Work

by Jack Mottram, a freelance writer based in Glasgow · About · Contact · Feed

The work of Henry Moore’s is fixed in the public imagination as a world of reclining figures and abstract forms with hollow spaces, cast in bronze on a monumental scale. When calling Moore to mind few people, it seems safe to say, think of dainty headscarves, jazzy curtains and comfy bedspreads.

The new exhibit at Dovecote Studio, the first to show Moore’s textile designs outside his home at Perry Grove, and featuring sketches and notebooks that remained undiscovered until 2006, could change all that.

Stepping across the threshold, it is, at first, very hard to believe that Henry Moore is the man behind the eye-popping designs arrayed on the studio wall. It’s not just the medium - though to see Moore working in silk and rayon rather than stone and bronze is a bit of a shock - it’s the colours. The clashing palette is unmistakably that of the optimistic, forward-looking, atomic 1950s, replete with jolly pinks, acidic lime greens and searing oranges.

Look closer, though, and there is much that is familiar. Family Group, a 1946 design, is familiar, with the extruded, softened forms of the father, mother and child a match for Moore’s monumental carvings of the time, but here, printed on a tiny scale, in seven colours, the scene is domestic, loving, bordering on the cutesy. There are little clues, too, which illuminate Moore’s better known work. The maze-like geometric patterns he sketched for headscarves have a distinctly Mesoamerican look to them, an echo, perhaps, of the Mayan reclining figures that informed Moore’s sculpture. The supposedly primitive pops up again in Heads - which Moore used for his own curtains at home - is an array of animal-like tribal masks.

Elsewhere, another side to Moore emerges, hinting at a rather wicked sense of humour. Tasked with producing designs for luxury fashion items, he picks thoroughly down to earth motifs, undercutting the glamour of silk (and the cod glamour of parachute nylon) by crafting patterns from the most mundane objects, from watering cans and caterpillars to piano keys and safety pins, all doodled with a lightness of touch. There’s even a striking design based on lines of barbed wire that, to modern eyes, looks positively punky.

Moore’s brief, parallel career as a textile designer is largely down to the efforts of Zika Ascher who, having fled Prague in 1939, turned in the post-war years toward artists for his designs, including Henri Matisse and Graham Sutherland. While these artists were happy to puncture the elitist pretensions of fine art in providing designs for mass produced items, they never quite blurred the boundaries between their main artistic practice and forays into the applied arts. In the lower galleries of the Dovecote, which play host to the Jerwood Contemporary Makers group show, it’s hard to draw a line between contemporary, conceptual art and what used to be called applied arts, or, more prosaically, crafts. The Jerwood are obviously aware of this - the foundation used to award an Applied Arts Prize, which, as of 2008, has been replaced by a shared grant for the Contemporary Makers gathered here - and the catalogue essays, while largely sticking to the appellation ‘makers’, uses the language of art criticism to discuss the work on show. This might not matter - the only useful, if tautological, way to define art today is as things presented by artists - if it weren’t for the fact that many of these makers seem to be positioning themselves in the perceived gap between ‘high’ art and ‘low’ craft. And most of them are making art, too, the only clue to a different status coming in their choice of materials, their training, and, ultimately, their inclusion in a show with the word ‘makers’ in its title.

Lin Cheung, ostensibly a jeweller, opens the show with an installation about jewellery, complete with a library of books - all in matching pristine white dust jackets - with titles like The Joy of Jewellrey, The Complete Idiots Guide to Jewellry and Zen and the Art of Jewellrey Making. In a matching all-white reading room, Cheung presents her made artefacts in chairs topped with glass seats. In other words, Cheung obscures here skill at making in a dud art installation.

Nicholas Rena’s series of vessels, The Ecstasy of St. Teresa, offer much more. They are huge, deliberately unusable jugs and pots on an almost architectural scale which match pleasingly rounded forms with sharp lines, bearing a surface sheen that comes close to glowing. Tellingly, they are one-offs, not multiples, and yet Rena clearly revels in the crafting of them, generating that sheen by applying layers of acrylic paint before finishing them with wax. The result is pleasingly ambiguous, with superficially useful objects presented for examination and enjoyment, not use.

Diedre Nelson, a graduate of Glasgow School of Art, approaches textile design with a twinkle in her eye. Her Emotionally Embroiderd Shirts, a trio of plain, mass-produced, machine-made garments bear beautiful, pristinely hand-stitched flowers, tucked below their collars. It’s a simple evocation of the subtle feelings we attach to our clothes as we wear them out, and an acknowledgement that those associations, built up over the years, are private - if one of Nelson’s shirts were worn, her work on them would be hidden from view, tickling the nape of the wearer’s neck. Nelson has made more flowers, more delicate still, and mounted them on the sort of foam earplugs handed out at noisy gigs. Again, a mass-produced object is suffused with the suggestion of memories, this time musical.

Memory is to the fore in Clare Twomey’s piece, too, which consists of a rough stripe across one wall of the gallery, with a history of grafitti scratched into its surface. There’s a crudely rendered bunny rabbit, a skull and crossbones, and a rough approximation of the ‘I love NY’ logo. It’s hard to resist the temptation to scratch the surface with a thumbnail, and I doubt Twomey would mind if visitors did: her best known installation featured a floor of fragile tiles, designed to be crushed under foot.

This review was first published in The Herald on Friday 19th December , 2008.

The annual group show at Sorcha Dallas this year is themed around the idea of repeated words, images and motifs. Dubbed r e p ’ e . t ’ t i o n - the unconventional spacing and punctuation is a nod to the eccentric orthography of EE Cummings - the exhibit blends new work by young, Glasgow-based artists with more established international figures and big names from the Op and Pop art canons, arranged together in two tightly-grouped installations.

The first, in the smaller of the two gallery spaces, is overbearing and claustrophobic thanks to Claudia Wieser’s wallpaper installation.

Pasting black-and-white photocopies directly on to the gallery walls, Wieser builds up fan-like motifs, parallel lines and dense geometric blocks. These serve as a backdrop for Sue Tompkins’s typed works on paper. These texts might be poems or song lyrics - Tompkins was frontwoman of the pop group Life Without Buildings, and her practice still includes musical performance - or snatches of overheard conversation. Whatever the source, each one takes a phrase and repeats it, sometimes with slight variations, until even the most innocuous term takes on a sinister air. There’s something dark about Fiona Jardine’s untitled collage, too, which sees images of hands and limbs arranged in a repeating, circular pattern.

In the second gallery, its windows covered in gauzy white fabric, the atmosphere is lighter and cooler, bordering on the antiseptic. The works here are arranged around a seating area, which features two chairs by Franz West, their seats and backs woven into Aztec patterns of brightly- coloured industrial strapping, and, on a little plinth bearing a vase of cut flowers and volumes of EE Cummings’s poetry. The domestic feel is furthered by Eva Berende’s hinged screen, each of its four panels bearing meticulously dyed strands of wool that trace out a pattern of interlocking oblongs and diamonds.

