Words by:

My favorite shop in London has just closed down.

It was called K.C. Continental Stores. Located opposite the Tesco on Caledonian Road in Kings Cross, it had been run by the same man since the 1960s. In all the years of its operation, Leo had never been on holiday. An Italian deli, the shop was remarkable in its quite incredible refusal to make any concessions to the modern world.

Its resolute anachronism was far from an affectation; it rather seemed as though, ageing at the same pace as the business, Leo had never seen fit to adapt. That model of a small deli with an unchanging but high-quality range of stock, with a manually operated meat-slicer and no computerised systems in place was, for a long time, perfectly adequate, only becoming unsustainably outdated when Leo had become too old to change.

He’s now retired though, and for now the property is empty.

In South London, at the other end of the 63 bus route (which goes almost door to door), Peckham has seen an unprecedentedly swift, comprehensive and comprehensively reported (not to mention simultaneously bemoaned and celebrated) wave of gentrification crash over it.

Kings Cross has also undergone a profound (though far less organic) rebranding, with the station’s redevelopment and the opening of the new Central St Martin’s functioning as a hub, around which all manner of quintessentially contemporary pop-ups and street-food stalls have started plying their trade.

The outcome of both of these processes has been similar; a spike in the cost of living and a pervasive sense of existential dread as the community’s character is first co-opted, then homogenised.

Two exhibitions are opening at either end of the 63 route. The first, in Leo’s empty old shop, is a retrospective. The second, south, is an outcome. A response to four months residency in Flat Time House – the gallery, archive and former residence of the late postwar artist John Latham.

Ostensibly, the shows are very different. The retrospective has been organised by curator Cornelia Marland, and is the first major exhibition of the work of Jim Geddes, a Canadian who made his home in Kings Cross for much of the second half of the 20th century before passing away in 2009. Geddes was, essentially, an outsider artist. While he went to art school (he was a contemporary of Warhol), his practice developed in a kind of solitude. He was removed from the art world.

Alex Frost, exhibiting at Flat Time House, is, by contrast, very much a part of the art world. He talks eloquently and fluently about the complicated conceptual, social and political tapestry that underpins his work. A not inconsiderable aspect of the exhibition, called Property Guardian, relates to the institutional meta-narratives of which he’s found himself a part. “My initial plan was to research where the idea of the artist residency as the ideal form came from. Because of the nature of the work that I make, I’ve done 11 residencies, which, compared to other people, is an enormous amount.”

The disparities between an outsider artist who spent most of his adult life in one place making work for himself that never reached an audience beyond his local community, and a self-aware, institutionally engaged contemporary artist, are obvious. A closer look, though, reveals both points of connection and tensions which themselves cast some light on a social, economic, cultural and political phenomenon that irrevocably impacts community and society.

The process of gentrification is complicated and divisive, with varied outcomes, both good and bad. The benefits it bestows on one sector of society tend to come at the cost of another. In the face of it, communities and local businesses become as fragile as porcelain.

Neither the Geddes retrospective nor Property Guardian explicitly set out to critique this process, but in their way each one resonates, highlighting and calling into question facets of both the process and its outcomes.

Originally from Tottenham, Glasgow has been Frost’s home for the last 20 years. Coming in to Peckham as an outsider, unused to the ever increasing economic challenges of living in London, Frost’s response to his residency reflects his awareness of the strangeness of the shifts taking place in the area.

His exhibition by no means deals exclusively with gentrification – his acknowledgement of the process doesn’t necessarily
even extend to casting judgement. “The relationship to the gentrification is very clear. It didn’t necessarily repulse me, because it was doing things that I’m really interested in. I just felt like I didn’t want to add to it.”

Instead, much of it relates to notions of unconventional domesticity, drawing out links between the artist-in-residence and the property guardian, two contemporary short-term solutions to surviving as an artist. The works in Property Guardian are small-scale; reconfigured readymade ceramics, wall-mounted resin sculpture/pictures and pewter casts of domestic objects. I’m shown a pile of coins, a set of keys and a potato waffle. “I did these on the barbeque outside. It’s this idea of trying to push the possibilities of a house as a place to make things; in Glasgow you can make quite large work because there is more space to do it. In London I can imagine getting quite frustrated – these are all quite small objects, and the reason they’re small is to do with that space.”

The process of gentrification is complicated and divisive, with varied outcomes, both good and bad. The benefits it bestows on one sector of society tend to come at the cost of another. In the face of it, communities and local businesses become as fragile as porcelain.

Neither the Geddes retrospective nor Property Guardian explicitly set out to critique this process, but in their way each one resonates, highlighting and calling into question facets of both the process and its outcomes.

Originally from Tottenham, Glasgow has been Frost’s home for the last 20 years. Coming in to Peckham as an outsider, unused to the ever increasing economic challenges of living in London, Frost’s response to his residency reflects his awareness of the strangeness of the shifts taking place in the area.

