TOM ESAM, THOMAS MAILAENDER & JOSH WHITAKER
31 May – 05 July 2014
Roman Road presents Chicken Show, a group exhibition featuring artists Tom Esam, Josh Whitaker and Thomas Mailaender. Curated by Marisa Bellani and Tom Esam, the display is three-parted. showcased on the outside wall of the gallery are the Chicken Signs (2013-2014); several hanging lightbox sculptures by Tom Esam and Josh Whitaker. The internal space stages Chicken Museum (2014), an installation by Thomas Mailaender, while Chicken Shop (2014) is located at the back of the gallery, offering visitors merchandisable products made with logos designed by the artists involved.
CV / press release / essay
Tom Esam (b.1986) is an artist and curator living and working in London. Since completing his BA in Fine Art at Kingston University with a first class honours degree, he has exhibited widely in solo and group shows around the UK and in Europe. Whilst maintaining a solo artistic identity, Tom Esam enjoys working collaboratively with other artists, instigating novel and creative dialogues in his practice. With a light-hearted yet thought-provoking approach, his work explores the possibilities of everyday materials and objects, forcing us to re-engage with the familiar and to at once contemplate our culture today.
Thomas Mailaender (b.1979) is a French multimedia artist living and working between Paris and Marseille. His work has been exhibited in solo and group shows in major art institutions and festivals internationally, such as at the Centre Pompidou, France and at the International Festival of Photography, Getxo, Spain. Known for his witty and often impudent works, Mailaender's oeuvre entertains with its curious and conspicuous displays.
Josh Whitaker (b.1987) is a London-based artist born in Leeds. Working with diverse mediums he draws from political sources to create conversational art imbued with humour and aesthetic conscience. Following his initial participation in the weeklong residency and exhibition Triangel in Bentlage, Munster, Germany in 2008, Josh Whitaker has exhibited widely in leading art galleries and institutions including the South London Gallery, the Tate Modern Turbine Hall and the Barbican Centre in London.
WHO IS AN ANIMAL? WHO IS A DRUNK?
There are 8000 fried chicken shops in London, which makes one for every thousand people. Their signs have their own particular lexicon and set of imagery, which has developed over the last thirty or so years. According to a recent publication, roughly 90 per cent are designed by Morris Cassanova, a signmaker whose company called MBC Signs has come to dominate the market for chicken shop signage. Chicken shops are generally thought of as purveyors of cheap, greasy, fried fast food yet their ubiquity speaks of popularity and the variety of shops no doubt vary greatly in quality. They also have some association with London drinking culture in areas of busy nightlife. It's not always a sober choice of food.
The signs commonly feature references to southern American states - inspired of course by the multinational Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) - but the states to which they refer appear almost random, reaching for an 'idea' of America rather than any sort of origin. The London chicken shops also have their own distinct branding that diverges from KFC's Colonel Sanders with his friendly white-bearded face. Chickens with smiling beaks often appear, dressed in cowboy hats or neckerchiefs. The colours are red, white and blue and the stars and stripes are often used as a motif. Some shops advertise that the chicken they sell is halal meat. Some sell pizza. Some names are amusing or ill-advised, such as ChickPizz and Chicken Spot, (two establishments near a flat where I lived a couple of years ago in Stoke Newington), both of which have unappetizing associations when looked at in a certain way. Interestingly, in the face of so much Americana, the aesthetic of chicken shop signs exists in a somewhat closed loop, which refers mainly to itself. Chicken shop signs look like chicken shop signs and not much like anything else.
They are almost a kind of joke - shorthand for the reality of living in London as opposed to the fantasies sent abroad. I recall talking to an American who mentioned her surprise at the London chicken shops on her first visit - of the bones left outside the place where she was staying, shattering her fantasies of genteel England. The shops are an inevitable, day-to-day part of life for many people in London, and are experienced in different ways. Maybe a few years ago some friends of your friends lived above a chicken shop and were plagued by the smell or by pest infestations; maybe you drunkenly ate fried chicken and annoyed the staff by asking for free ketchup.
