Work

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

Matthew Smith

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Matthew Smith makes art out of everyday things. He buys duvets and rolls them up tight, or arranges them on specially-con­struc­ted wooden stands, takes records from his col­lec­tion and tears off the front cover art, hunts down back issues of the NME, scrib­bling over the newsprint, and bleaches the colour out of pyjama tops before carefully folding them. Once, he put a nectarine on the floor of a gallery.

Many readers will, I imagine, be raising their eyebrows at that list of Smith’s past efforts, and, walking through the door of Mary Mary to be con­fron­ted by a spoon plonked on top of a piece of chipboard, that was my reaction too. But, after spending a bit of time with Smith’s as­sem­blies of com­mon­place, terribly mundane items, some of which he’s altered, but only a little bit, they turn out to be nothing short of en­gross­ing in their attempt to re­con­fig­ure the status of familiar objects, and rework ideas from past art movements in lowly materials.

The fact that Smith doesn’t appear to be doing very much with those materials ends up working in his favour, too. That piece of laminated chipboard, the sort of thing you see left out for the bin men after some cheap self-assembly shelving has collapsed under its own weight, is propped up on one edge, and the wooden spoon has been balanced perfectly on top, and the ar­range­ment looks so pre­car­i­ous that you’re afraid to tread too heavily on the gallery floor, in case the whole thing comes crashing down. This forces a careful in­spec­tion of the piece, which reveals a lot of little mysteries. It’s clear that Smith has de­lib­er­ately drizzled latex into the bowl of the spoon and along its handle, but did he make the seven marker pen lines on the reverse side of the chipboard slat, or affix the shreds of packing tape stuck to it? It’s im­pos­s­ible to tell, but the closer one looks at the piece, the more its two parts fade into the back­ground, losing their meaning, or any symbolism, and becoming con­stitu­ent elements of a sculp­tur­al work, relating to the space around them.

In the next room, there are more chipboard panels, and they prompt a similar process of re­co­g­n­i­tion, in­spec­tion, for­get­t­ing and re­v­el­a­tion. This time, there are seven boards balanced on top of each other, again pre­car­i­ously, one of which is a slightly different shade of off-white to the others. The surfaces are marked with more packing tape, and little drizzles of red resin, including a perfect little circle, which, from another artist might be taken as a cheeky reference to the red dots that mark works as sold. This time, once Smith’s choice of material has faded, the piece looks to be following in the footsteps of Donald Judd’s rigour­ously spaced stacks of prist­inely con­struc­ted metal forms.

Some of the pieces here don’t even trouble the viewer with the status of their com­pon­ents - there are two works made of folded towels, some coloured, some bleached, that are im­me­di­ately apparent as min­im­al­ist exercises examining colour and form.

Smith changes tack when he groups together a folded futon mattress, a wooden spoon, and a concrete cast of a wooden spoon. Smith is hardly the first artist to make casts of domestic objects, of course. But, where Rachel Whiteread presents negative space full of emotional resonance, or Bruce Nauman, casting the empty spaces beneath his chair back in the ’60s (a work later reprised by Whiteread), asks where space begins and ends, Smith doesn’t seem to be in­ter­es­ted in big questions, or prompting as­so­ci­a­tions, or even in the object he chooses to cast. To put it another way, Smith hasn’t made a little monument to spoons, he’s made a thing out of concrete, just as he’d rather we cast off any thoughts we might have about mat­tresses, or towels, or cheap furniture and focus instead on the formal as­so­ci­a­tions between these objects.

There is a sense that Smith is trying to have his cake and eat it too when it comes to his de­con­struc­tion and de­con­tex­tu­al­isa­tion of familiar objects. The titles he chooses suggests he’s more than aware of this. One of the towel pieces is called Second Design For A Window, implying that the work might have been made from anything, or sketched on paper, but the futon and spoons assembly is dubbed Some Af­ter­noons, returning the viewer to the domestic sphere from which the objects were taken and, sup­posedly, stripped of meaning. Too tricksy? Perhaps, but there’s something sa­t­is­fy­ing, or pleas­antly frus­trat­ing, in the way Smith refuses to be pinned down, which matches the way he denies any attempt to find meaning in the ap­par­ently mean­ing­ful objects he arranges and adapts, only to remind us of that meaning.

This month also marks Mary Mary’s foray into pub­l­ish­ing, with books by Karla Black and Lorna Macintyre, the first in what gallery director Hannah Robinson hopes to become an annual series of pub­lic­a­tions by artists on her roster. This is a good move. Few fans of con­tem­por­ary art can afford to buy work, even by emerging artists, and artists books offer a chance to own and collect pieces by the artists they admire without breaking the bank. Black’s large format book Mistakes Made Away From Home offers a survey of the past three years of her practice, with in­stal­l­a­tion views and close-ups of her room-sized abstract sculp­tur­al pieces, which marry together sheets of cel­lo­phane, polythene and paper with hand cream, petroleum jelly and make-up. There’s a free­wheel­ing essay, too, which opens with a tongue-in-cheek as­sess­ment of Carla Bruni’s taste in handbags, slips into a dis­cus­sion of third wave feminism, and ends with Black’s manifesto for making art. Macintyre takes a very different approach. Instead of cata­lo­guing past exhibits, her Fourteen Drawings is a set of new works, making up a book that is a work in itself. Each page contains an a pho­to­graph created without a camera. Rather than following the de­lib­er­ate placing of objects on pho­to­graph­ic paper pioneered by Man Ray and Lee Miller, Macintyre folds, tears and crumples the paper itself, making two di­men­sion­al records of three di­men­sion­al sculp­tures born of chance gestures. Beau­ti­fully printed and bound, both books bear up to repeated viewings, and while they’re no match for en­coun­ter­ing Black and Macintyre’s works in the flesh, they’re certainly desirable objects in their own right.

This review was first published in The Herald on Friday 24th October, 2008.