Small change, maximum impact

“Venice, like a city in a snow globe, needs a shake,” purrs the promotional video Benvenuto al Palazzo Peckham.

A “pop-up palazzo” conceptualised in the grimy environs of Peckham, south London, and launched this week in a boathouse between Giardini and Arsenale is one of Venice’s most bizarre projects – at once ambitious and laid-back. A labyrinth of galleries, cafés, internet rooms and meeting spaces, Palazzo Peckham invites anyone and everyone to “Relax, drink, upload, watch, learn, share, experience! You can actually just come here!”. Perhaps to immerse yourself in Jon Rafman’s dizzying lobby, every inch of interior and furniture pasted with Georgia O’Keeffe reproductions, or in Rob Chavasse’s jungle of five-metre palm trees soaring through holes in the roof.

The idea of a Peckham-in-Venice showcase as “both a work of art and a facility” came to dealer Hannah Barry “in the shower”. She displayed similar chutzpah creating Venice’s 2009 “Peckham Pavilion”, and in 2007 “Bold Tendencies”, an exhibition atop Peckham’s disused multi-storey car park that has now become London’s major annual sculpture event.

“It’s fun because of the enormous risks of doing something that seems undoable,” says Barry, a slight, swift-talking, fast-moving woman, 30 but looking younger, with neat pony-tailed brown hair, wide blue eyes and determined high cheekbones. “Every time we make an exhibition I think of The Cloud of Unknowing.”

As a Croydon schoolgirl, Barry wrote to White Cube gallerist Jay Jopling for an internship; he never replied. By 2006, she was improvising exhibitions in a Peckham squat of work by art student friends. One was Shaun McDowell, a very fine abstract painter, who urged her to open a gallery – a warehouse in an industrial estate nearby, run with business partner and fellow Cambridge art history graduate Sven Mundner.

Among Barry’s stable of young artists, several soon made their mark as exceptionally promising. James Capper, now 25, won the Royal Academy’s Jack Goldhill Sculpture Prize in 2009 for his mechanical “Ripper”, and had a show this spring at Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Nathan Cash Davidson, 24, whose figurative paintings reference video games, Old Masters and his own rap poetry, achieved a solo exhibition at Parasol Unit and is collected by Charles Saatchi (he is in Saatchi’s current New Order show). Performances by Tom Barnett, 28, were star turns at last month’s Brussels Art Fair. Barnett, who paints, sculpts and stages bizarre performances – reading Ted Hughes, drumming, riding a horse – is the 2013 inaugural artist-in-residence at Girton, Cambridge.

I meet Barry in her small second London gallery on Bond Street. A “flagship beautiful building”, a former Peckham meat market, opens this autumn and is “a chance to do something new”. “We made a whole shedload of mistakes in the first years,” says Barry. “The artists are at a different moment now.” Indeed: above me hangs an imaginary portrait of an old man against a dense black ground by Cash Davidson, priced £12,500. I recall that at the squat I bought a Cash Davidson for £550.

‘Richard II’ (2011-12) by Nathan Cash Davidson, one of Barry’s stable of young painters

Barry leans forward anxiously. “It’s a misconception that I have loads of money. Money is necessary – you pay bills, make sure prices are stable or go up a bit preferably, know the right time to change the price when breakthrough works are shown. But projects like Bold Tendencies and Palazzo Peckham are systems of opportunity. Bold Tendencies is the chance to make a new arts organisation in London. And, you know, I’m really afraid I won’t make things work. I need to work out how to monetise more. I panic if I need to find £60,000 for a project.”

That is small change to global über-dealers such as Larry Gagosian. But how does a newish gallery, started by a pair of entrepreneurs with no private income, survive, become successful and, as a “Peckham School” emerges, even change London’s cultural landscape?

“I don’t consider myself successful,” she says. “It’s difficult to say if something is successful. Certain experiences of that thing called success breed more fear, anxiety, concern. The bottom line is I know I believe in the things we show, the power of the work – but that’s just me. Ultimately, there may not be proof of that in our lifetime. It’s a difficult game. The gallery came out of the need to support progress. We did in-depth exhibitions for us and other people to learn about the artists, try to see how good they were, continue to be.”

Though diverse – minimalist sculptor Mohammed Qasim Ashfaq, for example, takes inspiration from sci-fi imagery and Islamic meditation; Molly Smyth makes monumental tender/austere cement towers (“Motion Towards Collapse”) that evoke urban architecture and human forms – the Peckham School is united, I think, by seriousness of purpose and resistance to sensation.

“It’s pretty exciting being with other people who are of your generation, doing things you can’t do,” Barry says. “I’ve always been a great admirer of the courage of artists – making this thing that is the message. As long as the formal structure contains the message, it is successful. Your job as dealer is to communicate the vital message, which is what art has always been about. If you’re in your own time you understand the message and acknowledge your responsibilities.”

This sounds more earnest than Palazzo Peckham’s wacky installations, commissioned by Olly Hagan of south London collective Lucky PDF and recorded by a film crew making a daily “document of how it is, rather than ‘there’s this pavilion, then this pavilion, then this pavilion.’ We want to bring everyone together rather than separate them.”

Barry belongs to the social media generation and is instinctively inclusive. “I respect all the multiplicity and diversity of the art world,” she says. It has not, however, wholly welcomed her. None of her artists made the fashionable British Art Show, and Frieze Art Fair routinely rejects her – this year she proposed showing internationally acclaimed Capper. On quality grounds, her exclusion is inexplicable; to me it reflects the cliquishness of the contemporary art world.

“I sometimes think, ‘If we get into Frieze, maybe I’ll be a real person,’” admits Barry. “So many people are intellectual enough to make a case for something – and to construct a system around it and put it on people’s agenda. Because I understand the system, I have to acknowledge the good and the bad.”

A dealer’s essential attribute is intuition, she says. “You can go to exhibitions, read auction catalogues, but that’s just like learning French grammar – skilful things you have to do. It’s really to do with caring about the things. The more you go on doing it, the more you question why works of art have this place, are so revered, cause so much disturbance, anger, love. What is this thing? That’s the ongoing attraction. If it’s good enough, you can’t pin it down. An art work’s quality is to do with it being alive. One of the most exciting things is to look at an art work in the half light – it’s alive, totally present, you feel it moving in some way, even though you can’t wholly see it. It sounds mystical, but there is a mystical aspect to art – however hard-wearing or aggressive it is, it has a power different from any power we will ever have.”

Palazzo Peckham, Venice, runs to September,

Bold Tendencies, London, June 30-September 30,

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