Is this the right place? I stand outside a redundant office block on The Strand double-checking the scrap of paper I scribbled the address on. A revolving door is reaching the last of its spin – someone else has just gone through its uninviting entrance. The descent down into the graffiti-laden depths seems endless until I'm exuded into a dark concrete basement, seemingly miles away from the populated streets above and even further from the normal polished concrete and white walls of the gallery system.
This is Brutal, a dark and sprawling collection of works across a foreboding cellar curated by Lazarides Gallery, with an atmosphere of uncertainty and edge. The curatorial text of the show states that it "will explore the brutality of the times we live in and deliver a remorseful exhibition that will shock, move and surprise visitors".
My navigation into this underworld starts with unease. Glass sheets hang precariously from the ceiling strictly determine my path. This work, by Ben Woodeson, both keeps me at a distance through fear that the slightest breeze may upset its delicate balance, and simultaneously places me in its centre, my face reflected back from the suspended glass sheets. After tiptoeing my way through, the silence is shattered by a gang of topless youths running and cycling into my path. Masks obscure their faces, but they communicate with action – dragging iron bars on the concrete floor, whipping chains and twisting one another's limbs in slow fights. A mutation of the gangs we see on our streets who instill fear into the middle class, it soon becomes clear that they pose no risk to us. Instead they only abuse themselves, a self-combusting contortion of aggression and energy with nowhere to go except into an orgiastic torture of one another. Then they're gone, dust filling the void as they race into the darkness.
The atmosphere generated by the setting is sublimely dark, but as I delve deeper into its soul, examining the corners and recesses, the work within it terrorises and disturbs me less. As I look around and see smartly-dressed urbanites with designer handbags taking selfies in front of artworks, I realise that this is a voyeuristic theme park I don't want to spend much more time in. There is huge scope in contemporary art to examine the failing politics of our time and its social consequences, but I couldn't see a lot of comment or genuine concern in this exhibition. What I did see is the appropriation of the style and aesthetics of urbanity, but only in a way which celebrates the grit and despair of the other while doing little to ask why, or address what can be done about it.
This may partly be because the setting is so beautifully designed – the atmosphere it generates is merciless. Some of the pieces work intuitively with the space around them, such as Mark Jenkins' Tape Sculptures of human figures – one of a girl curled up in despair against the wall, which could be mistaken for dystopian versions of the South Bank's human-statues. But other work, such as Conor Harington's painting The Savages – a photographic moment in which a punch is exchanged between two historical characters – would seem much more affecting in a traditional gallery space, where the brutality and shock are not so forced by the surroundings.
No work in the show suggests this more than the series on LA gang culture by Estevan Oriol, a celebrated commercial photographer who rose through the LA hip-hop scene and moved into a career of music videos and celebrity portraits. His work straddles the line between commercialism and documentation, and within this fine-art context, he is on difficult ground as he attempts to document a violent subculture while glamourising it. As if to prove the 'rawness' of the subject, he shoots on film and has left the rough edging of the photograph on show. Yet, it is then printed on gloss and framed, before then being placed within the context of this gloomy basement. This sits uncomfortably for me: the artist is at once working so hard to portray truth and brutality, yet clearly offering a patronising and protected gaze into another world.
On my way out I see a side room and slip inside: here, a single monitor loops Sebastian Horsley's iconic Crucifixion film. Depicting the artist's actual crucifixion, it is hard to watch, yet it is timeless and powerful. Without any knowing pretentiousness, it has genuine truth and authenticity – the most brutal thing on show, not in need of staged destitution to give it depth.