James White and Tim Sheward
Entwistle Gallery, LondonFrieze, Issue 38, Jan-Feb 1998
Who's that girl? She's a 70s beauty queen, this much we know. The make-up, the smile, the bikini. We can give her a name too - the title of the work - Getaway Girl (1995, all other works 1997). Holiday brochures surround her, scattered on the floor. The tableau should represent one thing: glamour. But the gap between intention and reality is painfully obvious; her surroundings are not the swish luxury pad of some international jet-set playboy; rather, she is situated in a middle-class home, whose owner is hardly the houseproud type. This is not to say that the room is squalid, just ordinary. And that is enough. Enough to wipe away the glamour that this girl, culturally, should stand for.
Dreary mediocrity is emphasised through the presentational technique: the two by two and a half metre image is made up of several sheets of photographic paper held together with Sellotape. Great, hand-sized gobbets of Blu-tak affix each corner of the image to the wall, their scale suggesting that the work has been enlarged from a snapshot. And it probably was since this is a blow-up of a found-image.
Thus White & Sheward set out their stall immediately, the shabbiness of their manual skills intentionally reinforcing the viewer's sense of being somehow let down. All of the works in this show promise the viewer so much, only to pop the little bubble of expectation with cheap, knocked-up reality. Similarly Gin Palace - a room-sized block of polystyrene blocks roughly glued together that dominates the first gallery like a huge, Minimal float - is rendered absurd by the large outboard motor stuck on its back. This 'yacht' would undoubtedly float, but the ride wouldn't be too much of a luxury. The promise of glamorous pleasure is again ruined by low-budget craftsmanship.
Is glamour something that we should long for? What exactly is glamour anyway? Certainly it is a major currency of Capitalism, and yet its expression is always so crude - the yacht, the gin, the breasts - that perhaps White & Sheward are aiming not to let down the viewer, but rather to reveal the tawdry obviousness that lies at the heart of the logic of glamour.
Show Me the Way (Beer Garden) is an airport-style, yellow lightbox sign that reads 'Beer Garden'. Suspended from the ceiling, it points us towards the corridorleading to the downstairs gallery. In the corridor we find Untitled (Beer Garden) 1-8, photographs of Heathrow Airport that have been digitised, allowing the artists to add their 'Beer Garden' signs to Terminal 4. They are convincingly produced, except that the resolution of the images is low, giving a blocky, pixellated appearance. After all this build up, descending the stairs to the lower gallery, we finally enter the Beer Garden itself.
Foam-topped beer kegs sit in a circle, huddled around a low table of car tyres and a circular sheet of (poisonous) aluminium, upon which peanuts sit unappetisingly. So this is the 'beer garden' then? After all the signs bearing the suggestive word combination - so romantic to the ears of late 20th-century Britons - this is it? Expectation. Disappointment. The joke is beginning to wear thin.
There are times, though, when the joke transcends itself. Don't worry about the punchline, concentrate on the delivery. I'm thinking of the twelve-minute video A Misconception of Relaxation (in the Club Style), which features an inflated rubber executive stress toy, rhythmically squeezed for the camera so that its eyes, nose and ears pop from its head. Add to this some early video effects of the positive feedback variety (as popularised by Dr Who and Top of the Pops c.1970) and the figure can be interpreted as some brain-fried clubber. But the soundtrack consists solely of birds cheeping and chattering in the way that city-dwellers refer to as 'idyllic'. All the elements of the familiar joke are there: the glamour of clubs (culture's official 'good time') punctured by the reality of just how silly a lost-it clubber looks when taken out of context, plus the absurdity of stressed-out executives beating up rubber toys. But the effect of the piece is more than the logic behind its construction. It is, in a word, hypnotic. The work draws the viewer to a less conscious place where intellectual games aren't played. The slipshod production, which had become so stylised, here achieves potency simply because it isn't taken as a let-down: by promising nothing, it is given the space to deliver.
text copyright david barrett
images copyright the artists