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

September 2007 Archives

Scott Myles’ third show at the Modern Institute is a curious one. It offers a welter of contradictions, a flurry of loosely expressed connections both to art history and to Myles’ own practice, and, taken as a whole, verges on the bewildering.

The show opens with a set of four flat sculptures, affixed to the gallery walls by the edge. Each is made from aluminium, with decorative surfaces, marbled in pretty pink and sickly violet hues. The marbling is, in turn, overlaid by matte black screen-printed sections, suggestive of letter-forms. Between them, lying on the floor, is a bronze cast of a bog-standard stackable plastic chair, its surface painted with crude approximations of light and shadow. Next door in the second gallery, another bronze, this time a stern pillar is similarly overpainted, and a simple triangular shelf supports its own mirror image, and both are marbled, this time in monochrome black and white.

All display a sort of restless to-and-fro of ideas. The crafted marbling of the wall-sculptures denies their minimalist heft, and, while their placement suggests signage, that suggestion is denied by the illegibility of the printed letters. The chair is upended, immediately calling to mind Duchamp’s fountain, even though it is not a readymade, but a bronze, offering up the old chestnut of turning a quotidian object into a monumental, museum-bound sculpture. Then there’s the crude painted coating of the chair and it’s companion column, a sort of expressionist gloss obliterating the other allusions contained within the work. It’s as if Myles is running amok, latching onto art movements and pressing them together according to some arcane, impenetrable scheme of his own devising.

Some works also seem to require a familiarity with Myles’ past practice, which has ranged far and wide, from work firmly in the conceptual camp to performance to the sculptural pieces of the sort seen here. For a past project, Myles collected posters given away at exhibitions by the late Cuban artist Félix González-Torres, drew on the reverse side and displayed the results in perspex cabinets. And, for an earlier show at the Modern Institute, he presented a bus shelter, its perspex siding slathered with white paint. Now, in the second room of the Modern Institute’s main gallery, we find a perspex display case, slowly revolving on a plinth, some of its panels imprinted with smoky black whorls of paint. It’s possible that Myles is simply fond of perspex for its material qualities, but, more likely, he’s quietly building a set of associations between his work, past and present, so that, say, the tension between acquired readymades - the bus shelter, the bookcase, even the González-Torres posters - and Myles’ drawing and painting hand is emphasised over time. Does it matter if a visitor to this latest show is unfamiliar with Myles’ prior art? Maybe. Without this hint of subtle continuity, of an ongoing conversation between seemingly separate works, the untitled display case feels like an awkward addition to the show, tenuously linked to its fellows by those wisps of black, but ultimately adrift.

Similarly adrift, for any viewer, are a pair of works relating to Lawrence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. Sterne’s piling up of reference and allusion, his immediately appreciable, overt influences, the slow revelation of structure through the association of ideas in Tristram Shandy, and even the slow serial publication of the novel are an obvious fit for Myles interlocking, evolving practice, but his treatment of the novel as a source is surprising. Hidden away in the gallery’s office space is an etching based on a full stop from an edition of Tristram Shandy. It is barely recognisable as such and, in fact, the pulpy surface of the paper and the spreading ink on its surface call to mind, of all things, an indistinct portrait of an 18th century gentleman. Outside in the gallery proper hangs a large colour photograph that initally appears completely blank, but on closer inspection reveals another full stop at its centre, this time actual size, and taken, the title tells us, from a bootleg edition of Sterne’s opus. Perhaps this is a new, winking approach to the readymade, elevating the status of a humble piece of punctuation. But, if that’s the case, what are we to make of Myles blowing up the ‘official’ mark to monumental scale, and putting the bootleg version in its tiny place? He might be underlining the authenticity or otherwise of works like the chair sculpture, he might be adopting Tristram Shandy as an influence in as neutral a way as possible, or he might be up to something that will become clear, or at least less opaque, in two or three years time, as future installations return to Sterne.

On paper, this might all sound rather tiresome, but in the flesh the game of reference and counter-reference Myles plays is hugely appealing: the work of untangling the ideas behind these objects is its own reward.

This review was first published in The Herald on September 28th, 2007.

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.

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.

David Rokeby at CCA

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For twenty years David Rokeby has been at the vanguard of new media arts, matching technological know-how with conceptual rigour, and, as the title of this retrospective suggests, a firm focus on the relationship between humans and their computers.

When you enter the gallery that houses the first piece on show, Taken, the rear wall is a grid of blurred faces rendered in grainy black and white. Then, as you study the wall of unrecognisable people, the installation springs into action, switching to a dual screen format. On the right you see yourself, surrounded by the ghost images of previous visitors, and, as time passes, by ghost images of yourself, seconds before. This is an uncanny experience, observing oneself being observed, and it gets worse. A white box appears on the orange screen, homes in on your head, and, at the same moment, the screen to the left displays one of those grainy monochrome faces, blown up to wall-size, this time your own. There are captions, too, reading ‘under observation’, ‘nervous’, or, a little less threateningly, ‘disinterested’. The piece can be turned into a game - moving into the spaces once occupied by previous visitors is good fun - but that feeling of discomfort never quite dissipates. It can be seen as a work about memory, too, with Rokeby’s system granting the room an awareness of its inhabitants, past and present. But, ultimately, Taken is a political piece, with particular resonance in the UK, where there is one surveillance camera for every fourteen people, and trials of Talking CCTV have brought Orwellian control to our city centres with nary a word of protest. In other words, Taken is like a walk down the average British high street, the only difference being a visceral awareness of being watched, an awareness that takes time to fade after leaving the gallery.

Thankfully, Taken is followed by a much more pleasing examination of our relationship with technology. The Giver Of Names emphasises the logic-bound unsophistication of computers. Gallery-goers are asked to choose an object from a selection of objects, mostly toys, and place it on a plinth. The system then analyses the object’s characteristics and matches them to a database of words and phrases, outputting poetic phrases on a screen. I chose a pink child-size Wellington boot, and the computer, after a brief pause, said, ‘A boot withdraws from the brownish boot.’ A plastic bowling pin provoked a rather more peculiar response: ‘The next conservative on the left is tenderised by a bowling pin’. Rokeby’s aim here is, in exposing the faulty thinking of a machine, to force us to think again about our own thought processes, the lightning-quick flow of associations provoked each time we register the presence of an object or, for that matter, a work of art.

Machine For Taking Time is poetic too, even elegiac. Images of a garden, hundreds of them taken over a three year period, hove into view, the camera repeatedly panning from left to right. And, while space remains constant, Rokeby breaks time, his software morphing a bright summer’s day into a snowbound scene, unnaturally mingling the seasons, turning the regular irregular, bending linear time to the artist’s will. Like The Giver Of Names, this is a piece of technology intended to make us question our relationship with the world, upending the certainties of perception.

The last work in the CCA’s main gallery is Seen, a four screen work that draws together the main threads that run through Rokeby’s work. Four screens show four processed views of the Piazza San Marco, Venice. In one, all movement has been removed, leaving only the square itself, and a few stationary tourists. In another, the reverse is true, with nothing but movement visible. The twin central screens, meanwhile, offer almost painterly views, one tracking movement through space, the other showing slow-moving waves of motion in a constant state of ebb and flow. Once again, the computer’s monomaniacal vision is clashed with the human, and, once again, Rokeby has us question the validity of our perception, showing it to be a mental construct rather than a true representation. The passage of time, and its interpretation through memory is contained in Seen, too, making for a work that is complex, but one that, thanks to the digital brushtrokes of the central screens, is also simply beautiful.

Last of all, housed in the CCA’s resource room, is Very Nervous System, a work that Rokeby has been revising since 1986. This system of sensors, synthesisers and speakers turns human presence and movement into sound. Wiggle a finger, and the walls emit digital squeaks, jig about a bit, and they bellow out a cacophony of metallic clangs and robotic whirrs. It’s a good piece to end the show with: after the paranoia-inducing Taken, and the often rather dry, clinical experimentation of other works, the Very Nervous System shows Rokeby’s playful side, with the invisible interface proving that man and machine can play together.