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

Claire Stephenson: Bandaged Heads

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Bandaged Heads, an ex­hib­i­tion of new work by Glasgow-based artist Claire Steph­en­son, is a very peculiar pro­pos­i­tion. It’s the sort of show that raises and dashes ex­pect­a­tions, proffers clues to winning the prize of un­der­stand­ing without revealing the rules of the game, and, in the end, offers nothing but un­cer­tainty. In other words, if you like your art to leave you wanting more, and enjoy puzzling away at a problem for its own sake, it’s a fas­cin­at­ingly twisty set of ul­ti­m­ately un­know­able works. If, though, you like to leave a gallery sated and settled, with questions posed and happily resolved, dis­ap­point­ment could be in store, and the winking ex­am­in­a­tion of per­for­m­ance, artifice and lives lived at the heart of this show might prove more irritant than balm.

In the first gallery, there are four oval forms on the wall; the titular Bandaged Heads, if that’s what they are. Each has a surface of in­ter­lock­ing and layered wood and plywood fragments, pre­su­m­ably off-cuts or pieces prised from found furniture. This crude form of marquetry is, in Steph­en­son’s hands, re­mark­ably eloquent. The gaps left between the thin slivers of wood conjure an urge to peel back the surface and look beneath. Faint sug­ges­tions of painted colour give the various forms, which at first glance seem blank, identical, a hint of character - a pink-tinged panel might well be hiding a bloodied mouth, a pock-marked surface suggests that some un­speak­able substance is set to seep through, the fact that one oval is smaller than the rest even raises the pos­s­ib­il­ity that the four are a family, sitting for a very un­con­ven­tion­al portrait.

If, that is, you take Steph­en­son at her word, and blithely assume that these works are indeed bandaged heads. An oblique hint in the rather excitable text written by Susannah Thompson to accompany the show raises the pos­s­ib­il­ity that the ovals might be too regular to represent human faces hidden, and that the ‘bandages’ might be obscuring a set of mirrors. In which case, could Steph­en­son be bandaging the heads of her viewers? A third pos­s­ib­il­ity (the prosaic truth, in fact): there is nothing behind the bandages, and Steph­en­son is, thanks to her ap­par­ently de­script­ive title, simply raising pos­s­ib­il­it­ies, ex­press­ing a tension between the re­p­res­ent­a­tion­al and the abstract, with meaning left as an exercise for the reader.

In the second, larger space next door, there are two more heads (or mirrors, or simply forms), much larger this time, and looming over two figures, which loom in turn over the viewer.

The figures are Miss Verily-Existant and Miss Quite-Tran­s­cend­ent, a pair of ‘ex­ist­en­ti­al drag queens’. These cardboard cut-outs are, though flat as pancakes, dis­t­inc­tly sculp­tur­al. Each has the head of a porcelain doll, with rouched costumes - one calling to mind a clown, the other a little girl’s imagined queenly glamour after an afternoon at the dressing-up box - that are made up of repeated sections culled, ap­par­ently, from medieval church sculp­tures.

The pair have appeared in past works by Steph­en­son, too. At Tender Scene, a group show at Stirling’s Changing Room gallery, they took the form of tiny, detailed collages, in glorious full colour, standing de­l­ic­ately beside sinister wooden machinery of unknown purpose. So, the artifice piles up in layers: crude re­p­res­ent­a­tions of human faces are grafted to collaged bodies, and dressed in drag, only to be presented here at a further remove, pho­to­cop­ied, blown up beyond life-size and arranged in ex­tra­vag­antly camp poses.

But how do these monstrous creatures relate to the blind and bandaged heads? It seems that Steph­en­son is on course to create a new kind of static theatre, or alternate world, in which she provides the players, and the audience too. In each of the two galleries at Sorcha Dallas, the sculp­tur­al works on show are ac­com­pan­ied by drawings bearing the titles of each in­stal­l­a­tion, rendered in text re­min­is­cent of woodblock printing or early type. At first these seem a little redundant, af­ter­thoughts to the main event, but they might be more than that; playbills offering a whispered, winking in­vit­a­tion to observe unseeing eyes watching a private drag queen drama play out.

If so, Steph­en­son has wrapped another, invisible, bandage around her work, putting viewers in the awkward position of being thrown into a per­for­m­ance they have not asked to take part in, lacking the ar­ti­fi­ci­al armour that Miss Verily-Existant and Miss Quite-Tran­s­cend­ant use to ward off the world. This is clever stuff (too clever by half, perhaps) and, ul­ti­m­ately, the strength in Steph­en­son’s work is down to her knack for present­ing simple, seemingly slight pieces that slowly offer up a tangled set of un­re­solved philosph­ic­al arguments. If nothing else, it seems safe to say that this will be the only show this year in which seven foot drag queens will embody Heidegger’s tenet of ‘throwness’ and an unhealthy dose of Ki­er­kegaar­d­i­an anxiety.