Up on the walls surrounding this odd little salon are works by Bridget Riley and John Wesley. Undressing, a diptych by Wesley, shows a woman taking off her stockings and knickers, but any trace of the salacious is removed by the Californian Pop surrealist’s flat, spare technique, as if the female body is nothing more than a pattern to be transcribed. Wesley’s Untitled (Mickey & Minnie) further flattens the already two-dimensional, repeating the familiar three circles of Mickey Mouse and his wife in flesh pink against a minimal landscape reduced to stripes of green and blue. The pair of Riley prints here lack the dizzying, disorienting power of her best-known monochrome Op Art works.

Instead, Riley offers studies in false tessellation, aligning leaf-like abstractions in orange, blue and deep green for Sylvan, revisiting the pattern for Berlin Wall Drawing (Print), this time opting for pale pastel tones.

For a show examining repetition, there’s a good deal of variety here, but thanks to some careful curation, connections are drawn between the disparate bunch of artists gathered here, sometimes simply - Wesley and Riley share a similar palette, Berendes and West both make furniture but present it as art - sometimes subtly, with Wieser’s wallpaper providing a busy visual soundtrack for Tompkins’s silent songs.

Around the corner on King Street, 15 artists from the Sorcha Dallas roster have taken over the Glasgow Print Studio. The group show, To Bring Forth and Give, is the result of a collaboration between the gallery and the studio designed to introduce artists to the possibilities of printmaking.

While most of the 15 have opted for the traditional approach, producing editions, some have taken a more radical, experimental tack.

Clare Stephenson’s piece Ornament and Boredom is more sculpture than print. The towering effigy - it’s a good 8ft tall - is equal parts haughty drag queen, classical statue and winged angel, its component parts apparently cobbled together from fashion magazine clippings and antique illustrations.

Michael Stumpf has made a screenprint of a photograph of a screenprint. His sweatshirt, emblazoned with a jumbled, purple, red and orange logo that reads “silenzio”, each letter rendered in different type, ranging from a simple sans serif to a hand-drawn gothic face, is suspended from the gallery ceiling on a hanger.

The partner print shows the same sweatshirt, roughly scrunched and crumpled on a jet black floor. On either side of the curtained doorway that leads to the print studio, Fiona Jardine has plastered the walls with screenprinted rolls of wallpaper, dotted with eyes, lashes and brows. One panel of the pristine paper has been defaced with smudges of slurry-brown paint, and Jardine has pasted a few more eyes, this time collaged from magazines, over the top.

Craig Mulholland’s contribution is a continuation of his sprawling solo show, Grandes et Petits Machines, which filled the two spaces at Sorcha Dallas and the Glasgow School of Art’s Mackintosh Gallery earlier this year, before transferring in expanded form to Spike Island. Mulholland is at home in any medium - that solo show included everything from delicate sculptures to paintings made of metal to an animated film with an operatic score - and his four prints here are assured, crisp new renderings of his past work using pegboard, obscure patterns that suggest programs written in obsolete computer code, or dangerously decayed electrical circuits.

The artists who have opted to make more conventional prints are not overshadowed by the sculptural and installation work. In fact, the more delicate, quiet pieces stand out. Alex Pollard’s Jack Sheppard is a photo etching that distorts a portrait of the eighteenth- century thief like a fairground mirror, as if Pollard has dragged his source image this way and that during the printing process. Couple, by Raphael Danke, is a surreal juxtaposition of an outsize lipstick and a radiator, rendered in grainy monochrome. A pair of digital prints, Drawing Study, offers a diary of Kate Davis’s recent practice, with a self-reflexive text reading: “It has taken me a month and a half to complete one drawing recently. That fact is part of the image now.”

Alasdair Gray must have made his first print before some of his peers here were born, and it’s easy to see that this isn’t an artist feeling his way in a new medium, but a master at work. His Corruption - “the Roman Whore”, according to the print’s hand-written caption, “for whom hangmen and politicians play the pimp” - is a woman with a death’s head rictus grin, impossibly pregnant with an embracing Adam and Eve, who are in turn surrounded by a strange bestiary of eagles, squid and bloated fish.

To Bring Forth and Give is more of a showcase than a group show proper, but it hangs together thanks to the palpable sense that most of these artists are eagerly experimenting with, and embracing, a new direction in their practices. It is, too, a sign that printmaking, all too often seen as a poor cousin to painting, is in rude health.

This review was first published in The Herald on Friday 12th December , 2008.

Langlands & Bell

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The Talbot Rice Gallery’s exhibition of films and animations by Langlands & Bell - an artistic duo who, when they’re not making sculptural work, have been at the vanguard of new media since the late 1970s - serves well, among other things, as a history of the technology of film, from Super 8’s flickering black and white to the polygons and textures of computer simulation.

The show opens with Ooh La La Les Legumes!, a doomy, Godard-influenced piece made in 1979 when the duo were still students. The loosely structured narrative sees Langlands and Bell drifting through Dijon’s markets and cafes, as the camera plays doomily across gravestones and follows cows being herded into an abattoir. A later student work, Pseudo, borrows both the soundtrack from Hitchcock’s Psycho and the director’s techniques, to craft a silent noir in which a woman, engrossed in a thriller on TV, finds herself under attack.

These early pieces are gripping, and sophisticated in their exploration of film technique, but it is only when Langlands & Bell develop their own cinematic language, and turn their cameras on the real world, that they hit their stride.

Borough Market, filmed in 1986, is a tightly focused portrait of a place, and the people in it. Close-up shots of market traders and their punters mugging for the camera are intercut with death masks and cheap statuary, an auctioneer takes bids at breakneck speed, banging his gavel, a stiffly formal equivalent to the vendors shouting prices outside. These frenetic scenes are set against shots of city workers flowing along pavements on their way home. The shots build to form a dense study of the market and its surroundings, contrasting the forward-looking city boys with the tradition-bound stall-holders.

The most recent film here, Folkestone - Boulogne: A Blind Date, applies the same techniques to two towns, and the journey between them. In a nod to their earlier work, Langlands & Bell let their camera rove over more stalls of fruit and veg, and record a fisherman complaining about the decline of his industry. Shots of the red cabins of Folkestone’s funicular railway give way to scenes of a cross-Channel ferry chugging into Boulogne harbour, a simple juxtaposition of two transport systems kept running by the tourist trade.

Shots of elderly folk dancers in traditional costume jigging to accordion music are matched to sequences of gangs of kids clad in the international uniform of hooded tops and tracksuit bottoms. These two groups couldn’t be more different, you might think, but the teenagers are dancing too, performing “jumpstyle” moves. By cutting between the two, Langlands & Bell reduce the apparent distance between the two cultural activities, highlighting the fact that, while the folk dancers are preserving local customs in the face of globalisation, their children, despite the American streetwear on their backs, are busy creating new folk dances.

These pieces are, above all, about people, but when Langlands & Bell remove the human component from their work, they falter. The Artists Studio is a 2002 interactive computer animation that recreates the interior of the Old Library Hallway at Petworth House in Sussex, where JMW Turner kept a studio, contrasted with a virtual version of Langlands & Bell’s own studio space in London. I found it an exercise in frustration, spending five minutes desperately trying to escape an upstairs landing, and the rest of my time interacting with the virtual space by banging my virtual head against the pixelated purple flock wallpaper of a Petworth corridor. I can’t blame Langlands & Bell for my lack of coordination and unfamiliarity with the computer games that inspire the work, but even if I had been able to glide smoothly from Turner’s old haunt to the slickly designed spaces of their HQ, I doubt I would’ve learned as much as I did soaking up the atmosphere of Boulogne, Folkestone, Borough Market or Dijon.

In the upstairs gallery, The House of Osama Bin Laden, a work which earned Langlands & Bell their 2004 Turner Prize nomination, is another interactive simulation, this time set in the al Qaeda figurehead’s one- time base in Afghanistan. The stills reproduced in the catalogue show someone exploring the bombed-out building, finding a rocket launcher propped in a corner, and storage spaces full of moth-eaten rugs. On their field trip to Afghanistan, Langlands & Bell risked life and limb, only realising when reviewing their research photos of the hide-out that they had been snapping away just inches from unexploded land mines. There’s no sense of danger or immediacy to be found in the finished work, though. This could be a commentary on the media hysteria that led up to the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, but it seems more likely to be an unfortunate side-effect of Langlands & Bell’s embracing of new technology and bloodless focus on physical space, a combination that alienates the viewer as much as their film work achieves the opposite.

There’s another problem with these simulated spaces. Langlands & Bell may have been prescient in making work in line with games such as Grand Theft Auto, which allows players to explore cityscapes, or the alternative reality of Second Life, where users potter about their second homes, but the inexorable pace of technological progress leaves these pieces, state-of-the-art five years ago, looking a little dated. This is not true of even the earliest film works, which - despite the fashion of their time, and revealing the technology behind them in the grain of Super 8 or the crispness of DV - show the world, rather than attempt to recreate it.

This is a divided show, then, evenly split between disappointing, anaemic interactive animations and warm, lyrical filmworks, but those films make it a must-see: nobody can beat Langlands & Bell at portraits of people, places and the ties that bind them together.

This review was first published in The Herald on Friday 5th December, 2008.

Unreliable Witness

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Unreliable Witness gathers together art that explores truth and fiction, the telling of stories and the creation of myths.

Michael Fullerton opens the show with five huge posters that glitter under spotlights. They bear a press shot of a.c. acoustics, a now-defunct Glasgow group whose biography reads like the template for a cult indie outfit, complete with critical acclaim, modest sales, devoted fans in more famous bands, a handful of Peel sessions and high profile support slots that hinted at the possibility of mainstream success. Fullerton’s memorial offers a glimpse of an alternate history, where ac acoustics, despite their defiantly unambitious lower case name, were pop idols, gracing the cover of Smash Hits instead of languishing on the middle pages of the Melody Maker, headlining all the big festivals and mounting bloated international stadium tours. It’s a good joke, if you’ve heard of ac acoustics, which, as Fullerton is well aware, most people haven’t.

Fullerton’s Colour Study of the Painting ‘Elizabeth Foster’ by Sir Joshua Reynolds 1787 (Leon Trotsky) is a more complex investigation into propaganda, possible histories and the politics of aesthetics. Lady Elizabeth Foster led an interesting life, living in a menage a trois with the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire for a quarter century, while, rumour has it, merrily conducting affairs with a string of Earls, Counts and, for variety, a cardinal. There’s no hint of this in Reynolds’ portrait, of course, which casts the Lady as a rosy-cheeked innocent in virginal white lace. Fullerton takes this act of revisionism and applies it to another, borrowing the colour scheme used by Reynolds to paint a version of an anti-Bolshevik poster which showed Trotsky as a slavering maniac, his features twisted into an anti-Semitic stereotype. It’s an intriguing synthesis, matching Reynolds’ subtle propaganda, which promotes an image of a powerful elite as morally upright, to the decidedly unsubtle casting of Trotsky as an unhinged monster, in a bid to secure the position of another powerful elite.

For Knowledge Will Break The Chains of Slavery (Alexei Radakov) turns again to Russian history, borrowing its title from an early Soviet poster extolling the virtues of education, but this time instead of rewriting history or merging two narratives together, Fullerton obscures it, presenting a thick strip of audio broadcast tape, unlistenable behind glass.

Gabriela Vanga takes a more whimsical approach to possible histories with George. Installed on a low table are fragments of a portrait of the titular George, and a text which tells of its making. At thirteen, Vanga didn’t have a boyfriend, so she invented one, telling her school pals new tales about him every day. Years later, after confessing to the deception, Vanga described George to a police artist without revealing that his subject was a figment of her imagination. The text then instructs the viewer to mentally reconstruct George’s face from the fragments, following Vanga’s own process in remembering the details of her teenage fiction. It’s a rather twee piece, unless you entertain the notion that Vanga has made the whole thing up, from the fibs at school to the police artist to her wish to share the experience.

There’s no sign of whimsy in Peter Friedl’s harrowing video loop, Liberty City, which shows a gang brutally beating a defenceless man. The shaky, grainy amateurish footage looks absolutely genuine, but it is in fact a short drama, based on a 1979 riot in Miami, sparked by the fatal beating of a black insurance salesman, Arthur McDuffie, at the hands of white policemen. Friedl’s fiction is, in effect, a reversal of these events - in his film, the gang is black, and their victim is a white police officer - but, thanks to its chilling realism, does more than make a simplistic point about race relations in the US, questioning the illusion of objective truth created by the shaky camerawork and grainy quality of documentary footage.

Similar questions are posed by Nedko Solakov’s installation The Truth (The Earth is Plane, The World is Flat). This collection of paintings, drawings, newspaper cuttings, wall texts, handwritten notes, snapshots and a convincingly realised documentary film presents ‘evidence’ that the world is not a globe, but a thin disk. Centred on physicist Dr. Haraldar Gustalsan and the cosmonaut Vitaly R., the overwhelming barrage of made up facts, crank theories and conspiracies are arranged like an eccentric child’s science project, building to a wonderfully silly conclusion. Solakov’s point is, though, deadly serious, his sharp sense of humour masking an angry indictment of the former government and media of his native Bulgaria. The work was made in the early 1990s, in the wake of Bulgaria’s first free elections after decades of Communist rule, and the implication is clear: if a totalitarian government tells its citizens that the earth is flat, it might as well be.

After this, Andrea Fraser’s satire of art world foibles might seem to be aiming at an easy target, but her filmed performance Official Welcome is a sophisticated critique of, well, sophisticated critiques. The piece opens with Fraser, as herself, welcoming visitors to a mid-career retrospective of her work, before adopting a series of personae, acting out introductary speeches by jaded artists, obsequious curators and blethering critics. It’s a blistering attack on the indulgences of the art system, but one that is itself indulgent, allowing the subjects of Fraser’s satire to laugh at themselves.

Susan Hiller is interested in the underlying systems of the art world and the making of art, too, but her installation feels more like a celebration of curation and presentation. From the Freud Museum (Unique Prototype) is a vitrine housing custom-made boxes which in turn house small collections of objects, inspired by Freud’s own collection of artifacts, including soil samples from Ireland, various representations of hands, a ouija board with instructions and small vials of holy water. The result is a sort of commentary on cultural history, archeology and archiving, expressed as an archive.

Hiller’s work is concise, coherent and carefully put together, but the same can’t be said of Unreliable Witness. It’s a fine collection of works, but, while each of the artists here is, at root, making work about crafting narratives, whether they contain profound truths or outrageous fibs, the show itself fails to match up to the work it contains, presenting artists and their practices individually, without telling a convincing story about them.

This review was first published in The Herald on Friday 28th November, 2008.

Spencer Finch

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On a blustery, grey day on the banks of the River Tay, it’s tempting to see the work of Spencer Finch as akin to those therapy lamps that simulate the sunrise, resetting the body clock, and allowing those of us depressed by the late dawn to leap out of bed, full of the joys of summer.

I don’t mean to compare Finch’s large-scale sculptural installations, delicate paintings and subtle interventions to a fancy alarm clock, but the work on show at Dundee Contemporary Arts does provide a sensory kick up the backside and, often using the simplest of means, transports the viewer to different times, places and climes, from a cloudy summer afternoon in Massachusetts to the clear skies of a winter morning in New Zealand.

The Massachusetts afternoon comes first, in the form of a light, airy installation that labours under one of Finch’s trademark descriptive titles, Sunlight In An Empty Room (Passing Cloud for Emily Dickinson, Amherst, MA, August 28, 2004).

Finch spent this day in the late poet’s backyard logging the shade cast by the clouds overhead, later converting his readings into a huge cloud-shaped mess of blue, grey and purple colour filters of the sort used by photographers. These cellophane sheets are held in place with wooden clothes pegs, and suspended from the ceiling before a blindingly bright array of fluorescent striplights of varying colour temperatures, in an attempt to recreate the quality of the New England sun. As weather simulations go, Sunlight In An Empty Room isn’t much cop, a cobbled-together, jerry-built experiment that would raise eyebrows at a school science fair. But, as the plastic cloud shifts slightly in the breeze of the building’s air-conditioning, and the yellowish lights cast soft blue shadows on the walls, it’s clear that Finch is trying to capture the simple pleasure of observing a cloud making its way across the sky - and in this he succeeds.

Next door in the large gallery, Night Sky (Over the Painted Desert, Arizona, January 11, 2004) is a constellation of softly twinkling lights hung from the ceiling. At first, it looks like a crude attempt to plot the stars, but the regular, modular construction of the light fittings and precise arrangement of differently-sized incandescent bulbs suggest the coloured balls and black sticks of chemistry lab models, a clue to the artist’s method. Finch made his skyscape by combining paints to match the black of the night, then - using a process I won’t pretend to understand - established the molecular ratio of each pigment in his mixture, and modelled the molecular structure of each pigment, with each of the 401 bulbs in the final installation representing a single atom. The sculpture is beautiful as it is, but when Finch’s process is revealed, it becomes more so, a rigorously scientific act of poetic transubstantiation, an encoded study of a single colour.

A new work, Sky (Over Franz Josef Glacier, April 8, 2008, 10:40AM) works in a similar way, but it’s leavened with a healthy dose of humour. A perfectly square pool of water, dyed bright blue to match the sky Finch observed back in April, feeds into a huge ice-making machine, which sporadically drops a load of ice-cubes on to a slipway, where they slowly melt and drip into the water below, and the process begins again. On one level, this closed system is as full of science and poetry as Night Sky, a tiny simulation of cracking glaciers matched to a minimalist liquid painting, but it’s also wonderfully silly, a great juddering Heath- Robinson contraption that wheezes into life - making visitors lost in contemplation of the deep blue pool at its base jump out of their skin.

On the wall opposite, another new piece sees Finch inspired by his first major show in Scotland to tackle a long-standing fascination with the Scottish Enlightenment. The piece 8456 Shades of Blue (After Hume) converts a thought experiment in David Hume’s 1748 paper An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding into a rough, real world demonstration, in which Finch dripped 28 colours of blue paint on to paper, dipping his brush in water after each drop, making each mark a shade lighter than the one before.

The final installation housed in two small rooms at the far end of the main gallery is an even subtler investigation of perception. In one room, five fluorescent lamps are wrapped in blue filters, in the other, the walls are clad in white paint mixed with Prussian blue pigment and lit with unfiltered lamps. In both rooms, the blue is barely there, little more than a slight cooling of the light, but, no matter how hard you strain to see a difference, Finch’s two methods produce identical results.

While 8456 Shades of Blue might have been conceived to match it’s debut showing in Scotland, all the pieces here seem very much at home in the austere rooms of the DCA. Even the sheen of the highly-polished floors - a flaw in the gallery’s design that tends to distract from the works - serve Finch well, offering a diffused reflection of Night Sky that tempers its hard, scientific edges, and allowing the faintest tint of blue light to leak out of the blue rooms at the rear.

In Glasgow, The Common Guild have mounted a companion show in Douglas Gordon’s townhouse on the edge of Kelvingrove Park dedicated to works on paper by Finch, and the pieces gathered here also suit their surroundings to a T. Finch is still concerned with colour and light, but, instead of looking outward, seeking to make new sense of the world and the way in which we perceive it, he turns his attention to intimate interior spaces. A sequence of watercolours sees Finch document the colours of light that passed before his eyes during a day spent at his studio. Another set of studies, pastels this time, capture the colour of the ceiling in Sigmund Freud’s consulting room.

A set of inkblots that wend their way up the stairwell is known as 102 Colours From My Dreams. Each one was made by Finch at the moment of waking, and together they form a diary of colours he saw in his dreams. There’s no need to interpret these self-made Rorschach tests, though, as Finch helpfully provides titles that build up into an absurd, comic monologue, a jolly litany of disordered memories and strange fictions of the artist’s sleeping life, which match each colour.

These two shows demonstrate two sides of Finch, and the separation of his work does him a favour. Had Finch’s first major solo outing in the UK been a single-gallery affair, the large-scale pieces of the Dundee exhibition would likely have overwhelmed the more delicate material of the Glasgow display, and the more intimate works on paper might well have acted as distractions from the self-contained investigations of the grand installations.

By focusing on two distinct, if allied, strands of Finch’s practice, DCA and The Common Guild in total paint a better picture of the artist’s practice than they could have done alone.

This review was first published in The Herald on Friday 21st November, 2008.

Gerhard Richter

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The work of many artists can, at least in retrospect, be divided up into distinct periods, with shifts or gradual moves towards new subject matter, novel techniques or fresh artistic preoccupations taken up, revised and abandoned. That progression from one mode to the next does not apply to Gerhard Richter. Pick almost any span of time in the past 40-odd years, and you might find Richter making eerily photorealistic work, Pop appropriations of found imagery, minimalist monochromes, vibrant abstract Impressionist pieces on a massive scale, delicate landscape studies or elegiac, intimate portraits.

At first, this makes for a bewildering experience - it is often hard to believe the works gathered here are the product of one hand - but for all the inconsistency on the surface, one thing is constant: Richter is in the business of painting; a long, rigorous investigation of the possibilities of his chosen medium, from the ways in which paint might be applied to a canvas, to the nature of things in the world recreated by a painter.

The earliest works look like Pop Art, but, while Richter followed Warhol or Lichtenstein in taking imagery from popular culture, he’s not interested in elevating and celebrating the Coke bottle or the cartoon, instead exploring what a painter can do with an appropriated image. Cow is drawn from a children’s book, the animal and its name precisely copied; Dead shows a partial newspaper headline above a photograph of a man crushed by a huge block of ice; Mustang Squadron and XL 513 see fighter jets reproduced from magazine illustrations.

Family at the Sea is taken from a snapshot of Richter’s then wife as a child, while Motor Boat (1st Version) sees a jolly gang of friends speeding across a bay. All these works are paintings of photographs or illustrations. Richter paints the white border of Family at the Sea and makes sure we can see the guidelines he drew when copying his Cow, but each of them bears distinct traces of Richter the painter, from the Futurist-inspired speed lines that trail the aeroplanes to the blur applied to the surface of the speedboat crew, a tactic that fast becomes a Richter trademark, present in works from the 1960s to the 2000s.

Next come the abstracts of the 1980s, huge works full of eye-popping colour, with paint spread in dense layers only to be removed, revealing the progression from blank canvas to completed work. These are not just abstract paintings, but a commentary on abstract painting. Richter has no time for the boozy heroics of Jackson Pollock; instead, he has developed a series of actions and processes to produce abstract images emphasised by his layering and removal of paint.

There are layers of satire, too, with Richter undermining the anarchic, intense stereotypes of abstract expressionism with his precise manipulation of surfaces, and pointing wryly to the blurring of his paintings from photographs each time he scrapes his squeegee across a canvas to form a hard-edged line.

Richter’s interest in handling paint is more clearly stated in his grey paintings. A series from the 1970s are all a dim, dark grey, and seen from across the room appear identical. Up close, one is delicately stippled; another has been painted with bold strokes with a big housepainter’s brush; a third is patchy, with silky areas contrasted with thick globs of paint; and a 2003 reprise bears a suggestion of a grid.

These powerful monochromes are matched to studies of colour. Red-Blue-Yellow (Reddish) and Red-Blue-Yellow (Greenish) are the result of primary colours applied in orderly swirls until they blend together. Untitled (Green) sees the experiment repeated, with shades of one colour.

Similar manoeuvres are employed in representational works, too. Buhler Heights is a progression of four paintings, beginning with a misty, bucolic landscape and ending with horizontal lines of colour that suggest the same scene. Another grouping takes identical prints of a multiple exposure photographic self-portrait, adding increasing amounts of red paint until Richter and his studio are obliterated.

For all his experimentation, Richter is a traditionalist. Farm, a small work from 1999, bears the surface blur, but is composed according to a grid. Candle, from 1982, is a breathtaking study, a display of skill that in its subject matter owes a debt to the Golden Age of Dutch painting. Small Bather matches the blur technique with a pose borrowed from Ingres, while Seascape, an impossible scene based on a composite photograph, takes on Turner at his own game. In lesser hands, these would be acts of hubris, heroic failures at best, but Richter pulls it off, thanks to some sublime draughtsmanship.

Ultimately, though, there is something terribly cool and rigid about the Richter project, a fact reflected in his Werkverzeichnis, an exhaustive register of works last updated in 2005, each one reproduced at the same scale, ordered and numbered in sequence, and the Atlas, a vast compendium of source materials collected over the years, grouped together thematically on more than 700 panels. It is impossible to avoid Richter’s pseudo-scientific approach to his own oeuvre in this exhibition, and it threatens to overwhelm the individual works. A given painting might make the hairs stand up on the back of your neck as you stand before it, but that immediate feeling is easily flattened by Richter’s careful, studious, almost relentlessly systematic approach, his ongoing formal inquiry into the nature of his craft.

The result is that, though there is no doubt Richter is a great painter, this retrospective ends up being less than the sum of its parts, with the paintings gathered here struggling under their own collective weight, each one a paragraph in a long essay on painting. Visitors will likely leave the National Gallery enlightened and educated, but unmoved.

This review was first published in The Herald on Friday 14th November, 2008.

At first glance, Richard Forster’s small drawings of the seashore look to be, well, a bit boring. Seen from the entrance to the gallery, the 40-odd works, all 5in x 7in, are arranged at regular intervals around the walls, and each shows the same dimly-lit grey scene, a sliver of sand, an expanse of sea, a stripe of sky.

Up close, though, they take the breath away. Forster is a remarkable draughtsman, capturing each spackle of foam on a cresting wave, the interlocking filigree pattern on the surface of the water as it is sucked away from the shore, and the sheen of wet sand as the wave finally recedes with a photorealistic intensity. In fact, it is sometimes hard to shake the impression that these aren’t drawings at all, but photographic prints, old daguerreotypes or calotypes perhaps, rescued from a forgotten Edwardian album.

