Review: The Potion Room
Subsidiary Projects, London
14 – 28 February 2020

Words by Kerry Tenbey –

On paper, an exhibition proposing to showcase 46 sculptural works, in a space no bigger than the back bedroom of your nan’s bungalow, seems like a huge risk, but the tale that I am about to tell, of mysterious objects, millennial alchemy and turning your back on tradition, is one of triumph and promise. “It's literally going to be magic”- Georgia Stephenson.

The Potion Room, is a collaboration between Subsidiary Projects gallery team and independent curator Georgia Stephenson. This unusual and unconventional display, contains all manner of objects submitted by the following artists:

Abigail Brothers, Alia Hamaoui, Alice Chandler, Amanda Møstrom, Andrew Gillespie, AshleyMiddleton, Benjamin Arthur Brown, Benjamin Cohen, Carl Anderson, Charlotte Osborne, Chris Cawkwell, Chris Thorson, Corsin Billeter, David Stearn, Ellie Barrett, Georgia Gendall, GeorgiaSowerby, Hannah Lim, Helena de Pulford, Hugo Lami, Jack Evans, Jordan Mouzouris, KaraChin, Lauren Godfrey, Leon Pozniakow, Lizzie Wright, Luca Bosani, Maria Positano, MeganElliott, Megan Visser, Naomi Gilon, Natalia Janula, Nathaniel Faulkner, Nick Paton, Rachel Letchford, Richard Phoenix, Robert Cooper, Roberta De Caro, Sarah Edmondson, Sebastian Sochan, Steven Gee, Ted Le Swer, Tom Groves, Trystan Williams, Victor Seaward and Yambe Tam.

Before I continue to speak of the wonders within, I want to take you back a short amount of time to set the scene and explain why I have fallen under the spell of the ‘The Potion Room’. If you recall, mid last year, several international news outlets reported the discovery of a ‘Sorcerer's Treasure Trove’ at an archeological site in the buried Roman city of Pompeii. The remains of this mysterious wooden box contained many valuable items; these artefacts were hand crafted from crystal, ceramic, semi precious stones and glass, some which depicted godheads of fertility and others, human skulls. Archeologists and historians have speculated as to whether these items could be ritualistic charms or beads worn during spells and incantations to ward off bad luck. They have also claimed that these talismans are of significance because each object individually or collectively tells a “micro-story” or biography of the people who lived in the city of Pompei before it was lost in the subsequent eruption of Mt Vesuvius in 79 AD. The director of the Archeological park stated that they were most likely the belongings of a female servant or slave, a person with who perhaps was looking for an escape?

But why are you relaying this, I hear you ask?

Well, as an artist with a keen interest in material objects and attached meanings, this snippet of news captured my attention because it seemed to be a physical manifestation of something that has been simmering away slowly in my ideas cauldron for some time. Bubbling on the surface is the question of whether esotericism and fantasy still holds a place at the contemporary art banquet, and what does this mystery diner look like? ‘The Potion Room’ is a practically perfect specimen of what this looks like, and I suspect we will be seeing more exhibitions like it in the near future. Even more pertinent now considering that a good percentage of the world's population have plummeted into lockdown and are retreating back to ‘old ways’ of doing things like obsessively baking bread and sneaking outdoors under the guise of exercise to forage wild garlic. But what does this mean for artists?

Back in January 2020 before the madness of the world health crisis occurred, I was lucky enough to sit in on a talk with Manchetser based Professor, Writer, Artist and Curator Sarah Perks. Perks made predictions for the year ahead and beyond, and talked about what type of artwork and exhibitions will be popular in 2020, and the emerging strategies that support them. She used the term ‘A Return to the Real’ where she spoke of reaching communities and artists creating accessible artwork for all and not just the elite and educated few. But more importantly, within her overview, she made predictions that a return to an interest in magic, the occult, mythical history, and forgotten fantasies would appear on the cards. ‘The Potion Room’, delivers just that. But to be triumphant in this return, we need a new spell book that casts out the traditional methods of exhibition formulation and dares you to be bold and unapologetic.

A vital ingredient in the concoction of ‘The Potion Room’, is the recent relocation of Subsidiary's project space from the ground floor of a semi-detached town house on Bonnington Square in Vauxhall (London) to a local community centre in Lambeth. The new location, which is slightly inaccessible without climbing staircases and passing through doors, opened up possibilities for a new way of display and thus ‘The Potion Room’ became a growing vision in the mind of Stephenson. The title for the show came to fruition after Stephenson found herself sickly and stuck watching Shrek 2. She began musing about towers and transformation from potions and this gave inspiration for the show's title and concept.

In a recent interview for Assemblage Magazine, Stephenson and Subsidiary Projects Nina Silverberg and Natllia Gonzalez Martin discussed this inspiration for the show and how they collectively felt as though it was important to produce an exhibition which injected a dose of mysticism and magic into the veins of a society that needed escapism from the daily pressure and burden of modern living. All three, discussed the excitement of being able to work with so many artworks in one space and how they felt a strong connection and energy towards some objects more than others, and this is definitely what you experience from a visit to the ‘The Potion Room’.

