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.