This is not just down to Forster’s skill: these are not drawings of the sea and the shore, but drawings of photographs of the sea and the shore, meticulously made reproductions of throwaway, ephemeral snapshots. There is something determined, obsessive, even masochistic about this process. Forster worked at full tilt for four months to produce these drawings, and each gasp at the artist’s skill is matched with a shake of the head at this strange, zealous quest to make perfect copies of his photographic source material. advertisement

The time taken to make these works is more than a simple fact about their making, though: it is a clue that Forster’s subject is not just the shoreline, but time itself. These new works look old, the single, static viewpoint is undermined by the ever-shifting waters, the fast, instantaneous nature of contemporary photography is reconfigured by Forster’s slow transcription, and the slow process of examining his finished works, one by one. The sea is, too, inextricably linked to time, from the repeated crashing waves that mark minutes to the cyclic forces of the tides that mark the seasons.

Something like a narrative, the ordered passing of time, unfolds as these superficially similar works reveal their differences. There’s the ebb and flow of the waves on the shore, of course, but more than that Forster (who you might accuse of absenting himself as an artist in his all-consuming act of copying) makes himself known, the protagonist in a slow drama. For the most part, he sticks to the plan, relentlessly taking shot after shot of his patch of beach, with the same horizon line and measly strip of sky, but mistakes are made, and patterns form. On one short wall, three drawings offer more in the way of sky, with clouds lit from within by the moon or sun. In another triptych hidden inside the series, Forster traces the progress of a single wave, having taken three shots in quick succession (interestingly, in the publication that accompanies the show, these three alone are laid out together on a fold-out sheet).

One drawing stands out from its peers, because the horizon line is at an angle, a tiny difference that in this context seems nothing short of shocking. Perhaps Forster lost his footing, or nudged his tripod. The thirteenth and fourteenth drawings are, unlike the others, verging on the abstract, with soft white bands against a grey background, as if Forster, fingers feeling the chill after standing for so long on the same spot, shifted the focus of his camera a little to far, and pressed the shutter release a couple of times before he had a chance to correct the error.

Then, as the long series of drawings draws to a close with a run of drawings made from clear, crisp images, the last one looks to have been taken carelessly, with the camera pointing down. It would be a stretch to call these drawings a new sort of self-portrait, but Forster is doing more than presenting a dispassionate survey of the changing sea, he is present in these drawings, sharing two intimate experiences: the brief, immediate act of taking photographs out in the world, and the long hard slog in the studio, transcribing them. This might, though, be an illusion.

It’s easy to assume the drawings are arranged as the photographs were taken, but it is possible that Forster’s project is even more deliberate: it could be that he spent as long at the beach as he did wielding a pencil, selecting and ordering his photographic prints before making his drawings, like a film director in the edit suite, with a plan to manipulate his audience, purposely crafting the hint of narrative structure that appears as they pace the gallery.

This is rewarding work. Forster’s deceptively simple, apparently repetitive set of drawings offers a display of virtuoso draughtsmanship backed with a rich meditation on place, time and the nature of photography and drawing.

Outside, the latest instalment in Ingleby’s Billboard for Edinburgh public art project, Rachel Whiteread has taken over an advertising hoarding high on the wall of the gallery building. Instead of blowing up one of her collaged works on paper, Whiteread has picked a photograph of her installation Place (Village). The village in question is made up of vintage doll’s houses, some home-made, which Whiteread has been collecting for 20 years, each one empty, and lit from within.

In installation form, Place (Village), which has been shown in different configurations in Boston, London and Naples, is sad and a little spooky, like a ghost town in miniature. Here, on a grey wall, under grey Edinburgh skies, after Forster’s incessant monochromes, the red roofs, and backlit windows form a jolly, twinkly, positively Christmassy scene. After Mark Wallinger’s plain, dry offering - he presented a simple slogan text, “Mark Wallinger is innocent” - the billboard project has found its feet, showing the potential of the innovative format to transform an artist’s work.

This review was first published in The Herald on 4th November , 2008.

The first piece in the show at Edinburgh’s Fruitmarket Gallery, Close-Up, looks like an illuminated wall painting, an abstract made up of circles and dots. It is, though, not a work of art at all, but a lantern slide from the collection of Victorian horticulturalist and gardener Ellen Willmott showing the structure of Volvox globator, a type of algae.

Willmott’s slide serves as a manifesto in miniature for this exhibition. It trains its lens on the experimental microphotography of early naturalists, its adoption by educators seeking to inform art and design with natural patterns, the use of magnification as a means of disorienting and disturbing audiences by Dadaists and Surrealists, and their fascination with the human body that endures in the work of contemporary artists. It’s a warning, too, that things, when seen in close-up, are not what they seem.

The marriage of art and science, or the possibility that art and science can be the same thing, is made explicit in the images taken from Laure Albin-Guillot’s 1931 book Decorative Micrography, where cross- sections of seeds and cells are rendered in layers of charcoal and metallic pigment, and in the plates culled from Karl Blossfeldt’s Art Forms in Nature, which see budding twigs transformed into totemic sculptures and a seed pod metamorphosed into a mosque’s minaret. Stan Brakhage’s 1963 film Mothlight, in which insects, leaves and twigs flash onscreen as abstract forms, is, in this context, an echo of William Henry Olley’s scientific studies of a bee’s sting, a fly’s cornea and the scales of a butterfly’s wing.

The capacity of photography to reveal the obscure is taken up in the next room by the Surrealists, in two senses: psychological and physical. I’m not sure if Man Ray’s photograms count as close-ups - they are made without a lens, by placing objects on photographic paper and exposing it to light - but they are pseudoscientific investigations of objects, and, thanks to the Surrealist strategy of juxtaposition, reveal hidden meanings in everyday materials.

Strangeness is to the fore in Brassao’s “involuntary sculptures”, made with Salvador Dali. Small things - smeared toothpaste, rolled-up paper, a torn matchbox - are transformed by chance gestures in a sort of sculptural take on automatic writing, then transformed again by magnification into monumental works.

The power of the close-up to transform is applied repeatedly to the body. Jaques-Andri Boiffard’s untitled photograph shows a pair of eyes peering, terrified and terrifying, out from behind a dense tangle of hair, and his deliberately unpleasant portraits of ugly big toes illustrate a George Bataille essay, captioned as medical specimens. In the infamous opening scene of Buquel’s Un chien andalou, a woman’s eye appears to be slit with a straight razor, ants scurry from a hole in a man’s hand, and, in a merger of nature photography and the Surrealist’s body obsession, the camera lingers on a death’s head hawk moth. These, the most disturbing images, are shot in unflinching close-up.

Simon Starling is no Surrealist, but he shares space with them here, and bridges the gap between the artists and the scientists, the past and the present. His 2006 work Inventar-Nr 8573 (Man Ray) 4m-400nm is a slideshow which opens with a shot of Ray’s photograph Geological Fold, then relentlessly refocuses, ending on images of cloud-like forms, the magnified molecular structure of silver gelatine used in the photographic printing process.

