If your idea of hell is having to endure the queues at the Frieze art fairs, think again. Across the river, at the Old Vic Tunnels, a more infernal artistic vision is on offer. Bedlam is the latest off-site installation from Steve Lazarides, the London gallerist who specialises in “outsider” art. It comprises work from his stable of artists, linked thematically by their nightmarish compositions. Like his previous two shows at the Tunnels, Lazarides expects it to attract healthy crowds during its 13-day stint. “Never, ever underestimate the general public’s desire for darkness,” he says, a little ominously.
The man whose blood-spattered logo – the effect is half-Dracula, half-Tarantino – adorns his galleries is in truth not very scary at all. His demeanour is friendly, even as he pores over a floor plan of the Bedlam exhibition, describing its less-than-wholesome contents with a cheery air. “I really think of this as the complete antithesis of the Frieze Art Fair,” he says breezily. “It is about chaos and pandemonium. Perfect themes for our time.”
Bedlam was the nickname given to the Bethlem Hospital for the mentally ill. In the 18th century its brutal practices included the admission of paying visitors to watch the “antics” of the patients. “A world gone mad,” says Lazarides, in a sideswiping parallel to the dangerous economic flux of our own time.
He says he has always been attracted to “dark and moody” art, which makes his gallery a perfect assembly point for the urban artist movement of the past decade. Bedlam includes specially commissioned works by the likes of Antony Micallef, Conor Harrington and 3D, aka the musician Robert del Naja of Massive Attack.
Among the works are an installation featuring a three-hour film used by neuroscientists of an eyeball, and a spinning chair, based on an old therapy for mental illness (“they used to spin people around at 100 revolutions per minute, first in one direction and then another, and if they passed out it was considered a good sign,” he says incredulously).
Lazarides’s bottom-upwards rise to prominence reflects the common ground between contemporary art forms and popular culture themes that has characterised our times. He started his career as a commercial photographer (“I worked for [David] Bailey for two days and decided I hated it”) and then gave up creative work for five years, becoming a painter and decorator. He became a photo editor for the 1990s style magazine Sleaze Nation and met some of the artists of what was then the fledgling urban art movement, including its prominent star Banksy.
Those meetings inspired him to set up a website “to sell cheap, affordable art” at exactly the time that contemporary art was becoming a mass phenomenon. Today he has two galleries in London and another in Newcastle, while the website (www.theoutsiders.net) goes from strength to strength, with sales 60 per cent up on last year. “We have everybody buying from us, from shipping billionaires to those who have been with us from the beginning,” he says. But the average price remains at just £150.
There is a refreshing blast of irreverence in the descriptions of the work on offer at Lazarides’s outlets, an anti-curator language that suits its mischievous subjects. Micallef’s work is described as “Caravaggio meets Manga”, and the Banksy entry reflects sarcastically on the tension between underground status and material success: “Despite pleading not guilty to selling out, the artist concedes that he now does so from a bigger house than he used to.”
The commissions for Bedlam involved a “certain degree of curation” but he was mostly happy to “allow the artists to do whatever they wanted to do, give them the freedom to fail”.
Unlike last year, when visitors were charged £5 for entry, Bedlam is a free show, thanks to sponsorship from mobile phone company HTC and Kazakh vodka brand Snow Queen. “I have a real bugbear about charging people to look at art,” he says. “I didn’t really like charging last year and it barely made a dent in the costs. I want to take away the necessity for the art to be a commercial success.”
This is not the language of the art fair, although Lazarides is the first to admit that it is the crowds attracted by Frieze that will also visit Bedlam. Lazarides has recently set up a print studio, which makes it economically viable to make smaller print runs of artists’ works. Prints and multiples are the democratic end of the current boom in art collecting, and make for good business.
“I like just picking up the waifs and strays,” says Lazarides of the artists he signs, and he suddenly sounds like a very traditional art dealer, who concentrates mainly on two-dimensional, highly decorative work that has, to use the insider term, “wall-power”. As a way of selling art, it has good pedigree.
“One of the best ways of finding new artists is to ask the older artists, who are scarily aware of who is snapping at their heels.” It is a Darwinian and entirely plausible view of contemporary art’s infrastructure. As is Lazarides’s appreciation of his role as an impresario. “The show is called Bedlam but there is a touch of Barnum about it as well,” he says. “It’s important to have the showmanship.”
‘Bedlam’, Old Vic Tunnels, London, October 9-21. www.lazinc.com
Design award: New prize for fresh talent
The Pavilion of Art+Design (PAD) London is aiming to do its bit for new talent as well as showcasing the work of established supremos. This year’s edition sees the creation of a new £15,000 Moët Hennessy-PAD London Design Prize to run alongside the fair’s existing annual awards for Best Stand and Best Object.
Entrants to the new prize must be UK-based and aged under 35 but can be of any nationality. On Monday, a jury that includes Zaha Hadid, Tom Dixon and Jasper Conran will choose a winner, based on “innovative use of materials, and ability to reflect the artistic intent of design” from a shortlist of five. The winner’s work will then be displayed in the main foyer of the fair.
The five entries shortlisted for this year’s award include Vietnamese-born Lola Lely who has conceived a “Potluck Restaurant” that aims to encourage people to share food and stories. Will Shannon presents a “Lunar Table” made from found concrete supported on papier-mâché while Kim Thome has devised a range “Reflection” furniture that incorporates semi-reflective, two-way glass in day-glo colours. Kieren Jones’s has formed eggcups from crushed chicken bones and Yuri Suzuki’s sound art installation features a spherical record player.
Jury president Nigel Coates says the prize “brings together the incredible talent that designers in this country have to offer”, adding that “while the UK has some of the best and most competitive art and design colleges, we don’t always have the industry to match it”.