The Queen’s Head pub is in many ways a grande dame of Brixton. As the shabby grandeur of its interior attests, it is one of the oldest buildings in the area. Its dark and rather austere frontage has brooded over Stockwell Road for many generations of Brixtonites. Where better then to host an exhibition which explores themes of death, decay and renewal through the image of the skull?
A large double-fronted room at the top of the pub is playing host to a strange and beguiling collection of works by south London-based artists. Entitled Chin Up, it is the inaugural exhibition in this space, which is being opened up to the public for the first time in its new incarnation the Chopping Block gallery.
Curated rather impressively by final year art student Alex Williams, the exhibition hosts video art, line drawings, cartoons, paintings and sculpture. One of the centrepieces is a striking trio of skulls, one human between two apes, with all three a foreboding shade of lilac. Noticeable differences in the shape of the ape and human skulls invite us to reflect that difference is both revealed and countermanded by the unanimity of death.
On the other side of the wall, another skull series. These drawings reflect a very different conception of the skull. Viewed from various perspectives, it is fleeting, fragmentary and incomplete. An eye socket, a brow: these things are merely suggested. It takes the conscious living mind of the onlooker to animate the skull. The series draws clusters of gallery visitors who stare intently into the drawings for several minutes.
From a plinth by the window, a skull gazes into the room, confronting the gaze of visitors. A tiara constructed of small bones floats above its head with the aid of near-invisible wires. Is this, I wonder, a tipped wink to the name of the pub?
I ask Alex if the tiara features real bones. “Yes, it’s made from bat bones.” Not something you’ll find in your local branch of Hobbycraft then? “Actually you can often buy them on Ebay. Sometimes whole skeletons are available.” I pause briefly to imagine what the ‘recommended items’ section of the artist’s Ebay account must look like now.
Whilst diligently pouring wine for his guests, Alex talks of his future plans for the Chopping Block. “We want to make this a regular event, with a new theme and new artworks displayed every month.” My press invitation also mentions ‘artist-led talks, print-based matter and a committed online presence’ as goals for the future. That this is possible, I have no doubt. As a busy final year student at Central Saint Martin’s, Alex has performed an impressive feat in organising an exhibition of this calibre. His transformation of the room into this sophisticated gallery space is all the more remarkable given that until 2 weeks ago he was actually living in it as a friend of the landlord.
It must be an odd transition to go from living here to exhibiting here? “It is. And that wall isn’t a proper wall! We put that up this morning,” he says, looking down ruefully at his hands both covered in paint.
Chin Up is free and open until Monday May 6th at The Queen’s Head, 144 Stockwell Road.