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.