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Midnight Marauders: The Grey Organisation Return To The Scene Of The Crime
Geoff Cowart , February 12th, 2022 09:24

Thirty-seven years ago, a midnight attack by a provocative art collective shocked London and the swanky dealers of Mayfair. Geoff Cowart takes a trip back in time to The Mayor Gallery

Picture by Andrew Catlin

Who says crime doesn’t pay? A new show at The Mayor Gallery showcases newly printed photographs chronicling a1985 attack by the Grey Organisation that saw the gallery’s Cork Street windows audaciously splattered in grey paint.

The vandals certainly made a stir as galleries up and down the Mayfair street were targeted with their energetic outbursts of emulsion. Displayed for the first time, these new super-sized images capture the aftermath as Met Police officers surveyed the scene with their torches – deftly juxtaposed with the original crime reports, outraged newspaper clippings, and even a tin of the Tesco grey with its evidence tag intact.

Curated by William Ling, the huge black-and-white images are also accompanied by a selection of seminal artwork from Grey Organisation’s archive. The collective – active from the early 1980s until the group disbanded in 1991 – ran the creative gamut with their work, evidenced by photos of an early performance-cum-demonstration outside London’s ICA, to a later preparatory study for the day-glo cover of De La Soul’s seminal album, 3 Feet High and Rising.

But on that evening – 21 May 1985 – the Met Police became the unwitting accomplices of the group by documenting their first-ever appearance in the upmarket Cork Street. Under cover of darkness, the four twentysomething artists dressed in boiler suits popped out of the back of a white Transit van armed with a grudge-load of watered-down grey paint. Afterwards, they unzipped to reveal their shaved heads and trademark sharp suits and sped towards Covent Garden to pop corks at the swanky Zanzibar.

The midnight attack is vividly recalled in the exhibition’s catalogue by London-born Toby Mott, the Grey Organisation’s spokesperson and chief protagonist:

“I’m apprehensive. This is it. There’s no going back. We are not like the other tossers talking about doing this and that; we are going to do it. In the cramped, dark back of the van we pull overalls over our grey suits, getting ready for action.

“In teams of two … we rush over to the gallery windows lining the street. With all my might and fury, I throw my tin of grey paint on to the plate glass window. Laughing with the others we speed off into the night, not quite believing what we’ve done.”

It’s fitting that the show returns to The Mayor Gallery. It’s the only targeted venue remaining in Cork Street, with others such as the Waddington, Mercury, and Knoedler galleries all long gone. “If James Mayor could be persuaded to forgive and forget and host the show, it might be that the art world would slowly begin to grant Grey Organisation the attention it deserves and recognise its historical significance,” Ling schemed.

Without hesitation, the show was agreed. On the night in question, Mayor himself remembers returning from dinner to retrieve his car and chuckled to see the paint-smeared windows stretching up the street. The memory still triggers a mischievous curl of his lips. Did you know anything about the group before the attack, I asked James?

“No,” he says flatly.

The next day, the Grey Organisation members were arrested, and their Bow HQ was raided. “The repercussions did not end there,” according to Mott.

At the time, it was an outrageous act of cultural vandalism. It was deemed so serious that the four Grey Organisation members were banned from central London. During this era of peak Cold War Thatcherism, the group were intent on channelling the rage of the punk movement into the art world. The zeitgeist is captured by Stewart Home in the exhibition catalogue when he writes: “London never really lived up to its swinging 60s image and by the 80s the optimism that we were about to enter a golden age of Aquarius had been largely replaced by a pessimism engendered by the bleakness of daily life in the city.” As a result of their central London ban, the Grey Organisation felt forced to disappear and headed to America to continue their art and earn a living.

Emerging in the early 1980s, the Grey Organisation paved the way for the far less radical clique of Young British Artists who emerged later. But instead of riding the new wave of money sloshing about in the YBA art world, the Grey Organisation had to fund their existence by holding illegal east London warehouse parties. They were also way ahead of the curve conceptually – bottling and labelling their urine, framing the contents of their gallery bins, and setting fire to tins of Holsten Pils before framing them. In the exhibition, there’s also a devilishly simple label from a Heineken bottle mounted on paper. Look closer and you’ll notice the varnish affixing the label to the paper is swimming with clippings of human hair. Eat your heart out, Tracey Emin.

“The doors were closed – and we needed to say hello,” Mott stated in his opening night address at The Mayor Gallery. “This street was the art establishment and we felt excluded. So, the idea was born to throw grey paint in the face of the establishment – that’s a quote from Voltaire. And then we did.”

Thankfully, the show is more than just shock value. There are some intriguing drawings for the Labour Party’s 1985 election campaign, some stark photographs of the boys in their braces in the studio, and even shots of them studiously posing with model Samantha Fox for a blue jeans advert. Clearly talented and able to read the mood, the collective used their minimal, Soviet-inspired aesthetic approach to channel their anti-establishment messages.

Yet, the collective didn’t exist in a vacuum. Initially, they were heavily influenced by Essex punk band Crass, while later working alongside other like-minded artists and activists such as The Mutoid Waste Company, Thee Temple ov Psychick Youth, the Neo-Naturists and the Neoists, Gilbert & George, Throbbing Gristle, Derek Jarman, and New York City hip hop label Tommy Boy Records.

The full breadth of their pioneering approach is difficult to appreciate in a single room of their greatest hits. But the Cork Street attack can now safely be viewed as the crucial moment that cements the Grey Organisation’s rightful place in the art world – despite their valiant attempts to destroy it.

Cork Street Attack: The Grey Organisation is on at The Mayor Gallery, London until 25 February 2022