When tasked with penning the accompanying essay for this exhibition, I must admit, I found myself suffering a fairly severe case of writer’s block. What eventually emerged resembled more a preemptive review than an essay, call it a symptom of my day job. Although, upon reflection, this default tendency did reveal something of myself, and in the spirit of this exhibition, this unmasking seemed only fair.

If I Had the World to Give centres around a very simple task — each of the participating artists have recreated (or responded to) an artwork they made as a child. When the last exhibition I attended left me feeling strangely guilty about how little Kafka I’ve read, writing about a finger-painting sounded like a welcome repose. At first blush, this show could just be the ‘fridge display’ for all time, yet to simply describe the results of this charming task with words such as “playful” or “fun”, would only serve to underplay the wonderful complexity of this exhibition and its introspective function.

In the absence of any grand curatorial intent, dripping with overwrought theory, the essential process of making and exhibiting is all that they had left, and in this way the process acted for Lilly, Andrew, David and Woody, as a sort of artistic Rorschach test. By examining what they extracted from their childhood artwork—the embodiment of unabashed creativity—this projective test became a means of analysing their underlying artistic tendencies, a roundabout indication of what they naturally gravitate toward and, perhaps, what they wish to reclaim.

This ‘portrait of the artist’ could naturally be revealed of any artwork, however the underlying connection to their long lost ability to “just make something”, free from that creative oscillation between confidence and crippling self doubt, adds an extra dimension here. It’s hard to overthink a child’s artwork, the subtext is usually fairly limited, so what they were left with was just themselves—they created both the catalyst and the outcome. These youthful iterations became the lens through which all their training and contemporary sensibilities could be traced and analysed. A pure representation of them, separated only by years and painful self-awareness. But what does that offer us as the audience?

Horses, fish and a polka-dot castle. If ever there were a list of distinctly uncool subjects, I imagine these would be pretty close to the top (Google “horse painting” and you’ll see what I mean), yet in spite of this, they all nailed it. They’ve delivered a perfect confluence of childlike enthusiasm and skilful execution. However, in the case of If I Had the World to Give, the subject of the work feels to me the least important thing in the show. Instead, these pairs of artworks, old and new, offer us a traceable insight into the artists’ thought process, an insight that often comes at the cost of hard-fought, in-group knowledge. Hung at the foot of each of their contemporary counterparts, the ‘original’ artworks act like a museum plaque—or a supplementary exhibition at tiny-eye-level—documenting the history of the maker, while simultaneously describing the new work.

Whether intentional or not, this simple choice of placement raises some important questions about how artists contextualise their work, and how they address their audience. In the nebulous atmosphere of contemporary art, one can easily feel confused and alienated by needlessly esoteric language and ideas, as I did with my Kafkaesque nightmare (*wink*). So why must we rely on all this text and technobabble when a cleverly placed image can achieve the same outcome? While on the surface, this show is playful and born of a simple idea, it belies the self-reflexive substance behind it. Rather than throwing you off the deep end, this winsome display allows you to wade in at your own pace. Then again, maybe it is just a bit of fun.

Text by Sally Davies.

Sally Davies is an editor and writer based in London.