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

Frances Richardson: Internus

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Internus, a body of new work by Frances Richard­son takes as its starting point a panel from a predella, or al­tarpie­ce, at­trib­uted to the re­l­at­ively obscure, if prolific, 15th Century painter Neri di Bicci. Titled Archangel Raphael saving an attempted suicide, the small work shows the archangel hovering in midair, cutting the noose that grips the neck of a boy, then, in a later scene, leading the boy into a chapel.

Richard­son has extracted elements from di Bicci’s work, and fleshed them out into large-scale sculp­tures, giving viewers the un­set­t­ling im­pres­sion that they are walking through the enclosed world of of the painting and its narrative. Her choice of materials is curious, too. Almost all the work here is made of medium density fibre­board, a material chosen for its lack of art his­t­or­ic­al as­so­ci­a­tions, and one that provides a dull sheen of un­i­form­ity, em­phas­ising form over surface.

The show opens, though, with a floor sculpture that stands apart. The base of the piece, propped up at a low angle, is re­min­is­cent of those spindly plastic frames filled with component parts that make up the bulk of an Airfix model kit, but in reverse. Its surface is peppered with precision-cut outlines of munitions and armaments, with crude outlines of stealth bombers and their bombs flanking the dis­t­inc­tly sinister sil­hou­et­te of a grenade launcher, and, in­ev­it­ably, a pair of oil cans. Atop the military imagery lies a bundle of cloth bound up with string, a tiny shrouded figure awaiting burial.

I have half a mind to praise this piece, if only because avowedly political work is so thin on the ground, making the sight of a slice of good old-fashioned agitrop rather re­fre­sh­ing. But what is it saying? That bombing kill babies? An act which we all agree is appalling, un­con­s­cion­able? This vague protest calls to mind that episode of Father Ted, in which the hapless priests of Craggy Island rail in­e­f­fec­tu­ally against a blas­phe­m­ous film holding placards bearing the legend “Down with this sort of thing”. Richard­son might be taking the mick out of those sim­pl­ist­ic political pro­n­oun­ce­ments that reduce complex geo­pol­it­ic­al argument to howls of outrage, but I doubt it. The same goes for a grandi­lo­quent in­tro­duct­ory statement that adorns the Corn Exchange’s wall, an art-speak tongue-twister that has some very serious things to say about ‘the void’ and ‘thingness’, of the sort that land writers in Pseud’s Corner. But, again, there’s no hint of self-parody about it.

Thank­fully, as soon as Richard­son moves on to larger scale works, and gets stuck into di Bicci’s panel, things take a turn for the better.

The space is dominated by a larger-than-life vignette lifted from di Bicci’s tiny al­tarpie­ce. There is a set of floor­boards, which look as if they’ve been torn from the source painting and suffered for it, beside which sit a tipped-over stool, and a noose, cut by the sword of the Archangel Raphael. Raphael is absent, though it is easy to imagine his presence, and that of the suicidal boy, even if you’ve never seen the work on which Internus draws. This is true, too, of a bed tucked away in the corner of the gallery. Like the strag­gling edges of the floor­boards, it’s not even half a bed, with slats and struts ending suddenly, the clash between lumpen fibre­board solidity and sudden absence making it im­pos­s­ible to avoid filling in the gaps. Add a pillow crafted from cinema admission tickets, and all that lofty chat about ‘the void’ em­blazoned on the wall begins to make a bit of sense: Richard­son is in the business of making objects that are sim­ul­tan­eously present and absent, completed only when the ima­gin­a­tion of an audience is brought to bear on them.

In­com­p­lete objects are not her only tactic, either - the re­lent­less monotony of MDF is broken by visibly hand-crafted clay pieces, one set atop an otherwise pristine workbench, another threat­en­ing to topple from a high beam. Both are honed to a point with a crude grip at the opposite end. They might be tools, or weapons, and their ambiguous status combines with their seemingly careless placement to suggest the ghost of a narrative, just as the half-made bed and tapering floor­boards offer the ghost of an image.

It’s a shame that this body of work is on display at the Corn Exchange Gallery, which isn’t a gallery in the usual sense, but the foyer of a design company, complete with a busy reception desk ‘installed’ in amongst the art, and a constant hubbub emanating from the offices upstairs. On the one hand, it’s a fitting setting - given her use of MDF, it seems safe to assume that Richard­son is un­com­fort­able with art being viewed as just another designed consumer product, and the ornate beams of the restored building are dis­t­inc­tly church-like - but pieces like these, the best of which require and demand detailed ex­am­in­a­tion, not to mention long pauses for thought, deserve better.

This review was first published in The Herald on September 21st, 2007.