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

Nathan Coley at Doggerfisher

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You’ll need your wits about you when you step into do­g­ger­fish­er­ to take in Nathan Coley’s ex­hib­i­tion of new work. The Turner Prize nominee has marked the threshold with an oak beam, forcing the visitor to consider the very act of entering the gallery, and, on a more practical level, threat­en­ing to send them head over heels.

This is typical of Coley’s work. With a simple, re­strained gesture, he neatly draws attention on an un­con­sider­ed re­la­tion­ship with the built en­vir­on­ment, and the ex­per­i­ence of gallery-going in par­t­ic­u­lar, as if a liminal moment of an­t­i­cip­a­tion has been made flesh.

It is also a human and humorous piece, qualities that Coley’s un­er­r­ingly serious work sometimes lack, despite his tight focus on the physical, social and psy­cho­lo­gic­al re­la­tion­ships between people and places. The threshold is a pun of sorts - a re­co­g­n­i­tion of some visitors’ fear that ‘difficult’ con­tem­por­ary art might be out to trip them up - and, on a more visceral level, one can imagine a hapless caller stumbling over the thick oak beam in a flurry of silent slapstick, tumbling headlong into the next con­front­a­tion­al piece, Untitled (Barricade Sculpture).

Like the marked threshold, Coley’s barricade calls attention to space as much as it exists in space. It is not a lumpen au­thor­at­it­ive object, but an open, temporary one, almost fragile, made of slatted plywood panels on a timber frame. It is possible to see through it, but not to pass through it.

After this rather dis­qui­et­ing in­tro­duc­tion come the An­n­i­hil­ated Con­fes­sions, a series of pho­to­graphs of ornate con­fes­sion­als, almost entirely ob­l­it­er­ated by thick sprays of black or white paint. Coley might be concerned with making already private spaces so private that none may enter them, or secular denial of holy places, but, thanks to the heightened awareness of movement through space prompted by the threshold and barrier pieces, the first response to the Con­fes­sions is phsyical. It is im­pos­s­ible to ignore the ir­ra­tion­al urge to lean to one side so as to peep behind the rough curtain of paint that obscures the con­fes­sion­als, leading to an awkward dance with static images. By way of contrast, the shining fair­ground lights of Secular Icon in an Age of Moral Un­cer­tainty offer a moment of still con­sid­er­a­tion, without ever revealing anything ap­proach­ing meaning.

The ownership of spaces, be they public or private, is another key strand running through Coley’s practice and, with his usual economy, the status of the gallery is ques­tioned by twin light­boxes. One, labelled ‘here’ is in the ex­hib­i­tion space, another labelled ‘there’ is placed inside the gallery office. To see them both is to ac­k­now­ledge the barrier between the public and private spaces within the building, and to recognise the power re­la­tion­ship between passive, consuming visitors and active, providing gal­ler­ists.

Like all the works here, the two light­boxes reveal Coley to be in the business of ob­ser­va­tion and analysis, dis­til­la­tion and present­a­tion. Nothing is wasted here, and each seemingly simple gesture unfolds into a web of ideas, matched by an almost op­press­ive set of physical ma­n­ip­u­la­tions. This might not be art for the heart, but it certainly engages both body and mind.

This review was first published in The Herald in August, 2007.