...comes the spirit

Jerwood Gallery 21st April - 4th June 2000


“Well, how did I get here?” asks David Byrne in Once in a lifetime, his ode to the dislocated, post-modern subject. Stripped of any sense of origin, his bemused narrator drifts in an out of the here and now, attempting to fix his own precarious sense of identity, of where he’s come from and where he’s going.  Failing to find an explanation for his predicament, he withdraws into a state of drifting, atemporal stasis.

It’s a condition which seems to preoccupy ‘…comes the spirit’, and its curator Stephen Hepworth, insofar as it tentatively approaches the uncertain business of defining a ‘movement’, in a scene where any movement is attenuated by a combination of historical amnesia and critical atrophy.  In his contributions to the catalogue essay, Hepworth enumerates the ‘Generation 4’ that he believes these artists belong to; ‘Freeze, Wonderful Life, Something’s Wrong and Heart and Soul; 1988-1999.’ Not that these generations form a genealogy, wherein later ones develop from or react to the concerns of preceding ones.  Instead of the historical progression of ‘movements’, an ahistorical succession of ