The appreciation of art has taken on a new meaning during lockdown, whether as a means of boosting our mental health or providing a much-needed form of escapism. While numerous galleries and museums have pivoted to open their doors virtually, dealing with the online art world and figuring out which artists we should be collecting can be trickier to navigate. Here Kate Bryan, Soho House’s Global Head of Collections, reveals the best ways to tap into the digital art scene and picks seven top British artists to invest in now.
‘We are living in an unprecedented time in history, when buying a piece of art is quite a poignant, sensitive, even historic thing to do,’ explains Kate Bryan, Head of Collections at Soho House, over the phone. Instagram remains a fertile place to start looking for affordable art, Bryan assures me. ‘But don’t just blindly start scrolling. Plug into hashtags driving new initiatives in support of independent artists.’
One such brilliant example is the Artist Support Pledge (#artistsupportpledge), set up by British artist Matthew Burrows, where artists post images of their work online selling for no more than £200 each. Each time an artist reaches £1,000 of sales, he or she pledges to buy another artist’s work for £200. Big name artists, including Sir Quentin Blake and Rachel Howard, and rising stars alike have offered and bought works, triggering an unprecedented volume of online sales.
Other notable initiatives include #portraitsfornhsheroes and #ProjectPapyrophilia, a fluid digital exhibition of works on paper curated by Charlie Smith London. New artists and artworks are continuously added to the line-up, with all artworks available for just £250. ‘There has been this unexpected coming together of art communities in response to the pandemic,’ says Bryan. ‘We’re really seeing the power of strength in numbers.’
For some collectors, though, purchasing an artwork without having seen it offline is a daunting, even unnerving new prospect. Embrace the risk and start the conversation, Bryan advises. ‘When you’re buying a work of art, you’re not buying a mass-produced factory product, you’re buying into a person, into their creative brain. Even if you’ve seen a work in a gallery it will look different in your home — there’s always going to be an element of the unknown.’
If you’re willing to take a leap of faith, look no further than Subject Matter Art’s Lockdown Commissions series. Collectors pay £150 to have a work exclusively created for them by their roster of artists. The actual work you will receive, however, will be a complete surprise. ‘It’s a brilliant way of supporting and connecting with new artists that you may never have come across previously,’ explains Bryan, who has herself acquired a work by textile artist Nadia Nizamudin through the initiative.
For all its pitfalls, Instagram has proved an unparalleled launchpad for fresh, new talent. The digital landscape has allowed new people to come into the art world from both a collecting and showing point of view, notes Bryan. ‘It gets rid of boundaries, such as income, class, disability, gender, diversity, and allows [the art world] to be a much fairer playing field for everyone.’
In addition to accessibility, the move online has greatly facilitated transparency, especially when it comes to prices. ‘There is a visibility in the art world that just wasn’t there before,’ adds Bryan, citing Frieze New York’s decision to display the prices of works in their online Viewing Rooms as a recent example. ‘This open-door policy feels really quite exciting.’ Let’s just hope it lasts. Here, Bryan picks out seven artists making waves right now.
Ollie Gomm, also known as Gommie, started to make his colourful works of acrylic paint, ink, mud, doodles and poems on ordinance survey maps around three years ago, while traversing the UK on foot. The poems are rooted in the words and sayings of the people he met along the way.
‘I’ve not really seen anyone working the terrain he is occupying in the sense that he is making physical manifestations of poetry,’ says Bryan, who awarded Gommie the Soho House Art Prize at The Other Art Fair in October last year. ‘He’s brought poetry into the art world really elegantly.’
Gommie’s participatory practice has garnered him loyal support from the theatre and poetry community, as well as from his rapidly growing Instagram following. Earlier this year he held his first solo show at Messums in Mayfair, where collectors were quick to snap up his work. ‘It’s such a good moment to acquire a Gommie,’ claims Bryan. ‘I can’t imagine they will be this cheap for much longer. [A large finished painting will set you back around £2,000] The momentum behind him is really thrilling. Things like this don’t happen very often.’