His exhibition by no means deals exclusively with gentrification – his acknowledgement of the process doesn’t necessarily even extend to casting judgement. “The relationship to the gentrification is very clear. It didn’t necessarily repulse me, because it was doing things that I’m really interested in. I just felt like I didn’t want to add to it.”

Instead, much of it relates to notions of unconventional domesticity, drawing out links between the artist-in-residence and the property guardian, two contemporary short-term solutions to surviving as an artist. The works in Property Guardian are small-scale; reconfigured readymade ceramics, wall-mounted resin sculpture/ pictures and pewter casts of domestic objects. I’m shown a pile of coins, a set of keys and a potato waffle. “I did these on the barbeque outside. It’s this idea of trying to push the possibilities of a house as a place to make things; in Glasgow you can make quite large work because there is more space to do it. In London I can imagine getting quite frustrated – these are all quite small objects, and the reason they’re small is to do with that space.”

The exhumed collection of Jim Geddes’ work is a case in point. While it encompasses a few paintings and some larger scale wooden sculptures, the bulk of his oeuvre comprises some 300 ceramic sculptures, largely figurative, and all made to an entirely consistent scale.

“He turned his basement into a studio, where he spent a lot of his time obsessively making sculptures and paintings, mainly sculptures, mainly ceramics,” says curator, Cornelia Marland.

The works on display are difficult to engage with on their own individual terms; though they span more than 20 years, it’s impossible to date any of them: “His work is very repetitive, it’s very similar,” says Marland. “There’s not a huge amount of progression – he didn’t show much of his work, so he wasn’t getting any external advice or comments; he did it very much for himself.”

The consistency in scale clearly manifests nothing more than logistical necessity – the size of the kiln he was able to fit into his studio. In this sense his work reinforces Frost’s observations about the restrictions of making in London, where space is at a premium. More than this, though, Geddes’ choice of materials foreground another interplay between the two artists.

In conversation, Frost recalls a talk by artist Simon Bill, who “made a quite flippant remark about how contemporary art is like the Research & Development department of the world of culture. A bit like gentrification, it finds new areas and blossoms out, creates new things.” The arrival of an artistic community as a catalyst for gentrification is uncontestable – one of the major turning points for Kings Cross was the relocation of an iconic art school there – but this idea of contemporary art acting as a catalyst for a more abstract, conceptual type of gentrification is interesting.

Three or four years ago packing fabric, foam bricks and that Memphis Design-type speckling were part of a wider discourse: acknowledgements of the transience of the art object, artifice and modes of display. Now the speckling adorns the soles of Nike trainers, packing fabric is used as a prop in the window at Selfridge’s and they balance Clark’s Originals on foam blocks in Urban Outfitters.

Recently, clay as a medium has undergone a shift. Once limited to the twee and maligned peripheral realm of the craft, it has found itself in vogue. Whether used functionally, figuratively or in a more abstract capacity as a medium capable of incredible tactile expression, its move from craft fairs to white-wall galleries represents a kind of legitimisation. Its innate functionality and rich tradition renders its absorption into a mainstream more nuanced than a set of visual tropes co-opted by Urban Outfitters, but the arc of its acceptance mirrors the gentrification Frost describes.

Jim Geddes’ position in this is intriguing and unique. The context of his retrospective, the now-closed former Italian deli/time warp, and his decades-long single-minded exploration of a material that has shifted from anachronistic to trendy, in an area that has seen millions poured into its regeneration, functions as a powerful memorial for an outdated social circumstance.

The individual pieces in the collection become irrelevant in the face of the collection as a whole; their importance lies in what they signify: “It’s a man’s life’s work.” Their juxtaposition with the gallery space creates the memorial, for a shop, an artist and a shifting area. The exhibition itself, as Cornelia says, is “as much about the history of Kings Cross, a bit of recent history, as anything else. It’s acknowledgement, and bringing people into the space to think about that. To think about changes in the area, and the future.”

Alex Frost’s use of ceramics in Property Guardian serve as a bookend on the other side of this process; rather than the outcome of a borderline mono-maniacal material interrogation/catharsis, his are jagged assemblies, evocations of the familiar reshaped into sculpture. As objects, there are no comparisons to be made with Geddes’ work beyond the material. The context of their display, though, the issues and themes raised in Property Guardian – even the name, referencing a contemporary and insecure means of living – manifest the consequences and outcomes of the same changes that have made Geddes’ exhibition significant as a memorial, rather than just a spectacle of eccentric curios.

In this sense, the narrative of gentrification is bookended by these two exhibitions. A Resident Artist and an Artist-in-Residence, in their occupation of mutually opposing positions, force an interrogation of an inexorable and complicated social change.

Property Guardian by Alex Frost runs at Flat Time House from 5 June to 2 August. Jim Geddes: A Retrospective ran through May. For more information visit corneliamarland.com