Matthew Darbyshire, An Exhibition for Modern Living, 2010, mixed media, 8' 2 1/2“ x 11' 9 3/4” x 14' 9 1/8". From “British Art Show 7.”

Matthew Darbyshire, An Exhibition for Modern Living, 2010, mixed media, 8' 2 1/2“ x 11' 9 3/4” x 14' 9 1/8". From “British Art Show 7.”

“British Art Show 7”

Hayward Gallery

Matthew Darbyshire, An Exhibition for Modern Living, 2010, mixed media, 8' 2 1/2“ x 11' 9 3/4” x 14' 9 1/8". From “British Art Show 7.”

“The best British art show ever,” gushed the The Guardian when “British Art Show 7: In the Days of the Comet” opened late last year at Nottingham Contemporary. Could the London outing of forty artists born or resident in the UK live up to the fanfare? Easily, it turns out. Perhaps any exhibition with Christian Marclay’s immensely popular video The Clock, 2010, is guaranteed success. Marclay’s splendid, twenty-four-hour work made of existing film clips displaying the actual time, thus becoming a functioning screen-size clock, relentlessly pictures not just ticking timepieces but our uneasy relationship with time, as characters perpetually wait, rush, panic, or simply find ways to kill time on-screen.

Just as Marclay proves himself a consummate filmmaker—as does Emily Wardill in her tense 16-mm film The Diamond (Descartes’ Daughter), 2008—the other artists represent their media like virtuosos. In painting, Phoebe Unwin’s unstable yet exacting abstractions were rivaled by George Shaw’s exquisite suburban elegies and Michael Fullerton’s ventriloquized painting styles. Tris Vonna-Michell’s spoken poetics in balustrade #2, 2011, were equaled by sound artist Haroon Mirza’s uncanny music-making apparatus about the doomed rock star Ian Curtis, Regaining a Degree of Control, 2010. Lightness was a leitmotif; near Ian Kiaer’s barely there painting-based installation Melnikov project, silver, 2010, floated Karla Black’s irresistibly pink chalk powder and transparent polyethylene hanging sculpture There Can Be No Arguments, 2011, which seemed to blow fairy dust as you brushed past. Juliette Blightman’s delicate net curtain adorning a concrete window, and so a day is not really a day because each day is like another day and they begin to have nothing, 2011, attempts a cozy domestic corner—just as so many Brits have struggled to do for years in their tower-block homes. Sarah Lucas excels with her twisted, intestine-like sculptures from the series “NUDS,” 2009– , made of cushion stuffing, wire, and nylons set on heavy cinder blocks and plinths. The pedestals’ weight fails to distract from the unnerving realization that, despite their marblelike presence suggesting the innards of a giant Henry Moore figure, they are more like weightless craft projects, begging to be unceremoniously bounced off the wall or borrowed for a game of keepy-uppy on your knee. On the other hand, there was little angst (Nathaniel Mellors’s tragicomic Ourhouse, 2010, being an exception), little autobiography, and almost no politics—save for a nostalgic 1970s throwback in Duncan Campbell’s unforgettable Bernadette, 2006, about the outspoken Ulster activist-politician Bernadette Devlin. Overall, this is work marked by composure, competence, and an understated knowledge of contemporary artistic discourse, reflecting the intelligence and skill not only of the artists but also of the show’s curators.

In the midst of such hearteningly accomplished work, Matthew Darbyshire’s showstopping An Exhibition for Modern Living, 2010, occupied a central gallery like a Trojan horse. This roomlike installation is lined with shiny new open shelving stocked with scrupulously chosen designer objects, mostly in black, white, pink, and silver. A keffiyeh, once a sign of radical solidarity, hangs neatly ironed and artfully knotted on a novelty coatrack that imitates dripping paint: Politics has been reduced to a color-coordinated arty accessory to be donned or tossed off to suit the mood. Adjacent to sequin-covered Union Jack throw pillows are a few objects eerily reminiscent of artworks from the past: a velvet pink Jesus sharing a strange kinship with Katharina Fritsch’s yellow Madonnas, a chromed gnome which hints at Jeff Koons’s 1980s silvery stainless steel figurines, and playful bookends not unlike Keith Haring’s radiant baby, now toddling upright and cherubically shoving ceramic books together. On the wall label, Darbyshire politely thanked such design companies as Branex and Kartell for kindly lending him these hideously seductive things: a covert name-and-shame exercise brilliantly smuggled in under the guise of institutional gratitude. Among so many uplifting works, Darbyshire’s seemed bitterly cynical, prompting one to wonder: By the time “British Art Show 9” rolls around ten years from now, how much of this brilliance will be available, in watered-down and insipid form, at an IKEA near you?

Gilda Williams