As exhibition formats go, it smacks more of London’s edgy East End than moneyed Mayfair: 10 one-day solo shows by mostly unknown artists in a single gallery, all chosen by other artists. But when Artist of the Day gets under way on Monday, visitors will make their way not to some Dalston pop-up but to the long-established Flowers Gallery on Cork Street. Perhaps even more surprisingly, Flowers has been hosting this celebration of the unsung or yet-to-be-snapped-up for more than 30 years, long before YBAs and blockbuster art fairs gave contemporary art its current buzz.
In the words of gallery director Matthew Flowers, who has run the show from its inception, “There is absolutely no rule.” The 10 selecting artists are simply invited to identify “an artist you think could benefit from a one-day exhibition”. The chosen artists may be young, old, reclusive, renegade or simply too busy teaching to maintain a significant public profile. They can show any genre from performance to portraiture and hang the space as they choose.
The two weeks bring to Cork Street a maelstrom of artists, vans, technicians, collectors, critics, and artists’ friends. Each show opens at 11am and closes at 7pm, with the next day’s artist’s team invited in from 7.30pm to start their hang. As Juliette O’Leary, curator in charge, puts it, “We all work hard until very late. But there is a party atmosphere.”
The results are bracingly unpredictable. This year, sculptor Tim Shaw has chosen performance and video artist Beatrice Brown, who promises to open the fortnight with “Radio Maria”, an installation exploring baptism, torture, hypnosis, and “the hooking of souls from one world to the next”. Katie Pratt, a painter who was once an Artist of the Day exhibitor, has selected former student Freya Guest, who says of herself, “I’m a bit like Dr Frankenstein when I paint: in the dark, digging up bodies”. And painter Claerwen James, daughter of the critic Clive James, has chosen Australian cinematographer Cordelia Beresford, an artist, she suggests, “of extraordinary power and lyricism whose work is unknown in Britain”.
For week two, Turner Prize-winning artist Laure Prouvost has picked the young video artist Ciarán Wood, while painter Jennifer Durrant has honoured Katherine Gili, a sculptor now in her sixties whom she admires for her integrity and “her resilience in the face of artistic neglect”.
The first Artist of the Day took place in 1983, and this year sees its 21st iteration. (Logistical problems have made it impossible to run in some years.) In a book published to mark this coming of age, Angela Flowers – who founded the gallery in 1970 – explains that the idea came from her husband, Robert Heller, with artist Angela Eames, in an effort to drum up critical interest in the gallery’s programme.
The first artist to exhibit was painter Anthony Daley, then just 23 and still at the Chelsea School of Art, who was selected by David Hepher. He made a good impression. “Tony did not just bring his work in and lay it round the gallery,” Flowers writes. “The large canvases were hung impeccably, the walls pristine, everything in order. It was a triumph.”
Since then, while choosers have included numerous big names, from Roland Penrose and Maggi Hambling to Gilbert & George and Cornelia Parker, the chosen have also frequently come good, among them Dexter Dalwood, Sacha Craddock, Adam Dant and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, who was a Turner Prize nominee last year.
Matthew Flowers remembers Nicola Hicks, picked by Elizabeth Frink, showing up in 1984 “with this open truck and about 15 students from the RCA [Royal College of Art], who helped carry up the plaster sculptures and brown paper drawings”. Hicks became a Flowers artist and, in turn, selected Tim Lewis, creator of surreal mechanical sculptures, who is also now with Flowers. Other highlights have included Tracey Emin spending all day in the gallery reading poetry with her choice, Billy Childish, her former boyfriend, and Colin Hall (Tony Bevan’s choice) lounging in a four-poster bed. Besides the benefit to the gallery of being introduced to artists it might not have come across – as well as Hicks and Lewis, Lucy Jones, John Kirby and Claerwen James have become Flowers artists – there is the pleasure of inviting former selectees to become selectors.
So Cathy de Monchaux, who spent most of her day sitting in a hospital emergency department after last-minute adjustments to her sculptures with a hacksaw took their toll on her thumb, has this year chosen an old friend from her days at Goldsmith’s College, painter Rebecca Scott. “I want to honour her commitment,” says de Monchaux.
Sculptor Sokari Douglas Camp, chosen in 1984 by sculptor Rose Garrard, remembers her day as “thrilling. It was like winning a prize.” At the time she was making unwieldy, and decidedly uncommercial, wood and concrete kinetic structures. “What was marvellous was that you had an artist who thought that was OK,” Camp recalls. People came whom she didn’t know at all, invited by the gallery and by Garrard. “You thought, ‘Wow, this is how things are done!’ It was a baptism.” From there she went on to show at the Smithsonian. This summer (until August 31) her sculptures stand in St Paul’s Cathedral.
Even for the oldest artist ever selected, Morris Kestelman, the show was a career-defining moment. An influential teacher as head of painting and sculpture at the Central School of Art from 1951 to 1971, he had not had a show for some years. Chosen by Patrick Caulfield in 1987, when he was 84, he was picked up by Agi Katz at the Boundary Gallery, who gave him three shows before he died in 1998.
The figurative painter Stuart Pearson Wright has this year chosen painter Shawn McGovern, who graduated from Wimbledon College of Art last summer and is now at the Prince’s Drawing School. Pearson Wright remembers “coming out of art school and wondering how on earth to get enough exposure to make a living”. He has watched McGovern over the past few years, and seen his work evolve from photorealistic portraits to a much freer way of working, from his imagination, “very fresh and poetic”.
Although daunted, McGovern is excited to show the new work. “It will be great to see it all in a gallery space – and get a few different views,” he says. Midway between two degree shows, this is his opportunity to test the water of a post-degree art world – and seize his chances.
‘Artist of the Day’, Flowers Gallery, 21 Cork Street, London, June 23-July 5, flowersgallery.com