Eliza Hopewell is the unapologetic artist turning the 18th-century tradition of painting plates on its head. Her quirky ceramic masterpieces feature women, often nude, of all shapes, sizes and backgrounds in a manner of supposedly ‘taboo’ poses: masturbating, menstruating, shaving their legs. ‘She has really broadened the representation of women in painting,’ explains Bryan. ‘Her work is playful, provocative and distinctive in message and voice.’
Hopewell’s unique brand of feminism has caught the eye of celebrity collectors, including Jemima Kahn, Richard Curtis, Kate Moss and Bella Freud. “Now she’s taking her work to the next stage. She’s looking at making tiles, bigger paintings, expanding her platform,” adds Bryan. As the appetite for her work continues to grow, it seems her irreverent, risk-taking strategy has paid off.
Gina Soden is best known for her photographs of abandoned buildings and undisclosed sites across Europe, which she often enters with unlicensed access. Her studied, almost painterly compositions explore the boundaries of beauty, decay, nostalgia and neglect, and conjure Romantic notions of the ‘sublime.’ “She just makes these places sing,” Bryan notes. “Her work has become a fascinating exploration of the way we adore and then abuse architecture.”
Soden now has works in the collections of the Ned, Soho House, Groucho Club and Goldman Sachs in London. In 2019, she participated in Archaeologies Trio Show at Charlie Smith London and, in 2018, was selected to show at the Art Car Boot Fair. The price of a standard print from an edition of 10 is now around £2,000. “Gina’s work would be a show-stopper piece for the home in that price bracket,” adds Bryan.
A graduate of the Royal College of Art, Tom Pope is one of the most exciting performance artists working today. It was his thought-provoking proposal for the Gazelli Art House Window Project in 2016 that first caught Bryan’s eye. “His ideas are so radical,” she says. ‘His way of making work is so authentic — it’s pure art practice.” Bryan has since commissioned Pope to create a series of works for Soho House.
Other notable works to date include One Square Club — a portable private members’ club the size of a phone booth, which he exhibited at Frieze Los Angeles in 2019 — and Time Bound, a performance that saw him transport a grandfather clock in a hearse from London to Geneva. Pope now has works in the collections of The National Portrait Gallery in London, The Deutsche Bank collection and the Jersey Photography Archive, among others.
In January 2020, Christabel Blackburn won the Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year Award, an annual competition programme for which Bryan is a judge. “She’s an artist already making waves in the art world proper,” notes Bryan. “She’s such an interesting painter with just the right cool aesthetic.” Inspired by David Hockney and Edward Hopper, Blackburn’s reduced minimalist language evokes a remarkable sense of solitude and stillness.
Her work has been shown at such celebrated institutions, galleries and fairs as Cynthia Corbett Gallery, the Royal Academy, Affordable Art Fair Battersea and Alex Eagle Studio. Her pieces are available for purchase via Partnership Editions and Instagram, but be warned – they don’t hang around for long.
British mixed-media artist Sarah Maple creates bold, brave, occasionally controversial works that seek to deconstruct gender, religious and ethnic stereotypes. Inspired by her mixed cultural upbringing, Maple’s work is widely revered for fusing pop and religious references with fierce political wit. “She’s always pushing the boundaries and is not afraid to cause offence,” explains Bryan. “Everyone is really starting to take notice of her very original voice.”
In recent years she’s held a string of solo exhibitions, won a number of prestigious awards and participated in TV documentaries, including A Picture of Britain in 2019. With her reputation rising, her work could well prove a wise investment.
Savvy collectors have been drawn to the architectural minimalist sculptures made by British artist Amy Stephens for years. “But she’s having a real moment right now,” says Bryan, who particularly loves her use of colour and juxtaposing materials. “She’s just at that turning point in her career, when major curators are including her in group shows.”
In January 2020, Iwona Blazwick, curator of the Whitechapel Gallery, included her work in Psychotropics, an exhibition at the New Art Centre, which explored the blurred lines between nature and culture in the digital age. She’s also mounted solo exhibitions around the world, from Cyprus to Argentina and seen her works enter prestigious public collections, including David Ross Foundation, Rothschild Collection and the Zabludowicz Collection.