Hell’ and the try-hardness of this title alone is enough to make your eyes roll. But then you wander through the galleries, taking his paintings in, and though there’s much that’s stylish about these works, their superficiality seems terribly out of step with Rachel’s serious works on the floor below.

In particular, it was the large number of female nudes that I had trouble with. I particularly admired the gestural, rushed brushstrokes, and the pictures have a lot of life and vitality in them. I just couldn’t get beyond the superficial though. Maybe I’m just over men painting eroticised nudes of slim white women. These don’t bring anything new to this theme which is old as time – and as a result they feel quite stale.

Having said that, I can see why people would like them – there’s a spirit to them. It’s just that, well, I might have thought more of them if these were nudes of women who didn’t exhibit the socially-acceptable “perfect body” standard. Cultural discourse is moving on quickly and these feel tone-deaf in the current climate.

Newport Street Gallery, London, to May 28, 2018
Admission free.

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