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5. “Boris Johnson and other Tories cheering the defeat of a proposal to give nurses a pay rise, 2017: painting by numbers (colours black)”. Berni Raniff Smith (GB/D) 2017, Permanent inks on canvas, 120 x 190 cm. Shown in “This is Tomorrow Again”, 2018 Whitechapel Gallery, London.

Smith, who has now exhibited several of these painting by number works, recently asserted in a bizarrely contrived interview with the late critic Toni del Renzio, sadly deceased in 2007, on BBC’s Radio 4, which used cyber-presence, of the late del Renzio for obvious reasons and of Smith due to lockdown, that “the pbn works are about bringing the periphery to the centre, and vice versa”. This clearly also relates to his “inside-out” and “out-between” works. They have all the characteristics of those “painting by number” artworks, often sold under the heading of “You too can…”, complete with a small brush and tiny paint pots. All the outlined areas labeled 3, one colours in with colour number 3, and so on.

Here too, a primed white canvas has printed upon it the outline of a potential painting, with areas numbered 1 to 8. At the base of the canvas is a key, which would normally show the palette of numbered colours. Here, each small rectangle is (or was) empty, as if waiting to be filled. The “black” of the title invites a visitor to fill each square with black. There is no other colour. The rectangles, though as empty as the main drawing, are labeled in order Coffee black, Intense black, Jet black, Cold black, Coal black, Cummings black, Soot black and Copyright black. In these interactive times, a black felt tip marker, on a chain so that you can only reach the rectangles and not deface the whole canvas, hangs beside the work. And indeed as well as “fuck” and “this is not art” scrawled on the canvas’s margins, visitors have filled in three of the labeled colour-keys black. And oddly only three. Is this due to some sensitivity? At the Whitechapel, perhaps.

It was certainly a black moment portrayed here. And if each artwork has its moment, its Zeigeist, now is the time to read this work anew. Yet the viewer is at a loss. They cannot colour it in, it stays as a potential, based on a photograph of a passed, shameful event. For today, we have seen the results of that vote. The constant presence of two nurses at the Prime Minister’s bedside during his coronavirus illness attest, by their presence, to the absence of enough nurses nation-wide, and of enough protective clothing and tests. The cupboard is bare, the image is empty. You can see what it is, but just in vacant outline. The only rhetoric in this parliament is five inane words from anonymous spectators. The only way you can fill it out, fill it up, fill it in, is with black. I look forward to more of Smith’s pnb works, dated 2020.

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