Arts: The secret life of milk and sliced bread

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
THE SIGN reads "Balham Eyecare Centre" and is flanked by two huge, wide-open blue eyes. Next door there's The Mixed Blessing Bakery, God's Time News Agent and Winner - Delicious Chinese Hot Meals To Take Away. Shop signs, the landscape of local high streets, even shopping lists, all have a deeply personal story to tell.

In Neil Misrahi's Great Expectations, which gathers together replica shop signs copied from small businesses in South London, the aspirations are there to be read. Generally full of self-praise, the shops talk themselves up by listing their subsidiary products and services in an effort to pull in passing punters.

"These are supermarkets on a very small scale," explains exhibition curator, Paul Hedge. "These are little businesses pretending to be really big businesses, and you can tell that they are pretending. Arterial roads such as the A2 have died because no one can park there any more. The only ones that manage to cling on are the weird, mutant shops that sell everything at once."

Most of the artists in Shop have focused their work on this part of the capital and the picture they paint shows the frayed edges of the retail world where shopping is modest and small businesses struggle to survive. Myra Stimson trawls Tesco's in Lewisham in search of discarded shopping lists which she paints up on a large scale using egg tempera - deliberately contrasting this time-consuming pre-Renaissance technique with today's throwaway society that sees old lists chucked to the ground after use.

"Two tins speggie bollonase [sic], Long loaf, 20 Birkley blue"; "creme fraiche, tarragon leaves"; "corn beef, pot noodle, Susan soap" - these strangely intimate lists conjure up their absent owners and are punctuated with attention-grabbing lines such as "Long live the king" and "Tell Jack to ring prison for onions". Whether scribbled on backs of envelopes, tiny scraps of paper, or written out meticulously, the lists make fascinating portraits, by turn funny, touching and bemusing.

The Old Kent Road, once a Roman road and now the Dome road, has been recreated with nothing more than chopped-up cardboard boxes, but to dramatic effect by Jane Wilbraham. Piles of brightly coloured letters run in a horizontal strip along the length of the gallery. When they are read from above, "fishpiechickenkebablordnelsonpiratevideomayflower", the road's landscape comes to life as the shops pubs and businesses each get a mention by turn. Stand back from the work, which is placed a couple of feet from the ground, and the shadow cast by the letters forms itself into an inverse urban skyline.

In contrast to the local artists, New York-based Jill Henderson has chosen to look to the shopping malls of the future, as is typical of her work, presenting images of aspirations run riot. Her ramshackle, scratchy pen- and-ink visions have a cartoon, sci-fi quality that takes the future of consumerism to a ludicrous extreme. Henderson's far-fetched, fantasy shopping malls appear as misshapen bulbous pods, perched on skyscrapers, or are seen clinging, precariously to their sides, linked by narrow tubes that are more suited to energetic gerbils than gravity-bound humans.

Outside the gallery, Deptford market is in full swing: stalls, grocery stores and backs of lorries all laden high in an area teaming with upbeat shop signs, hidden shopping lists and ambitious business aspirations. Surely, some things, however packaged, will never change.

Kate Mikhail

70 Deptford High Street, London SE8 (0181-694 1194), until 14 May