Above the door to this City law firm’s auditorium hangs a pink neon sign: ‘Trust Me’. It’s far from your average bit of corporate art; it’s a Tracey Emin piece bought by Simmons & Simmons several years ago. Emin is nothing if not autobiographical, and ‘Trust Me’ evokes not only her own damaged background but it hangs within a place in which trust is – or should be – at the centre of a transaction. There’s a legend that goes that some asset managers arriving at Simmons for a meeting were spooked by the sign and wanted it removed, but the Emin remains in place. The clash of artistic and City cultures is most evident at Simmons’ regular exhibitions, when the lower lobby is filled with people who look nothing like your average Moorgate suit. The Simmons collection is immense – the firm was an early buyer of the YBAs – but there’s no white cube; this is a working floor of meeting rooms. The evening I went there were still posters around for a seminar that day on legal trends in the mining sector. You wouldn’t get that at the Saatchi Gallery.
Piercing the Veil is a cute title that meshes the art and legal worlds. It refers to a well-known principle when assessing liability, the ‘corporate veil’ being the concept that separates the legal identity of a company from its shareholders and directors. It’s also an allegory for the artistic process: how much should you be made to work to read a painting, and to what extent should a painting resist reading?
Conforming to the theme of obscuration, these works invite you to look, and then look again. Some, like the Dangerous Minds Practice, put that veil centre of the painting and indeed the title. Veiled Threat shows two AK47s lit by neon behind a screen print on perforated steel, a Pop version of a global weapon brand. James William Collins’ Brandy arranges grids of tiny high-gloss teardrops with black squares in varying states of decomposition. It hangs next to Jenny Holzer’s I Am Arrested, which is part of a series in which she reproduces declassified US government documents from the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. Malevich’s black square is no longer a method of artistic liberation but becomes a deeply authoritarian act of redaction.
There’s some real beauty too. Maybe I’ve been looking at too much Dutch art recently, but I enjoyed two sets of interiors in particular: Azadeh Nia’s two untitled works represent imagined rooms, offering a jumble of perspectives and speckled with miniature delicacy. Meanwhile, In Parting, Parting Again and Edge, Eleanor Watson presents dark-wooded interiors that suggest a pregnancy within the stillness, something deliberately withheld rather than absent.
In the panel discussion, chaired by Jon Sharples, a Simmons lawyer who is a skilled curator, we got an insight into the practices of some of the artists. Justin Mortimer spoke powerfully about the slow burn of the image: we read long novels, we listen to complex music, he argued, and yet there is no equivalent cultural acceptance of long contemplation of the image. Saul Rohr spoke of the battle to escape his training in illustration, which teaches you above all to communicate instantly. In a world that is saturated with images, the challenge for artists is to cloud the obvious.
Justin Mortimer’s Djinn II is based on a World War One photograph of dreadful wounds that he said were too graphic and too explicit to reproduce. To evoke that horror, Mortimer uses instead one of his signature motifs of the balloon, whose skin-like texture is both childlike and uncanny. It’s an anti-documentary approach that unearths throbs of old nightmares within the viewer, and it’s also way of veiling the original.
It was an unusual experience within the auditorium of a City law firm auditorium to hear passionate declamations against too much clarity, too much definition. The practice of law is a mixture of fluidity and rigidity, and the best lawyers negotiate the grey areas; but art wants to leave the most important things unsaid.