Paydirt : "The Thames Mudlarks"

The term "mudlark" was coined during the Industrial Revolution. It referred to a young street urchin or elderly woman who scoured the banks of London's Thames River, usually during low tide, for anything he or she could sell: lumps of coal knocked off a barge, discarded rubbish, household items and toys. It was a nasty practice, since it involved contact with raw sewage and the occasional brush with a corpse. The police considered mudlarking a criminal offense, and practitioners were sometimes slapped with short jail terms or stints in reformatory schools. Ironically, in the 1980s, an organization called the Society of Thames Mudlarks obtained a special license to do exactly what was considered illegal before: scavenge the river. But this time, it was in the name of history and the preservation of historical ­artifacts.

Translating the icky exercise into artistic metaphor, CTRL Gallery is currently hosting a delightful show, "The Thames Mudlarks," an exhibition of seven London artists whose work employs a certain amount of foraging for materials, or which plays on a theme of abandoned or strewn detritus transformed into something wholly different. Of the 23 works on display, all but two were completed last year, adding immediacy and a trendiness to the exhibit. This is the debris of now.

Most formal are Jost Münster's acrylic paintings on paper and wood. Straight-edged, rectangular shapes alternate between gray tones, pastels and earth tones, creating a random conglomeration, like a close-up, pixilated view of mud, maybe.

Pulling the camera way back, we get an aerial view of rubble, mostly. Adam Humphries's large-scale digital prints depict a section of land, really the paper's white surface, peppered with boulders, rocks, dead trees and twigs. But strewn around the area, little spheres and bits of litter can be seen, as well as splatterings and the residue of tiny explosions. Anchoring each room are Humphries's large polystyrene sculptures, two big, brown boulders that look like replicas of ones seen in the prints. They work fine in the context of this show — as examples of earthbound flotsam and jetsam, but I sense permanent installation in their future. How far can a sculpture of a boulder go in terms of collectible value?

Two wall-mounted sculptures by Piers Secunda both employ and mimic found objects. Constructed almost entirely from brightly colored, heavy-duty industrial paint, the pieces are similar in tone to recent works by Ken Little that showed at Finesilver Gallery. Secunda is more concerned with abstraction, though, than Little, whose found-object sculptures resemble animal forms. Secunda pours and casts paint to imitate bent rebar and slabs of rubber, which are twisted into abstract figures.

Most representative of an actual mudlark is Shane Bradford, whose captivating works meld painting, sculpture and mixed media. Bradford's three pieces on display involve objects and images that have been fixed to the wall in very intricate patterns and angles; once incorporated, they add up to a larger image or shape. In a clever, symbolic gesture, Bradford uses dart shafts — finally, a somewhat British allusion — to fasten his materials into place. Vanishing Point incorporates images of fighter jets, tanks and missiles juxtaposed with illustrations of medieval knights, into a rectangular collage that induces forced perspective, a vanishing point, when viewed from a distance. Little toy soldiers have been dipped in paint, dried and stuck in position so that the drips create the effect of movement or blowing wind. Bradford's Dipped Paper Planes looks exactly how it sounds, the hardened paint drips tapering off the planes' tails like they just survived a journey too close to the sun.

Most puzzling, though, literally, and in terms of how in the hell he did it, is Bradford's Swarm Intelligence, an amalgamation (again, using modified playing darts) of toys, junk and household items, dipped in paint and stuck to the wall. The objects form a black rectangle, almost four feet tall, with a central white diamond outlined in pink, yellow, blue and green stripes. If you can get past obsessing over Bradford's process, it's worth considering what he might be trying to say. If these objects in fact form a swarm, then Bradford seems to have created a collective network that is predetermined, in which all the parts have a programmed position. There's no such thing as freedom of choice; there is only fate. If we were to stand back and throw each object at the wall as if it were a dartboard, the objects would fly to their determined locations, as if encoded to do so. No wonder Bradford included actual puzzle pieces in the work.

Andrea Medjesi-Jones's surreal paintings and sintra-board etchings really sling the "mud." Although her two large horizontal paintings Exodus and Oscillate weave vague, hazy sci-fi narratives into vast, star-dusted space scenes, there's something mucky and sticky holding things together — a kind of snotty foreign substance gunking up the universe. It's there again in The Idiot, although the surroundings seem more organic.

If there's something missing in "The Thames Mudlarks," it's the titular river. There's precious little reference to anything London. In fact, Medjesi-Jones's sinewy, rubbery images bear striking similarities to the work of two Houston-based painters, Virgil Grotfeldt and Ryan Geiger, who create otherworldly realms of alien foliage and floating pathways and bridges.

Curator Peter Lamb included two of his own pieces, which the viewer must mudlark himself to find the hidden treasures. Even though Lamb works largely in digital prints accessorized with paint and electronic elements, his Houstonian band of brothers might be I Love You Baby, whose layered paint collages emit an analogous energy. In Lamb's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Savior, a mannequin torso has been outfitted with a deer head in the artist's studio. An angular array of LED lights blink in a seemingly random pattern around the sculpture. It's very indie-rock-music-video in tone, like it was designed to hook a certain type of collector, maybe one who champions the arbitrary over the slightest hint of accord. It's still a fun piece.

According to history, mudlarking rarely produced rewards for those willing to wade through filth, like the Dumpster divers of today. Here, though, most everyone hits paydirt in the trendy department. Maybe CTRL should organize a homegrown show and call it "The Bayou Trawlers." It would be an interesting counterpoint to these Londoners' quest for treasures buried in the urban muck.

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Troy Schulze
Contact: Troy Schulze