For an exhibition at the Stanley Picker Gallery, the artist turns her attention to the “self-medicating” suburbs, which decay as the inner city is fortified by foreign capital, says Hannah Gregory
For more than a decade, Laura Oldfield Ford has drifted through London’s edge spaces, tracing the margins and the marginalised – the disappeared squats within social housing on the verge of demolition, the subnature crawling through the fences of boarded-up buildings – in her fine-lined drawings, cut-and-paste travelogues and, most recently, acid-haze paintings. She set out not so much to chart as to idle, refusing the time demands of conventional productivity through her dedication to drift. But, in retrospect, her stream-of-conscious records, collected in the Savage Messiah zine, act as documents of districts transformed by development.
Her current exhibition at the Stanley Picker Gallery in Surbiton takes her wandering further to the margins, to the suburbs. A reversal has taken place, Ford claims: as the inner city is fortified by foreign capital, it is pockets of the outskirts that remain overlooked, left to their own decay. “The suburbs are self-medicating…” prescribes a fragment of an audio piece – for, if Ford’s own work comes out of the post-rave dawn, England equally operates in a cloud of stimulants and relaxants, antidepressants and pick-me-ups – just as the title “Seroxat, Smirnoff, THC” lists.
In the centre of the gallery a freestanding board emulates a property hoarding, collaged with an image from a real-estate brochure – a young professional female, made to laugh with glass of vino in hand. The Savage Messiah stickers that the artist once disseminated across the Olympic site are stuck over her soulless eyes. Scrawled small caps spell the first-hand notes from southern walks (all those providing material here were within the former boundaries of Surrey, which once included the boroughs of Southwark and Lambeth, too). In Balham she notices “a ballroom, now a Wetherspoons… networked leisure provision for yummy mummies”.
Another large-scale collage sketches a kind of waggish suburban bling, diamond logos in sharpie over black line drawings of the backyards of terraces, with highlights of graffiti-esque colour. Her writing is taped onto board that is tacked to wall, original crossings-out, corrections and characteristic repetitions on view; these layers suggest the continual rewriting of the city, with a rawness that resists the surface shine of gentrification.
Although I prefer the style of these collaged drawings, familiar from her past work, to the neon glow and grey-greens of her recent paintings, significantly, these canvases turn mainly to interior scenes. A deserted pub with sad Union Jacks, an unmade bedroom with suitcase half-unpacked, the living rooms of shared houses, hostels or squats – it’s hard to tell, but all are informal sites, with the artist in situ.
During her residency, Ford stayed on and off in a Travelodge above Lidl – alongside migrants, construction workers and others in transient, often more precarious, situations. She calls these places “zones of sacrifice”, where those undesirable but “temporarily necessary to the economy” may stay, as opposed to the idyllic enclaves of heritage Britishness – which are “zones of refuge”, the secure side of suburbia.
Are these sacrificed zones really the sites of radical alternatives, or at least, informal living? More likely, they are the only place left for those barred from the city centre. The self-medication she observes is escapist, symptomatic, rather than truly rebellious. But for Ford, there is always a lurking potential for revolt beneath the numbness of capitalist reality: “Out of the momentary lulls … other possibilities emerge.”
Laura Oldfield Ford’s Seroxat, Smirnoff, THC runs at the Stanley Picker Gallery until 29 November