In art we still have to go see the original object and discuss it with the artist. New technology does not know how to deal with the erotic element, with art that is spatial.1
In the age of post-mechanical reproduction, with such an explosion of visual material available on the internet and when even rooms in galleries can be visited online, is the desire to experience works of art first hand really necessary, or can we come to know them through reproduction alone? The way many of us experience an art work in front of us today is tied to our own physicality. In contrasting aesthetic qualities like scale, texture and form with that of our own, we come to understand better what is before us.
The diverse artists brought together for this exhibition all make art objects which consider the value of space, be it atmospheric drawn or painted perspective, or the exploration of constructed or deconstructed sculptural forms. They all combine an understanding of materials with the conceptual aspects of their practice so the two reinforce one another; seeing these art works in real space is not just an aesthetic experience but one in which it is possible to understand better the ideas which have informed their production.
In 1968, the Danish born artist Asger Jorn created a series of Modifications in which he defaced a collection of sentimental pastoral paintings by unknown artists with his own aggressive brushwork. This deconstructive act of undoing was an attitude of defiance, a response echoed by many of the artists in this exhibition. Bud Latven is an American sculptor who works predominantly with wood turning and his many influences include prehistoric Southwest Native American ceramics. His vessel forms are built up gradually from a complex series of angled wood segments and meticulously smoothed on a lathe. Latven then removes small sections away again, making them ‘symbolically destroyed.’ He explains this further: ‘Many historic and prehistoric cultures used pottery as reliquary items which were broken or ‘killed’ to release the spirits of the dead’.
If Latven’s open ended objects recall past superstitions, Andrew Mackenzie’s eerie paintings point towards futuristic landscapes void of spiritualism. In Turner’s landscapes a glowing aura invoked the power of God; here illumination suggests the unnatural glare of a television or computer screen. Complex networks of artificially lit trees are covered by geometric slashes in toxic bright colour; Like Jorn, Mackenzie debunks the myth of the perfect unspoilt landscape. Flat white bands and geometric lines create a tension between the surface of the painted object and the depth created by diffused layers of thin paint; this broken up approach recalls the Cubist approach to painting space as it is really perceived – not in single point, linear perspective but as a series of constantly shifting viewpoints.
Multiple perspective is pushed into a three dimensional realm in Dan Stafford’s complex ceramic sculptures; he creates composite objects by piecing together inconsistent angular forms which are decorated by patterns from generic modernist cityscapes. Computer technology allows Stafford to manipulate stencil designs digitally before applying them manually to his angled clay surfaces. His finished works often have a graphic, crisp quality not traditionally associated with ceramics. In the opening sequence of Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (1959)2 designed by Saul Bass, a New York building façade is reduced to an anonymous geometric surface, whilst the film portrays modern identity in a constant state of flux. The oblique angles and unsettling symmetry in Stafford’s sculptures reinforce this depiction of the post-industrial city not full of hope, but as a disorientating and emotionally detached place.
This desolation is also evident in Lesley Risby’s ceramic sculptures, which appear to be pieced together fragments from a lost world. T.S. Eliot wrote in The Waste Land (1922),
April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land.3
This contradiction between the living and the dead is explored in Risby’s ceramic sculptures which resemble skeletal, structural remains worn down by entropy. They are carefully constructed from nichrome wire which creates a robust armature to support delicate porcelain forms within. This wire also creates the visual effect of movement through space, as if their three dimensional lines are still in the process of being drawn. Risby relinquishes control of her final end products as the porcelain shrinks during firing.
Her monochrome colour scheme and semi-solid structure is echoed in my own drawings, in which complex forms appear to float in undefined space. The smaller works are a series in which deconstructed fragments are reconstructed in a variety of new ways to create monolithic forms; as a group they explore the infinite possibilities of repetition. Their ambiguity and carefully drawn, worn down surfaces suggest a corrosive process has taken place.
Oliver Barratt’s work appears on one hand to be more slick and robust, but this permanence belies the temporality of his subject matter; he attempts to grasp the esoteric traces left behind in space by the gestures of the body. He is the first to admit there may be a certain futility in this act, but calls his work a series of ‘carefully poised contradictions’ balancing solidity and fluidity, open and closed space, purpose and loss. Barratt finds more meaning in T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets (1943)4, which focus on the quiet, inevitable passing of time, recalling Heraclitus’ assertion that you can never step into the same river twice. For Barratt water in nature is one of the most apt visualisations of real time passing through space; it serves as a reminder that much of what surrounds us is fragile and will eventually fall victim to nature’s constantly eroding force.
Rosie Lesso is an artist and writer based in Scotland.
- Harald Szeemann, in Here Time Becomes Space: A Conversation with Harald Szeemann, by Carol Thea, Sculpture Magazine, International Sculpture Centre, Washington, June 2001, Vol. 20 No. 5
- Alfred Hitchcock, North by Northwest (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios, 1959)
- T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land and Other Poems (Faber and Faber, 1995)
- T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets, (Faber and Faber, 1998)