In Conversation with — Fred Mann

Fred Mann has been around for quite some time. His early gallery offerings –both as a lone wolf and partner- were amongst the most innovative and memorable on London’s contemporary art scene way before the mainstreaming that followed the ‘Brit Art’ boom.

Fred Mann

Fred Mann

When he opened his current gallery, Fred (London) Limited, in a spacious former industrial building on London’s then newly trendy Vyner Street some five years ago, it seemed as if a lot of these activities were being distilled in the new venture. Soon a well-known destination point on the contemporary art circuit, he continues to offer a programme in the gallery’s characteristic style, up and running even when Fred is whizzing off to one art fair or another.

But, in stark contrast to the rigid public persona that many gallerists present to the world, Fred Mann has never hidden his other varied interests. On the contrary, they have often been a part of the Fred umbrella. His interest and involvement with music over the years has seen the development of Fred Label, a small independent label that does not segregate mainstream pop from more arty offerings. And he’s still involved in club nights such as the current underground cult ‘Bear Your Soul’.

Ahead of taking on another formidable task of programming the VIP Arena at London’s Lovebox Festival, Other Edition caught up with him…

KP: Inevitably when anyone poses a question to a gallery these days, they talk about the recession, so we might as well get that out of the way first. I know we’ve chatted about this one before, during and after some of the various waves in which it’s been impacting on galleries. So, I’m less interested in the small details. I’m much more interested in coming back to some of the things that you’ve said about the changes it’s brought. How do you think the economic crisis has changed the London and international art markets aside from the obvious closures?

FM: Well for me it has meant looking again at what the gallery can do front of house, you can see economic problems in a number of ways and of course they are a hassle, however they also create a space, where perhaps people are not running around buying anything because its fashionable, but are looking and thinking more. It means that it is all a slower process, which I like, but its a more realistic one. We have used this space to re-evaluate our program and to include more political work, and to be more international. Its a great time to look at young artists with exciting new voices. Also watching others move away from some of the shiny over blown work that was all over the place has been good, that really needed to happen!

KP: Last year you went on a big tour of Africa and one of the notable intentions and outcomes of that was that the gallery’s programme has a new visibility of contemporary African art and artists. What’s that all about?

FM: I have always been painfully aware that the number of graduates from art schools of people of colour has been very small, and we have a very small number of successful artists who are from the African Diaspora. I also really dislike the national-geographic approach to how African art is percieved and wanted to tune in to what artist were making that dealt with post colonial issues. My trip was amazing, and I clearly set-out what I was not looking for: no large scale landscapes, no paintings of black women scantily dressed in traditional garb, and no bloody zebra. By doing that I found work about race, gender and class. African artists are at the sharp end of these issues and the work they are making is extraordinary. The shows we have done, such as our current show by Zanele Muholi, form about 40 % of our ongoing programme, and sits very nicely with the UK and American artists that I work with, certainly in terms of ethos.

KP: Any other interesting new developments we should look out for in the gallery’s programme?

FM: Yes, this autumn, we have a wonderful solo show, her first in London by Scandinavian painter Susanne Simmonson, she is an artist I have admired for many years so I am delighted to be showing the works. We also have a solo show by British Ghanaian artist Godfried Dunkor, which is going to be a knockout.

KP: The gallery’s own artists aside, whose work do you currently find interesting?

FM: I love looking at work and shows, so I see a great deal! I especially like the work of Roger Hiorns who shows with Tommaso Corvi Mora, and I have recently discovered the skull paintings of Joni Brenner, a Johannesburg women artist who is really great, you can find her at Art First in London. Alexander Tinel, a painter who shows at Voges Gallery in Germany is also a knockout and you could do a lot worse than checking out the sculptures of Seb Patane at Maureen Paley in London.

KP: What’s happening on the label side of things? What’s new and interesting?

FM: Everything is super fun, we have just launched a new album for Stained Glass Heroes, which has been previewed on Channel 5 with a live performance, and you should hear the new songs Pauline Taylor just has demoed! We also have plans to do a special release with Caron Geary, which will be a photographic exhibition at the gallery, and a CD release of her work as FERAL.

KP: You’re programming a whole tent at Lovebox. How did that all come about and what can the punters expect?

FM: Well it came about very unexpectedly! My great friend Ronnie King and I started a kind of DJ duo called ‘Bear Your Soul’ as we both love and collect Northern Soul music. It was a reaction that as two gay men, we can never go to clubs where we hear music we like, so we thought rather than complain, we would start our own! We do the second Wednesday of the Month in Hoxton at the George and Dragon, and its got really very busy. We also DJ for Wayne Shires at his new venue East Bloc on Old street on the first Friday of the month, and we have been doing hugely well attended pop up nights At Bethnal Green Working Mens Club.

We were approached by Lovebox, pretty early on to see if we could bring something different to the VIP arena on Sunday the 18th, so Ronnie King and I got everything we love, and programmed the whole day. You can expect amazing live music from Pauline Taylor, The Hempolics, who are just back off tour with Faithless, Ronnie King and The Hustlers with special guest Paloma Faith, we have a full set from amazing soul diva Jocelyn Brown and the Allstars Collective, and Feral playing new Material with Gibson and Ganio.

We will also be playing whole DJ sets of rare northern, soul and funk, and being us, there will be classic bump and grind burlesque from Trixie Malicious and Luna Rosa, as well as classic Go Go from DRA Dance Collective, so come on down the Sunday VIP is going to be AMAZING!

Zanele Muholi 'Caitlin and I Boston, USA', 2009. C-print triptych

Zanele Muholi 'Caitlin and I Boston, USA', 2009. C-print triptych