Upstairs, things take a dramatic turn, away from the Surrealists and toward the conceptual artists of the 1970s. Where the avant garde of the 1920s and 1930s used the close-up to fetishise things, making them strange, mysterious or horrifying, their descendants opt for politically-motivated demystification.

Giusseppe Penone’s Svolgere la propria pelle (To Display One’s Own Skin) is a pseudoscientific survey of the artist’s own body; hundreds of photographs that show Penone placing a microscope slide over every square inch of his epidermis. Carolee Schneemann uses similar tactics, isolating and cataloguing male and female body parts. These works are a reversal of Boiffard’s toes, in which a body part is shown in isolation to reveal its uncanniness. Penone and Schneemann present multiple body parts to normalise them, explicitly rejecting the idea that particular parts should be viewed with shame or disgust.

Kate Craig takes an even closer look at her own body in Delicate Issue. A camera, operated by Craig’s husband, skims over her body, set to the rhythm of the artist’s heartbeat and breathing. Craig’s aims are clear, but, just in case anyone misses the point, she interrupts the reverie with a voiceover that poses pointed questions, asking: “What is the dividing line between public and private?” While Delicate Issue must be placed in the context of the feminist, conceptual art-making of the 1970s, the piece signals a return to the surrealism of the body in close-up - folds of Craig’s skin look like desert landscapes, wrinkles offer abstract imagery - taken up by the contemporary artists that follow, who add humour.

Mona Hatoum’s short film loop, projected on the gallery wall in a small circle, again turns the body into a landscape, a strange, shifting alien one. This time, the mesmerising subject is scrotal skin, moving in response to changes in temperature. A private part made public, and made almost unrecognisable in close-up, Hatoum’s piece has much in common with both the surreal images in the lower galleries and the politicised bodies that surround it.

Next, Wim Delvoye, who is best known for Cloaca, a biomechanical digestion machine which ingests food and excretes the obvious, turns again to the body’s waste products in Sybille II. The film shows people squeezing blackheads on their noses in extreme close-up, to the sort of wishy-washy soundtrack used in nature documentaries, reinforcing the impression that these towers of sebum oozing from pores are kin to strange sea creatures, or growing insect larvae.

I am not the squeamish type, but I left the screening room feeling decidedly queasy. It’s a reaction that would have made the Surrealists proud, and Sybille indeed brings us full circle. Dali, the artist who haunts this exhibition, though he appears here only in collaboration with Brassao and Buquel, wrote in the 1934 essay which inspired Delvoye that squeezed blackheads are “alien bodies in space”.

This sort of neat, light touch by curators Dawn Ades and Simon Baker is what makes Close-Up an enormously satisfying show, and reveals their deep, broad understanding of the subject at hand, which is matched with a willingness to let visitors draw their own conclusions.

Coralling a century and a half of scientific investigation and avant-garde art, revealing surprising connections between very different movements in art history, and deftly crafting a narrative around an apparently simple artistic tactic, Ades and Baker have mounted one of the best shows seen at Fruitmarket—or, for that matter, in Scotland—for years.

This review was first published in The Herald on Friday 31st October, 2008.

Matthew Smith

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Matthew Smith makes art out of everyday things. He buys duvets and rolls them up tight, or arranges them on specially-constructed wooden stands, takes records from his collection and tears off the front cover art, hunts down back issues of the NME, scribbling over the newsprint, and bleaches the colour out of pyjama tops before carefully folding them. Once, he put a nectarine on the floor of a gallery.

Many readers will, I imagine, be raising their eyebrows at that list of Smith’s past efforts, and, walking through the door of Mary Mary to be confronted by a spoon plonked on top of a piece of chipboard, that was my reaction too. But, after spending a bit of time with Smith’s assemblies of commonplace, terribly mundane items, some of which he’s altered, but only a little bit, they turn out to be nothing short of engrossing in their attempt to reconfigure the status of familiar objects, and rework ideas from past art movements in lowly materials.

The fact that Smith doesn’t appear to be doing very much with those materials ends up working in his favour, too. That piece of laminated chipboard, the sort of thing you see left out for the bin men after some cheap self-assembly shelving has collapsed under its own weight, is propped up on one edge, and the wooden spoon has been balanced perfectly on top, and the arrangement looks so precarious that you’re afraid to tread too heavily on the gallery floor, in case the whole thing comes crashing down. This forces a careful inspection of the piece, which reveals a lot of little mysteries. It’s clear that Smith has deliberately drizzled latex into the bowl of the spoon and along its handle, but did he make the seven marker pen lines on the reverse side of the chipboard slat, or affix the shreds of packing tape stuck to it? It’s impossible to tell, but the closer one looks at the piece, the more its two parts fade into the background, losing their meaning, or any symbolism, and becoming constituent elements of a sculptural work, relating to the space around them.

In the next room, there are more chipboard panels, and they prompt a similar process of recognition, inspection, forgetting and revelation. This time, there are seven boards balanced on top of each other, again precariously, one of which is a slightly different shade of off-white to the others. The surfaces are marked with more packing tape, and little drizzles of red resin, including a perfect little circle, which, from another artist might be taken as a cheeky reference to the red dots that mark works as sold. This time, once Smith’s choice of material has faded, the piece looks to be following in the footsteps of Donald Judd’s rigourously spaced stacks of pristinely constructed metal forms.

Some of the pieces here don’t even trouble the viewer with the status of their components - there are two works made of folded towels, some coloured, some bleached, that are immediately apparent as minimalist exercises examining colour and form.

Smith changes tack when he groups together a folded futon mattress, a wooden spoon, and a concrete cast of a wooden spoon. Smith is hardly the first artist to make casts of domestic objects, of course. But, where Rachel Whiteread presents negative space full of emotional resonance, or Bruce Nauman, casting the empty spaces beneath his chair back in the ’60s (a work later reprised by Whiteread), asks where space begins and ends, Smith doesn’t seem to be interested in big questions, or prompting associations, or even in the object he chooses to cast. To put it another way, Smith hasn’t made a little monument to spoons, he’s made a thing out of concrete, just as he’d rather we cast off any thoughts we might have about mattresses, or towels, or cheap furniture and focus instead on the formal associations between these objects.

There is a sense that Smith is trying to have his cake and eat it too when it comes to his deconstruction and decontextualisation of familiar objects. The titles he chooses suggests he’s more than aware of this. One of the towel pieces is called Second Design For A Window, implying that the work might have been made from anything, or sketched on paper, but the futon and spoons assembly is dubbed Some Afternoons, returning the viewer to the domestic sphere from which the objects were taken and, supposedly, stripped of meaning. Too tricksy? Perhaps, but there’s something satisfying, or pleasantly frustrating, in the way Smith refuses to be pinned down, which matches the way he denies any attempt to find meaning in the apparently meaningful objects he arranges and adapts, only to remind us of that meaning.

