The non-profit space Studio Voltaire has long punched above its weight from a quiet residential street in Clapham. It’s shown work by major artists like Nairy Baghramian, Phyllida Barlow and Turner Prize-winner Charlotte Prodger before they achieved their current renown, championed marginalised groups and LGBTQ artists and movements in particular, and commissioned inspired products from artists for its retail section, House of Voltaire, from Jeremy Deller’s F*** Brexit t-shirts to a blanket from Rachel Whiteread, an apron from Ed Ruscha and dinner plates from Linder.
Now, after a £2.8m capital project, it’s transformed its galleries, hugely expanded the number of artist studios at its core, and created a café and a new House of Voltaire shop. It’s a huge improvement on the previously characterful but limited space.
Artist Anthea Hamilton has designed a delightful garden, with typically sharp attention to materials in the pebbled and tiled borders, a pergola with seating and a fountain with, wonderfully, a cauliflower as its ornamental centre. Inside, the loos have been decorated with brilliantly colourful tiles featuring a regular motif of stylised eyes – the inimitable graphic work of Joanne Tatham and Tom O’Sullivan (and you can buy Tatham and O’Sullivan-designed loo paper in the shop).
There’s also a video installation by Monster Chetwynd, using her customary handmade puppetry and performance alongside documentary elements. She and her collaborator Jack Brennan reflect on the legacy of Nikola Tesla, the Serbian inventor and electrical engineer who hoped to provide free energy for all, and the commandeering of his surname by Elon Musk’s company. Chetwynd also explores how the “free energy” of the body can be harnessed through performance. It’s a typically ramshackle affair, at times a little arch, but the most compelling work I’ve seen by Chetwynd for ages.
The first show in the spruced-up main exhibition space, meanwhile, is dedicated to William Scott, the self-taught artist with learning disabilities from San Francisco. Scott has worked since 1992 with Creative Growth, an Oakland non-profit organisation that works in a professional art studio environment with people with disabilities, and he’s developed a distinctive practice combining painting and architectural drawing and modelling. Scott’s vision, realised in vivid colour and bold, direct form, is an afrofuturist utopia, populated by figures from entertainment and contemporary and historic politics.
He reimagines San Francisco as Praise Frisco, with new communities in the Bayview projects in which he grew up. He pictures the Skyline Friendly Organisation, whose UFO-like citizen ships bring resurrected figures who have died, like Martin Luther King and Prince, back to a peaceful world. He repeatedly pictures “the younger Diana Ross of the Classic ‘70s” as an ideal, almost holy woman, alongside celebrities like Oprah, Janet Jackson and Halle Berry. In a wonderful video, he reimagines Darth Vader as a latter-day St Francis feeding the birds, exclaiming “It’s a nice day outside!”, strolling through the park and singing: “Beautiful peace on earth.”
But perhaps most stirring is the Another Life series where Scott reimagines his own circumstances and those of his family. He pictures himself as a 1970s basketball hero Billy the Kid, as a glamorous young man accompanied by Prom queens and as the beneficiary of a miraculous healing agent that erases the scars sustained from burns when Scott was a child.
In a letter shown here, he expresses the desire “to be taking off the diagnoses… no more disabilities”. Scott’s art is a form of activism, a plea for social change, but it’s also moving personal testimony.
From October 15 to January 2 (studiovoltaire.org)