A new museum has opened in Camden and although it's not that hard to find – the long, snaking building, formerly a furniture workshop, is tucked away in a mews off the High Street – it is initially hard to fathom. The space's inaugural exhibition, entitled 'A House of Leaves', actually comes in three parts with an epilogue, like the movements of a symphony or a trilogy of novels. The display will be gradually rotated, the pieces changed and rooms rehung until well into next year, when the gallery will be left more or less bare for the final week. All but one of the works hail from a private art collection and are, bar none, tricky, thought-provoking objects, especially so those you can't see – of which more later.
Previously based in a temporary gallery space in Fitzrovia, this is the new home of the David Roberts Art Foundation – DRAF for short – and at first sight it seems, well, a bit drab. The colours are monochrome, the bronze, clay and steel materials often harsh and the themes invariably doomy and disaster-laden. As far as newly launched art factories go, this is an entirely bling- and fanfare-free zone. In its stead is only understatement and seriousness – no bad things once you tune into the contemplative feel of the place and the art.
Roberts himself is the latest in a new breed of smart art collectors opening venues in London who value ideas in art over status symbols or baubles. Chief among the portentous works on show in the first 'movement' is a giant three-dimensional map of a seemingly bombed-out London, created from charred lumps of wood with a pool of molten lead running along in place of the Thames. This post-nuclear plan of our currently fair city, by American artist Matthew Day Jackson, is superb in detail and spotting the incinerated remains of your own home or office is as close as you can get to apocalyptic fun.
At every turn, something abject, dirtied or darkened lurks in 'A House of Leaves'. Someone's home is wrecked by an earthquake, two boys spied through a window are considering erotic auto-asphyxiation and a pot of paint has left a nasty white stain on the concrete floor. Thankfully, almost every painting, photograph or object is fascinating in its own right; especially so the sinister leather glove fashioned into a collage by Man Ray in 1967 and the humble jersey cast as a totemic, mysterious bronze sculpture by Louise Bourgeois, just three years before her death in 2010. But together, they really start to resonate and spark a whir among those underused cogs in the brain.
The ambitious, symphonic structure of the show seems to me better thought of as a changing of the seasons. An autumnal atmosphere wafts through 'A House of Leaves'. First it will drop some of its foliage in November when a few new buds – including a reddish Gerhard Richter – will inject a bit of much needed colour, before all the spaces are then emptied like the branches of a tree in winter. Except there will always be art embedded in the fabric of DRAF even when the walls are bare, as there are a number of secretive, minimalist interventions hidden throughout the building. See if you can spot the one golden nail hammered up high, the dislodged brick in the wall (behind which is supposedly a single high-heeled shoe) and the peephole slowly being filled up with an artist's discarded materials. Such high concept art may not be to everyone's taste, but there's nothing wrong with a spot of mental ping-pong.
THE BOTTOM LINE: The Keyser Söze of art spaces.