Outside Looking In: Window Galleries In The Era Of Social Distancing

While entering physical gallery spaces requires booking, queues, and face masks, shopfront window galleries offer an experience of art viewing perfect for an era of social distancing

A few weeks back, right in the heart of lockdown, I was wandering round some half-familiar streets not so far from my flat, when I glimpsed something through a half-open first-floor window that briefly stopped me in my tracks: paint – real paint – on real canvas. Since mid-March I had been invited to check out a whole bunch of virtual gallery tours and online viewing rooms, offered opportunities to zoom in on jpegs hosted on austerely designed websites, every one of them entirely unfulfilling in any meaningful way. But here was the genuine article in all its splattery, globulousness, flecked and glooped all over sheets of earthy, fibrous material.

I’m not even sure if the paintings were any good. I couldn’t see them very well. But I’d clearly chanced upon an artist’s studio or some small, previously unfamiliar gallery with their last forlorn show of paintings still mounted. There were a bunch of them, similar in style. All vivid swirls in bright colours. Very paint-y looking paint. For a moment, I found myself oddly captivated. Stopped in the street, craning my neck.

Over the last fortnight or so, several London galleries have started tentatively re-opening. But the experience of a visit is still quite far from any pre-Covid exhibition experience, what with the advance booking, compulsory masks, queues, and convoluted one way systems. You can’t just pop in on a whim. We may still be many months away from evenings spent drunkenly staggering from one free bar in a crowded room to another, where they may, incidentally, be some art.

Perhaps the only way right now that you might just happen upon a show, as I did during lockdown, and get to experience it to the fullest – without forward planning and myriad safety precautions – is if that show happened to exist solely within the space of a window frame.

There are currently several opportunities in London to look at art without leaving the pavement, with a few others to open shortly. Limehouse’s Husk gallery promises a “socially distanced exhibitions space which embraces the new climate of social interaction”. Their Commercial Road windows currently contain a show of textile works by Zannah Cooper, which closes this weekend and will be followed, from Wednesday, by work from Kitty McMurray. Further north, the Camden People’s Theatre continues its collaboration with roving curatorial platform, Glass Cloud, with a show called Siren by London-born artist Howard Dyke. The works, which combine painting and collage in a Schwitters-esque frenzy, are described by the artist as “not pretty abstractions displayed in a shop window but reflections of the current mood of unease, violence and unrest.”

“I’ve used some of the visual vernacular of painting,” he continues, “– pours, splashes gestural brush strokes, colour shifts and spacial plays, but these are physical collages – imagery cut torn & spliced together to form shifting narratives. My attempt to make sense of the world.”

In a couple of months’ time (just in time for the second wave, perhaps?), South London’s Vitrine Gallery will fill its large window space overlooking Bermondsey Square, off the Tower Bridge Road, with a new film by Rene Matić which sets out to question “the myth of a ‘pure’ and ‘unadulterated’ Britishness.”

One of the most respected and longstanding window-based exhibition series in London is hosted by Islington’s Tintype Gallery. “The first Essex Road was just an experiment, really,” says Tintype’s director and co-founder Teresa Grimes when we speak over the telephone. “But it took off so well that we’ve done it now for six years. It has its own momentum. People want to do it.”

When Tintype first moved into their current space ion a busy shopping street n North London in 2013 they didn’t realise at first what an asset the place itself would prove to be. “It was a haberdashery shop called Sew Fantastic,” Grimes explains. “It had been here for years and it was quite tatty. The man who owned it had put it in a false ceiling in the main part of the shop to create some storage space. So we stripped everything out and we realised that there was a lot more space than it first looked.” As they set about refurbishing the place to suit its new life as a gallery, it was the architect they called in who first suggested the big window. Quickly warming to the idea, Grimes proposed they make it even bigger – “which was just an instinctive thing, really,” she says, “about the look of it.”

Before long, artists were “falling in love” with the big open shop front and started spontaneously incorporating it into their shows. After that it was only a matter of time before they gave the space its own dedicated exhibition series.

“I sit here a lot of the time, at my desk,” Grimes tells me, “and it’s always great to look out of the window because it’s such a busy little shopping area, opposite one of the most well-known fish shops in London, and a really good butcher and so on. And that’s really how the idea for the Essex Road film came. It was just kind of thinking how much life there was on this street and it would be nice to represent that somehow, to sort of reflect it back to the world.”

Not long after, Tintype began to complement the Essex Road film series (which has to screen in the winter, to take advantage of the dark outside) with a Summer Window series, too, to take advantage of the August weeks where most galleries close. “At least it doesn’t look dead,” Grimes says. The latest iteration of that series, a show by Jo Addison called Dread one day at a time was just installed the other week and will be viewable from the street – by purposeful visitors and serendipitous passersby alike – on Essex Road until 12 September.

Art has a long history with windows. The early modern landscape painting was always presented as a window to the world. By hanging the canvas on in your parlour, the image could offer up its magically unchanging vista, giving its owner the illusion of mastery over the world beyond. By the 1930s, a painter like Pierre Bonnard (in a painting like The Breakfast Room) could allude to this sort of illusionism by including the window itself within the picture frame. Later in the twentieth century, as Seth Kim-Cohen suggests in the introduction to his book In the Blink of an Ear, minimalism and conceptual art shifted the viewer’s focus from a view out through to, instead, an examination of the window itself as art becomes increasingly a reflection on its own institutional ‘frame’. For net artists in the 1990s and later, a different kind of window becomes the focus as the space of the browser becomes into focus as a new medium for artistic exploration.

But what changes when the viewer is no longer placed inside looking out through the window, and instead find themselves outside looking in? Suddenly we become not so much the aristocratic in his drawing room, gazing over his territory; rather something much more familiar, even universal: the peeping tom or nosey neighbour, craning our necks to catch a peak through someone else’s parted lace curtains. Who can resist, right?

When I asked Teresa Grimes whether she thought the experience of the lockdown and everything in its wake had changed the way she thought about her window displays, she seemed doubtful, though she conceded that, perhaps, in the event of a second or third wave, a longer period of closure, she might “rethink the exhibitions, so they only happened in the window”. But what she did seem more sure of was that the experience of presenting work in the window over the years had changed her relationship with the wider community around the gallery.

“Oh definitely,” she said. “There was one film in particular, Melanie Manchot’s in the second year, she did a wonderful film that was like a slow pan down the street and we asked all the shopkeepers to stand outside their shops. There’s something quite moving about it when you watch it now. It’s almost like they’re paying tribute to the street.”

“A lot of contemporary galleries are a little bit hidden away and you have to ring a bell,” Grimes continued. “But we are very accessible and people can see in. Loads of people will look in even if they never come in to the gallery. They’ll see we’re here and see what’s going on inside.”

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