Shoppers and office-workers making up the huge population of daytime Oxford Street will be offered a rare treat this week with the opening of CRISP, a free-to-enter, fortnight-long, multi-site exhibition of comic art.
Taking in venues as diverse as the Virgin Megastore on the corner of Tottenham Court Road, temporarily empty retail space in The Plaza shopping centre and a former Parker Knoll showroom on nearby Berners Street, the exhibition is part of a wider project to bring art to the people and to raise the profile of Fitzrovia, the area stretching from Oxford Street to Euston Road.
The 60 artists involved promise to be as diverse as the venues. The names range from those, such as Peter Arkle and Steven Appleby, familiar to readers of Sunday colour supplements, to new, often self-published, cartoonists. Entry to the exhibition was open to all, with the final shortlist of exhibitors drawn up by a panel comprising lecturers, writers and historians of comic art.
But, if successful, the exhibition could have far wider implications for Fitzrovia than an increased awareness of comic art. That it is happening at all is testament to unprecedented co-operation between the organisers, local authorities and businesses. And if it works it will be repeated.
Two of the venues, both on the first floor of The Plaza, are disused retail units. But bearing in mind the nature of Oxford Street they will not be disused for long. The management of the centre has taken the view that it is healthier to have them in use during the handover period to their new tenants, and drawing crowds into the centre, than standing empty. Thus they have been loaned out to CRISP. The installation team, which prepared the spaces, is formed of interior design students from Ravensbourne College. The exhibition itself is a joint initiative between the Cartoon Art Trust, Camden Council, illustrators, publishers, and Arts For Everyone, which funded it.
Steve Roper, the arts organiser for Fitzrovia and the driving force behind CRISP, explains that many more exhibitions of this style (but with varied content, including fine art events) are planned. “I’m very keen on alternative venues in central London areas,” he says. “Art can be a useful tool. I want to establish Fitzrovia as a cultural centre.”
Roper’s future projects promise to be ambitious. One plan is to establish a permanent projection site at Whitfield Gardens, near Goodge Street Underground Station. More familiar to locals as “birdshit park”, the tiny patch of green currently features a Seventies vintage mural. A projection site would be a modern equivalent, he says, and a healthy move towards levelling Fitzrovia’s reputation with Soho and Covent Garden.
Comic art is perhaps a natural starting point. “I feel comic art is a valid visual art form, which works well in a street or retail environment,” he says of the event. And take to the streets it will: a series of posters advertising CRISP, designed by the exhibitors in comic styles, will adorn local bus shelters in a bid to pull in the punters. If these bring smiles to the grim faces braving Oxford Street’s crowds the effort may have been worth it.
CRISP runs from 9-22 July.
Details from Cartoon Art Trust 0171-405 4717