Cockney Rebels: Art in the East End

An initiative by East End galleries is making new art more accessible, says Charles Darwent

Iwona Blaswick has some advice for visitors to London's East End: make sure the venue you're looking for exists. "There's a thing for fake dealers at the moment," says the director of the Whitechapel Art Gallery, raising a weary eyebrow. "They're actually artists pretending to be dealers. You ring up to arrange to see them and they keep on saying that whoever it is is in a meeting. It can become quite frustrating."

She should know, being the uncrowned queen of East End art. For a decade now, London's art scene has been moving steadily eastward - first to Hoxton and Bethnal Green and then on to the wastelands of Hackney and Dalston. Some arrivals, such as Victoria Miro, have been blue-chip ex-West Enders. But most have not, their galleries bubbling up and going under before the man on the 254 bus knows they're there. Blaswick is determined that this should stop.

"The East End is a laboratory for new British art," she says. "What starts out here filters west later. But most of the venues are run by ex-Goldsmiths students for ex-Goldsmiths students, and the general public never gets to see them."

Thus a programme called First Thursdays, which brings these edgy art spaces together under the Whitechapel's protective wing. On the first Thursday of every month from 3 May, about 30 East End galleries will stay open until 9pm, giving ordinary punters a chance to experience Blaswick's laboratory and see art fresh from the test tube. First Thursdays will provide maps, itineraries, guided tours and a monthly e-letter. Armed with the first of these, we set off in search of art.

The East End isn't just the artiest bit of London, it is also the trendiest. Those In The Know can tell you exactly where Tracey or Jake will be on any given day. We go upmarket and head for the Rivington Grill. You can tell the Rivington is trendy because its menu includes fish fingers, each a sustainable chunk of line-caught cod in a batter that lowers your cholesterol. Delicious, but not so much as a Damien in sight.

We're choosing venues in turn and Caroline has picked The Drawing Room in Laburnum Street, Bethnal Green. It's a good first stop - the gallery is auctioning drawings by artists such as Cornelia Parker and (of course) the Chapmans, with bids starting at £150. But it turns out to be further away than we'd thought and Caroline is wearing the sort of shoes you wear when there's a chance you'll bump into Jake or Dinos. Also, Laburnum Street isn't as leafy as it sounds, being what my grandmother would have called "rough". Still, the work on the Drawing Room's walls is good.

My choice next, and it's off to Hotel on Old Bethnal Green Road. East End spaces often have cheeky names - one is called f-art - and the work they show is commensurately playful. Until 9 May, Hotel is host to Torsten Slama, an Austrian whose visions of a post-industrial apocalypse seem oddly suited to the area: The Secret Missile Silo could be one of the slab blocks just visible through Hotel's windows. Caroline is now regretting her Manolos on various counts, pain and muggability being but two. Also, it's three hours since we left the Whitechapel and we haven't seen so much as the Chapmans' dog. So we head south east, to the cluster of galleries off Cambridge Heath Road - specifically, to Herald Street, home to a space of the same name of which we have heard good things.

I do not at first register the subject of Cary Kwok's work. Given that Kwok's pictures have titles such asSperman and Here Cums the Spider, and show comic book characters doing things of an auto-erotic nature, this is just as well. One review sums it up: "If you like drawings of ejaculating superheroes, this is the show for you." I avoid Caroline's eye and point out that there's another First Thursdays participant just across the road.

Maureen Paley, in Herald Street, was among the first of the East End gallerists and is one of the cleverest. Paley has spotted such rising stars as Wolfgang Tillmans and Gillian Wearing. Her current show is no disappointment. James Welling is a photographer whose work messes with time, using techniques pioneered by Fox Talbot to make images that look like Mark Rothko. We soak up Welling's Flowers for a bit, then head, tired and wordless, for the 106 bus.

We've decided to end where we started, with David Maljkovic's film at the Whitechapel. We pass Indo - probably once called The Dead Rat and patronised by the Krays. (Its nearest pub neighbour is The Blind Beggar.) Now it's achingly trendy with decaying sofas, good paintings and a clientele of artists who still qualify for the epithet "young". Tracey, Dinos, Damien and Jake are, accordingly, somewhere else, which means that our celebrity-spotting score stands at nil. Caroline slips off her shoes and examines feet that look like a Heironymous Bosch. Then she says something rude about the Chapmans, and downs a glass of chardonnay.

THE COMPACT GUIDE

HOW TO GET THERE:

Rivington Grill (020-7729 7053). The Drawing Room

(020-7729 5333). Hotel (020-7729 3122). Maureen Paley (020-7729 4112).

Herald Street (020-7168 2566). Indo (020-7247 4296). Whitechapel Gallery (020-7522 7888).

FURTHER INFORMATION:

Spaces for First Thursdays are open until 9pm from 3 May (Herald Street from June).

Go to FirstThursdays.co.uk.

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