Another ingredient tossed into the melting pot of this exhibition's success, is the way in which it presents itself. After climbing the stairs to the highest room in the highest tower, so to speak, you enter ‘The Potion Room’. In this office-esque space, which could easily be the stationary closet of JLB, you are presented with a shelf like structure. But instead of a shelf stacked with post-it’s, pencils and an awkward Mark Corrigan staring back at you, the central shelving is scattered with all manner of tactile delights and you suddenly realise you've stumbled into an alternate dimension far far away from a mundane and meaningless call centre. What is immediately striking and unique about this exhibition, is the layout. Far removed from the sparsely curated white spaces, lacking in atmosphere and actual artwork, ‘The Potion Room’, with its the cleverly constructed shelf, built to fit the architecture of the space, manages to bewitch you into thinking that you are looking at a bountiful Museum display of priceless artifacts. There are four levels for you to discover as you navigate around the perimeter of the room and its archival display. I love that Stephenson has decided to ignore all conventional methods of gallery display and instead chooses to show these objects in such a way that complements the entire theme of the exhibition. Why should it always be that artwork must be presented in a way which is void of the concept and leaves it up to individual interpretation and needing to read a lengthy statement on the wall?

The last and arguably the most important component which completes this magnificent elixr, has to be the amazing 46 artists that contributed their labours of love to this exciting vision.

From boxes of bones and goblin ears to a salty hare and golden four leafed clover, there are so many wondrous sights to behold, that you have to spin round several times and click your heels just take it all in. What is most intriguing to me is that all of these artists, toiling away separately in their own respective chambers of secrets, have been brought together by Stephenson and Subsidiary Projects for ‘The Potion Room’, and all seem to be working in similar ways. Lets just analyse this again, 46 young emerging artists from near and far are experimenting with materials to conjure up spellbinding objects which manage to transcend their humble material beginnings and cleverly hoodwink you into believing you are observing actual magical relics before your very eyes.

Coincidence? I think not.

A shared characteristic of all of these objects is that the artists who created them seem to all possess the Midas touch and manage to successfully take everyday non fantastical materials and perform a kind of strange, modern day transmutation to create wondrous works of art from combining very little to achieve a lot. Claiming the title of artist in today's society, is not without its difficulties, and I too know how much of a struggle it can be to hold all the tools needed for the trade. A studio or space to work within, plentiful coin probably earnt from a secondary profession, and access to materials which, if bought from art shops, can be ridiculously expensive, I mean, it's really no wonder that so many developing artists are choosing to spin silk into gold by learning the act of material illusion.

Now, let's take a closer inspection as to what can be found on the shelves of ‘The Potion Room.

On the bottom shelf as you first enter, you will notice a pale blue object which resembles an almost open book. This is a creation by London based artist Sebastian Sochan. Sochan uses tracing paper, thinly lined with pigmented wax all sewn together to form folds which look like the pages of an open spellbook, though its contents are indecipherable to those who do not possess the ability to read its sensory language. Its pages speak of love and loss and affect and its fragile specificity leaves clues to the purpose of its creation.

Round the corner at the same height is the faint sound of trickling water. This can be attributed to another talented artistic Londoner, Lauren Godfrey. The teeny tiny water feature that Godfrey calls a “meditative desk fountain” is aptly titled ATHENA. This ancient greek goddess stood for many things including wisdom, courage and inspiration, but most importantly skill within arts and crafts, which is exactly what is achieved by this artist's interpretation of a peaceful greek fountain, complete with cornucopia style plastic grapes. It's hard not to fall for the illusion and believe you are watching some mad remake called ‘Honey I Shrunk the’ Fountain.

On the shelf above prepare to be fooled by the wiley work of 3-D printer wizard Jordan Mouzouris who skillfully creates a goblin ear specimen from printed ceramic. Next to it, ‘Holy Sh*t’- ( Jack Evans, 2020) it's the Holy Grail, or is it? Well no, its pine, plaster and spray paint but it could be, and that's the amazing thing about this exhibition, it leaves so much room for speculation and imagination, and for those of you looking for tinctures, tonics and remedies for the bore of everyday life, look no further, they've got everything you need.

Another object which gestured me over for a closer look, was a ceramic, clawed, monster hand formed by Brussels based artist Naomi Gilon. The beastly palm looks as though it could be a resting place for charms and trinkets when they are not in use, and the talons gently pinch a limp cigarette as if this severed appenditure is the entrusted keeper of its masters lit ciggy.

I could go on and on about this cave of wonders, but alas, for now, I have come to the end of my tale. ‘The Potion Room’ asks you to banish everything you thought you knew about a contemporary art exhibit and invites you into the inner circle where Art and Magic are one and the same, and every artist inducted into ‘The Potion Room’ has Achieved the highest rank of
material mastery.