Emily Scarrott reviews Adam Neal’s “In Loving Memory Of” at Coventry Artspace’s Arcadia Gallery, which took place during August 2019 as part of their graduate-in-residence scheme.
“Who Is Adam Neal and Why Is He Dead?”
“That’s what people keep asking me,” Adam says, grinning; “People keep coming in thinking that this is a memorial to someone called Adam Neal and they want to know what’s happened”.
“Who is the show in memory of?” I ask.
“I guess the working class as a whole really,” he answers. “The last generation of working class people are elderly now, after them it starts getting messy. This sort of working class doesn’t really exist anymore, it’s just leftovers now”.
Neal’s first solo exhibition, a culmination of his participation in Coventry Artspace’s graduate-in-residence scheme, grounds working class culture in the aesthetics which form his grandmother’s daily life. The exhibition focusses on lens-based documentation and display of an observed domestic practice, repackaging an environment in which the artist has grown up.
Central to the gallery space is a weekly Aldi shop in a basket, positioned on a plinth that has been annotated with a list of items, handwritten by Neal’s grandmother. This part is important; It is the tone-setter of the exhibition, dictating the balance between what the artist finds humorous and what he finds precious. Whilst there is a clear joy in exhibiting his nan’s shopping, a tenderness towards this woman is shown in Neal’s practice of care towards the artwork. On the day of my visit, he had ensured that he left the house early to go (specifically) to an Aldi before opening to buy a packet of pork pies to replace the previous ones which had gone out of date the day before.
I spend a lot of time with gigantic copies of half completed pages of an “Arrow Word” puzzle book, getting to know the character of the elderly woman who I have never met. These samples act like anecdotes of an older generation and build a clear picture of their place in the world of their descendants. Certain answers are lost on younger adults, and both the artist and I admit to each other that we weren’t familiar with a lot of the content. With answers like Danny La Rue in the now 2019 world of Ru Paul’s Drag Race, the puzzle books evidently know their audience and document a wave of pop culture knowledge which has been forgotten, changed or rewritten.
Neal points out his favourite parts of the images: changes in biro colour mid-answer which shows his nan’s thought process throughout the page.
There is a fond spark in the artist’s eye as he speaks about his grandmother. The achievement of their grandchildren is both the legacy and the death of the working class, with their daily graft providing the opportunity for education and success in younger generations. This support is honoured in Neal’s curatorial choices for his work; The biggest declaration of which can be found in a sleek series of large-scale photography hung using an (authentic) collection of kitsch souvenir fridge magnets at each corner. The transformation from nan’s fridge to gallery wall pays homage to those matriarchal homemakers who nurtured the abstract thinking of their families and encouraged it’s professional development by displaying early prototypes in their nest.
Coventry’s City Arcade is the perfect frame for this body of work. Surrounded by shops that still cater specifically to the needs of this fading generation, the exhibition bemuses passers- by as they aren’t quite sure what Adam Neal, a gracious host armed with a camera and his Nan’s net curtains, is doing on their territory. These are the moments when art spaces like Arcadia are most effective, providing an experience of the uncanny for the community which inspires questions rather than immediate alienation.
“And has your Nan come to see the show?” I ponder, wondering what such an experience must feel like.
“She’s seen pictures,” he smiles proudly.
“Did she like it? Any feedback?”
“She says it’s good, but mostly she just wants her fridge magnets back”.