This month also marks Mary Mary’s foray into publishing, with books by Karla Black and Lorna Macintyre, the first in what gallery director Hannah Robinson hopes to become an annual series of publications by artists on her roster. This is a good move. Few fans of contemporary art can afford to buy work, even by emerging artists, and artists books offer a chance to own and collect pieces by the artists they admire without breaking the bank. Black’s large format book Mistakes Made Away From Home offers a survey of the past three years of her practice, with installation views and close-ups of her room-sized abstract sculptural pieces, which marry together sheets of cellophane, polythene and paper with hand cream, petroleum jelly and make-up. There’s a freewheeling essay, too, which opens with a tongue-in-cheek assessment of Carla Bruni’s taste in handbags, slips into a discussion of third wave feminism, and ends with Black’s manifesto for making art. Macintyre takes a very different approach. Instead of cataloguing past exhibits, her Fourteen Drawings is a set of new works, making up a book that is a work in itself. Each page contains an a photograph created without a camera. Rather than following the deliberate placing of objects on photographic paper pioneered by Man Ray and Lee Miller, Macintyre folds, tears and crumples the paper itself, making two dimensional records of three dimensional sculptures born of chance gestures. Beautifully printed and bound, both books bear up to repeated viewings, and while they’re no match for encountering Black and Macintyre’s works in the flesh, they’re certainly desirable objects in their own right.

This review was first published in The Herald on Friday 24th October, 2008.

Monica Sosnowska

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As you walk down Robertson Street in the city centre, between the pawnbrokers on the corner and the office block that houses The Modern Institute, there’s a scrappy plot of land on the right. It’s been empty and fenced off for years and years, the sign promising imminent redevelopment failing to deliver while weeds grow, and passers by use it as a great big litter bin.

Now, it looks like a construction company has finally sprung into action on the disused site. Foundations have been struck, concrete has been poured, and two huge steel beams, seven metres tall cast a shadow over the building site.

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That’s probably what the new activity looks like to a passer by glancing over their shoulder, at least, but the metal and concrete forms are part of a new sculpture by Monica Sosnowska. A closer look reveals that, though the materials are authentic, there’s something not quite right about this structure. For one thing, the ground around it hasn’t been cleared, and there’s no sign of the usual scaffolding. For another, you don’t need to know much about the construction industry to guess that plonking two girders into a pile of concrete probably isn’t the best or safest way to make a start on a tower block.

There’s something funny about the scale of the piece, too. For all its imposing heft, the thing looks like a model for something much larger, thanks to a sort of pathway shaped into the side of the rounded-off pyramid of concrete at the base of the piece which.

Sosnowska isn’t building, then, she’s borrowing forms from the building trade and doing away with their usual function. To what end? I’m not sure. Towers are usually optimistic things, and they often result in unintended consequences, from Babel to the Le Corbusier-inspired social housing of post-war Britain, and Sosnowska’s edifice, reaching up the heavens only to be abandoned midway through its making, certainly fits that pattern. More prosaically, the piece seems prescient - given the current economic climate, it isn’t hard to imagine unfinished buildings becoming a familiar sight.

This ambiguity is typical of Sosnowska’s work, which began with an interest in the standardised reconstruction of her native Poland after World War II, and now takes a more general investigative approach to buildings, in terms of the forms they take, the stuff they are made of, and their capacity to trigger intellectual and emotional responses. Sometimes, these investigations are little short of aggressive. Late last year, Sosnowska filled the upper floor of Edinburgh’s Talbot Rice gallery with strips of industrial rubber sheeting that hung densely from the ceiling, treating visitors brave enough to enter the work to a claustrophobic, confusing journey through the space. The last time she exhibited at The Modern Institute, back in 2004, the gallery was filled with a strange, roving tube-like structure finished in municipal brown paint and dotted with small entranceways, which forced viewers to find routes through and around it. In the Polish Pavilion at the 52nd Venice Bienale, her work 1:1 was a huge model of a building’s skeleton, forced into too small a space, and buckling under its own weight.

Inside the gallery Grill is a continuation of the themes explored in these past works, an architectural feature that runs amok. At its centre, there’s a perfectly functional, rather pretty security grill set into a window frame. But it has gone to seed, sprouting a tangle of intersecting steel wire tendrils that thrust out into space, embedding themselves into the floor, walls and ceiling. Like those rubber strips at Talbot Rice, or the large scale installation that once graced this gallery, Grill is an infestation, something that is growing out of control in the room, making the space worse than useless - to reach the sheets of paper listing the works on show, visitors have to gingerly step over and duck under the work. This is a fairly unpleasant experience, and a fraught one - the piece is a valuable work of art, after all, not something you want to trip on or bash into - but Grill is also a beautiful piece. That conflict is at the heart of this strand of Sosnowska’s practice, which she has described as ‘anti-architecture’: her work does everything that architecture shouldn’t do, making spaces that are aesthetically pleasing but that lack function or function actively against the people that inhabit them. This is more than a d├ętournement of architectural language, it’s a critique of architectural failure, a prickly satire of the Modernist experiment, the Utopian vision which, diluted and misunderstood, resulted in grim housing schemes and crumbling prefabs, structures that worked on the drawing board but failed on site.

For all that, Sosnowska shows a fondness for the materials and structures that she appropriates, questions and satirises. The last two works here are small, controlled, less obviously site-specific, and far from aggressive. On a window ledge L Profile is a tiny three-pronged sculpture modelled after a device used in construction to control the right angles of a building. One of its edges is irregular, as if it has been teased apart, impossibly, by human hands, a suggestion reinforced by the presences of the small, shaped blobs of metal that lie beside it. A reminder, perhaps, that, for all the organic, uncontrolled nature of Grill, it has been precisely designed and built. Beside the entrance to the gallery sits Crates with Concrete, a group of three plastic crates that have been filled up with lumpy concrete. These are studies in the properties of two materials, to be looked at and appreciated, and they make no attempt to control the space around them. And there’s even a little joke embedded in the work: the crates bear the logo of the Barr brand, which inevitably calls to mind the Irn Bru slogan, ‘made in Scotland from girders’.

These quiet works may operate on a different level to the aborted building site outside in the street, or the uncomfortable reconfiguration of space offered by a work like Grill, but they further what seems to be Sosnowska’s main aim, to prompt her audience into considering architecture in new ways, questioning its purpose and examining its effects. She succeeds at this. After seeing this show, you won’t look at the buildings around you in the same way again.

Monica Sosnowska is at The Modern Institute until 8th November.

This review was first published in The Herald on Friday 17th October , 2008.