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‘Pioneers of the Downtown Scene’

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‘Pioneers of the Downtown Scene’ throws up the question of whether street art can be shown in a gallery, writes Crystal Bennes

Pioneers of the Downtown Scene, Barbican Art Gallery, £8 online/£10 on the door, until 22 May 2011

The challenge of the Barbican’s ‘Pioneers of the Downtown Scene’ show, starring Laurie Anderson, Trisha Brown and Gordon Matta-Clark, was always going to be about how to bring work rooted in the urban environment into the gallery. The problem is that most of this work, especially Matta-Clark’s, whose building ‘cuts’ influenced a generation of architects, doesn’t belong in a gallery.

Many have made comparisons – curator Lydia Yee included – between 1970s New York and the underground art scene in London; both shared the desire to ignore commercial interests and occupied less-desirable parts of the city in a land grab for cheap studio space. But disappointingly, there’s nothing in the show that links these movements together.

Not that the entire exhibition is a write-off: Tom Foulshom’s reinterpretation of Laurie Anderson’s Electric Chair is hilarious and exhilarating; Clock Shower, a video of Matta-Clark on the top of the Clocktower in New York shaving and brushing his teeth is a perfect symbiosis of slapstick comedy and urban provocation.

The only piece of Matta-Clark’s that’s to scale in the show is Open House, an industrial waste container that the artist installed on Greene Street in 1972. He fitted the container with a maze of salvaged doors and an open roof and left it on the street, open to all. Matta-Clark made a film documenting the installation; one section shows a group of artists splashing through the rain performing an impromptu umbrella dance in and around the structure. Again, the problem is that this piece belongs on the street, not in a gallery: here it loses its spontaneity, authenticity and power.

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