For 'Chicken Show' at Roman Road, London, the gallery has been temporarily branded as a chicken shop with its own chicken sign, made by the artists Tom Esam and Josh Whitaker. These are accompanied by a coop of live chickens entitled Chicken Museum by Thomas Mailaender. Outside the gallery's East London premises, a circular white sign shows the gallery's logo - two interlinked letter 'R's ?- rendered in blue with white stars, with the name of the exhibition and artists spelled out in a red cheery script font. This new sign, made by Esam and Whitaker as part of their Chicken Signs series, comprises an agreement that the two artists will collaboratively create a sign for each new show that they work on together. Several of the signs are clustered outside the gallery. One sign shows simply a red chicken's comb on a white backdrop with no other detail. One advertises 'GFC', another just a cactus with a sunset backdrop. Another takes a kind of mock-Cubist approach to a chicken's face.
These collaborative works provide a point of contact for the two London-based artists, both of whom draw from encounters with everyday objects in chiefly urban and suburban public spaces in their separate practices. Both artists appear to have interests in ubiquity - Whitaker has utilized anti-climb paint used at railway stations in painting works, or sportswear. Esam's sculptures have regularly featured the kind of abandoned-looking trainers that one sees slung over electric wires or at the side of roads, whilst his Tower of Avoiding Brain Rot (2013) is a slender assemblage of cardboard tube and rubber glove held together by an oversized Sports Direct mug. There was one such mug in the kitchen at my last office job - it shares the same mass market, unloved appeal as the chicken shop signs. For the artists, the formal constrictions imposed by the tradition of the chicken shop sign have a kind of comedic mirroring with the formal restrictions used in Modernist painting movements such as De Stijl, which forced experimentation from the cage-like space of the restricted grid and a reduced palette. Through a light-hearted appropriation of objects that would appear to have low cultural value, the artists suggest an attention to detail - the spaces and objects that get tuned out often say more about a place and the choices being made than those we care to remember. And everything is a choice, from the blue and red neckerchief on the smiling chicken to the choice to get ketchup or not.
The presence of a chicken image in a space where chickens will be consumed is another reminder of the somewhat strange relationships we have developed with food in the West following rampant globalization. Slow food and organic food movements notwithstanding, there remains little understanding of where food products come from, and in the case of living things, what their lives consisted of. At the time of writing, a scandal has just emerged about the use of slaves in the prawn fishing industry in Thailand, whereas the uncovering of the use of horse meat in beef products in recent years flagged up the blinkers that consumers have on when it comes to understanding the consumption of meat.
Accompanying Esam and Whitaker's chicken shop is Mailaender's Chicken Museum (2011), which uses a different strategy to alert viewers to mindless consumption. Whilst live chickens scratch around in the hay of Mailaender's coop, the walls are covered in the kind of junky, funny photographs that one mindlessly consumes on social media and sites like Buzzfeed. Images of dead plucked chickens sitting in a sink as though it was a hot tub, of dogs in fancy dress, of 'biggest fails' and bad plastic surgery. As with the Esam and Whitaker installation, these photographs are not something that we tend to associate with ourselves, and yet we consume them, sometimes actively, as though they were a form of junk food. A form of lo-fi documentary photography for our era, these are not so much a form of street photography, but rather a kind of consumption-driven, technological photography which survives well on the internet - the scrappy, ugly flipside to the clean 'stock' or advertising image.
As well as suggesting tongue-in-cheek critiques of mindless consumption, of greasy chicken consumed whilst drunk or of images consumed with glazed eyes in a dark room, both projects also suggest a lack of choice. There's no real escape from the chicken coop, and there's a sense in which one doesn't really have a choice about what becomes ubiquitous, and what comes to dominate a city landscape. As well as the anarchic joy of appropriating the trashiest possible material, the 'Chicken Show' suggests that we shouldn't pretend that these are not the hallmarks of our culture.
Laura McLean-Ferris, 2014