Art au Lait!

Stuart Morgan traces the brief history of Milch, the Gallery that planned to reach the parts that other galleries don’t reach

After running for only five months, the Milch Gallery closed on November 24, 1990. Fifteen months later, it reopened as just Plain Milch, less than half a mile from its original home. At a time which has proved less than propitious for art in general, the return of the organisation with the silliest name in London has been hailed by some as the beginning of the end of the recession. Others have seen it simply as the beginning of the end. Milch has always had that effect on people. Remember the ad with the frighteningly endowed milkmaid swinging buckets of cream? Or the flirtatious transvestites serving champagne at the reopening party? Milch cultivates what other galleries detest. Snooty assistants? Double-breasted suits? Sloane Rangers? ‘Too fucking polite for me...’. The American accent belongs to Tamara Chodzko who spent three years on Cork Street learning the trade and who is trying to unlearn, fast. ‘Before long we hope to be employing Sloanes as gallery cleaners’ – that Canadian twang is Lawren Maben’s – ‘And they’ll all be called Camilla’.

Maben founded Milch. On his arrival in London five years ago he lived for a year in Notting Hill, before moving to 64-5 Guilford Street, off Russell Square. When the ground floor was turned into a gallery, one idea was to forge links between London and Cologne, hence the name. That didn’t work out, nor did the idea of Maben’s continuing to make sculpture as well as helping to run the gallery. After showing in the first exhibition, he took over the administration of the space and approached a backer. Then everything went wrong, and the gallery had to close.

Meanwhile, Tamara Chodzko was having similar headaches. After leaving Bernard Jacobson, she found a backer and a potential gallery-space in Woodstock Street. Then the trouble began. The lease was not signed, time ran out and promised cash never materialised. She did manage to put on one exhibition by Damien Hirst, called In and Out of Love, featuring real butterflies, attached to canvases in pupa form which later hatched, flying, eating, sleeping and dying in the gallery. Attendance was high, reviewers approved and half the work sold. But by this time the whole enterprise was doomed. After a few months Tamara Chodzko became part of Milch.

At Guilford Street, Lawren Maben had developed a policy, a way of working and an entire approach to art. ‘He’s not iconoclastic’, says Simon Patterson, a Milch artist from the first, ‘but he has an enquiring mind. If something’s always been done one way and not another he wants to know why. He takes an interest in the working processes of artists and contributes freely, suggesting different approaches. Above all, he creates an environment for the work and doesn’t believe that a neutral space must always be appropriate. I’d call his manner healthily aggressive.’

Often this aggression is channelled into work. Thirty-one mills refused to weave the fabric with the words ‘fuck me, fuck me, oh fuck me’ for Anand Zenz’s suits, shown at the Milch reopening exhibition. Maben refused to take no for an answer. For Patterson’s The Great Bear, a London underground map in which station names have been replaced by names of people, Maben wrote all the letters for permission to use London Underground’s design, colours, paper, inks, printers and frame. Sometimes, however, his aggression remains pure aggression, a characteristic which comes as a shock to the art world’s resident gang of louts, scroungers, fairweather friends and hangers-on.

Maben’s bark, bite and inbuilt bullshit detector are guaranteed to disturb such itinerants. Artists, on the other hand, like him better. Two were retained from the Guilford Street days: Patterson and Hamad Butt. In addition, Anand Zenz lived at Guilford Street, though he did not show there. Together, they reveal something of Milch’s role so far. Naughty, intelligent, sociable, political without wearing his politics on his sleeve, Patterson reorganises received information and mounts a subtle critique of the means by which it was generated.

If Patterson’s secret weapon is humour, Butt’s is stealth; Stephen Daedalus’s dictum ‘Silence, exile and cunning’ suits him down to the ground. His large installation in the old Milch space involved consecutive, continuous and palimpsestic study of glass books – in fact, copies of the same book placed in a ring, to be read with goggles under ultra-violet lamps. This partly medical, partly shrine-like atmosphere, plus the underlying tension between learned exegesis and an open secret, viral development and cyclical time teased viewers with the prospect of exclusion. Butt has a solo exhibition at the John Hansard Gallery, Southampton in June before showing again at Milch in August-September.

Zenz is an architect and designer – his latest work is the Belgo restaurant in Chalk Farm. Before the idea of snooty tailors making up suits in obscene pinstripe material, he made T-shirts. Perhaps the former constitute a posher, more repressed version of the latter. Does the fact that the suits are selling so well mean that soon City gents will be eyeing each others’ pinstripes lasciviously? Very Savile Row, very Milch. Coded and blatant, erudite yet popular, Milch plans to reach the parts other galleries don’t reach.

But Milch should not be regarded as an obscure form of English eccentricity; Chodzko and Maben are making a determined effort to counter one model of an art space with another. In different ways the closure of the upmarket version of Interim, the horrors of the Clove building and the mysterious disappearance of Billee Sellman all signalled the end of post-‘Freeze’ ‘alternative’ curating. Living off grants without making sales; starting spaces with endless donations from private galleries; setting up as a ‘curator’ in order to ‘curate’ friends so that in due course they may ‘curate’ you or you will be able to ‘curate’ yourself into an exhibition you have ‘curated’...

In retrospect, these were all ways of trying to look like Mother Teresa while secretly wanting to be Anthony d’Offay. Only the solutions were questionable; everyone agreed on the problem. There were simply too few serious private galleries for young artists. One by one, public galleries have come down with chronic ailments: severe inconsequentiality (Whitechapel Fever); brain damage (Serpentine Syndrome); chronic tightening of the pursestrings (Riverside Disease), I. C-itis, Tateorrhea... How can artists take the Tate seriously as long as it regards young artists as an excuse for competitions with cash prizes, washing machines, spin dryers and holidays in Majorca? The Hayward only shows contemporary art every seven years or so, and at the Whitechapel, once one of the only London galleries which could boast an international reputation, thanks to Mr Serota, even our famous British politeness is wearing thin as Catherine Lampert steers it from one catastrophe to another. In the United States a fiasco like the Alfredo Jaar exhibition would certainly have led to a public outcry. The facts are clear: British artists, in particular art students, are overlooked or treated as irrelevant to the culture as a whole. They are chained and manacled by an art bureaucracy whose insensitivity and lack of faith – let along lack of knowledge – are obvious to outsiders. Hypocrisy hangs over London like the stench of a giant fart.

One space in Bloomsbury is not going to solve the world’s problems. But it is representing artists – Tamara Chodzko sold the Patterson Delta Airlines wall from the recent ‘Doubletake’ exhibition before the new Milch space was even open. It is reflecting current ideas – who else is showing a selection of artists using text when so much work of the same kind is going on? It is experimenting with prices; in a month the Milch multiples shop will open. And it is inviting foreign artist to London. (At present, the Californian sculptor Nayland Blake is preparing for an installation in May.) The most exciting solution to Britain’s gallery problems has resurfaced. What the She-Fox was to Romulus and Remus, the heavy-breasted Milch may be to London. Grab a teat today.

Stuart Morgan is an art critic.

First published in Art Monthly 156: May 1992.

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