The Whitechapel Gallery has long championed art by emerging local artists, and one friend of mine has described The London Open as the “edgier cousin” of the RA open. I saw what he meant: there is a great vibrancy and freshness about the show that is suggestive of artists fearlessly pushing themselves to explore new ideas.

The exhibition takes place in the main gallery on the ground floor and two further galleries upstairs. The artworks on display were chosen from over 1,900 submissions, with a focus on current trends in artistic practice.  The curator, Kirsty Ogg, and the selectors, noticed there was a clear tendency towards engagement with socio-political and economic issues in the submissions received, and therefore the exhibition responds to those themes.

Starting on the ground floor, I was drawn to Martin John Callanan’s work. I particularly liked the installation International Directory of Fictitious Numbers, a phone machine which continuously dials fictitious numbers and plays back the well-known recorded response of ‘Your number has not been recognised’.  It shows the fatuousness of many structures that we live under: the voice, although real, is entirely disembodied from its original owner, and the numbers are fictitious yet the machine dials them - the exercise is thus entirely pointless.  Callanan engages with the distancing from reality and responsibilities that we experience through the deployment of automatic structures to the viewer’s attention in humorous potency.

The back wall of the ground floor gallery is occupied by Leigh Clarke’s Heads of State (2012).  It’s a highly political piece in which plaster heads were cast using satirical rubber masks of world leaders. They are displayed mounted onto scaffolding pipes and pinned to the wall.  The notion of ‘heads on a stick’ is inescapable: Clarke indiscriminately hangs the leaders out to dry in a reversal of the aggrandisement usually associated with memorial statuary.  I liked the grotesqueness and misshapen quality of the casts - it created a flaccidity that allows the viewer to pierce the notion of the leader as unquestionable and to think about the value of political leadership.

The notion of questioning where we have found ourselves politically and economically suffuses the show, and the idea of gluttonous consumption is cleverly portrayed by Greta Alfaro’s In Praise of the Beast.  For almost fifteen minutes, the viewer watches as wild pigs find a huge cake in the snow and proceed to devour it.  Their unbridled joy at finding and snuffling this cake down is fun to watch as they roll around in it engulfing and gorging themselves until you realise that what Alfaro is representing reflects back on our own vociferous consumption practices and implies, essentially, that we are the hogs.

In a more playful piece, Heather Phillipson simply dazzles.  A is to D what E is to H (2011) takes the viewer on a dizzying journey around France and french kissing. Eliding the words with french cuisine, Phillipson plays with the viewer’s desires.  One second you are drenched in Doisneau’s famous couple french kissing and anticipating some notion of that most intimate of connections, then suddenly you whizz into a kitchen as dough is slapped uncompromisingly onto a worktop and Phillipson innocently narrates her mistake in the background.  Teasing and thought-provoking, the artwork reminds us that in between the turmoil that surrounds us, we are still able to snatch at the intimacies of life.

Moving on to the galleries upstairs, the final gallery contains artworks that are more celebratory of kitsch and the outsider.  I certainly like the personal nature of Nikolai Ishchuk’s Offset series, in which the artist has played around with the family snapshot, separating cosy shots of togetherness and reassembling them to create family divisions and thus exploring the often unspoken spaces of family relationships.  They are playful to view as you desperately try to reunite family harmony in your imagination and realise the black shapes underneath each photo are the shadows of space Ishchuck has elicited.

This is a good exhibition of fresh artworks that are right on the pulse of contemporary experiences.  The selectors have made excellent choices that have resulted in a show that has a connected and thought provoking narrative.  

The London Open, at Whitechapel GalleryRita Fennell reviews Whitechapel Gallery's The London Open.4