Beyond their image of well-ordered conformity the great British suburbs have long been hotbeds of creativity, spawning restless youngsters who flee the semi-detached des-res leafiness to find the throbbing heart of the city. The London punk scene’s prime movers, remember, hailed from Bromley, not the inner-city. So it is too with Jonathan Owen, whose new solo show explores the contrary comforts of suburban mores, subverting them en route. In one piece, a metal wine rack, that well-placed symbol of dinner party accoutrements, is rendered unusable by an array of carved wooden chains. A similar assault is rendered on an oh-so-tasteful Habitat coat-stand, messing up the clean-lined aspirational minimalism as it goes. Elsewhere, photographs have their central image of civic-minded statues methodically rubbed out à la Joe Orton so all that’s left is a plinth and a backdrop of a wall or trees in a park. All these actions are what Owen calls ‘acts of careful vandalism’ inspired by ambiguous feelings about his own relationship with the Liverpool suburbs he grew up in.
‘It’s a love/hate thing,’ Owen admits. ‘Quite often people sneer at suburbia, but that’s not how I see it. I love suburbia. I think it has lots of romantic potential. To be brought up there, there’s always that romance and that yearning for elsewhere, where everything else seems exotic. Suburbia is a way of avoiding extremes.’ He alludes to one of literature’s greatest postwar fantasists, Billy Liar. ‘When he’s in suburbia his imagination can flourish and he can create this world of his own, but if he got on the train to London he wouldn’t have that.’
This is Owen’s second solo show at Doggerfisher, and he continues to explore Owen’s own post-suburban pre-occupations on a grand scale.
‘A wine rack is the ultimate symbol of bourgeois aspiration,’ he says. ‘I suppose in my head I’ve got this fictional suburban man who’s this cross between Reginald Perrin and Bob’s wife in Rita, Sue and Bob Too. He’s got this conjectural auto-biography, and I’m constantly taking things from his house. But it’s not an attack. It’s part celebration, part love song.’
Doggerfisher, Edinburgh, Fri 6 Feb–Sat 28 Mar