The New Art Gallery Walsall 21 January to 20.
'The Life of the Mind: Love, Sorrow and Obsession' is the culmination of Patrick Brill's 18-month residency period at the New Art Gallery Walsall. Better known as Bob & Roberta Smith, Brill and his multiple personae perform separate duties as exhibition curator and participating artists, respectively. While it is possible, and perhaps even necessary, to accept the work of Bob & Roberta Smith as the result of a unique male/female psyche, it is important to recognise the curatorial decisions made here as Brill's own.
Taking its title from a line in Barton Fink, an early Coen brothers film depicting a paranoiac vision of writer's block, 'The Life of the Mind' includes the work of 28 artists, ostensibly dealing with the psychic peaks and troughs of creative labour. However, there is more at play here than what Truman Capote referred to as the 'self-flagellation' of artistically gifted individuals. At the exhibition's heart is Jacob Epstein's First Portrait of Esther (with long hair), 1944, a bronze sculpture of his then 15-year old daughter Esther Garman. The sculpture is one of a number of works given to Walsall by Esther's mother Kathleen Garman in 1973, due to the gallery's close proximity to her childhood home of Wednesbury. For Brill the first encounter with this piece was an epiphanic experience, prompting deeper excavation into the Epstein archive: a collection of letters, documents and personal effects that belonged to the Epstein family, purchased by Walsall in 2007 from Anne and Annabel Freud, daughters of Esther's sister Kitty Godley. Explained in the Bob & Roberta Smith work entitled See Esther Walsall's Mona Lisa, 2010, the many tragic twists and turns in Esther's life provided the central exhibition themes to be explored. Brill's belief that Esther was resisting her father's gaze informed a decision to feature female artists who, according to the gallery's notes, 'expose the myth of the great male artist who has a special insight into the minds of his more frail female subjects'. This impulse to decentre the hegemony of the male gaze is accompanied by a desire to focus on the archive's many narrative arcs, resulting in an exhibition in three parts. 'The Life of the Mind' is by turns an exhibition on artists dealing with creativity and mental health problems, an archive and vitrine display, and a survey of feminist art.
Chris Ofili's 'The Visit Series', 1993, beautifully intricate patterns made of hundreds of dots, provides a somewhat sanitised version of the urgent repetition seen in Yayoi Kusama's two canvases hanging in the adjoining room. The vast 'infinity nets' of her polka dots leer out like dozens of yellow cat's-eyes in Infinity Dots OPQRT 2008. What have seemed like decorative gestures elsewhere (particularly at the Hayward Gallery's 'Walking in My Mind') become demonstrations of a fevered compulsion here. Daniel Johnston's felt-tip portrait I've got something on my mind, 2003, is a playfully coloured picture of a plump blonde with a small blue elephant on top of her head. Positioned next to Jeff Keen's film, the cartoonish Flik Flak, 2003, Johnston's piece seems positively jubilant. But there is a darker side to these works, infused as they are with the aura of mental illness. While the painful truth of an unrelenting cognitive dissonance is often hidden from public view, the actual day-to-day realities of manic depression and schizophrenia are both terrifying and cruelly debilitating. Unfortunately, for most sufferers these conditions and their attendant symptoms are not mutually exclusive. …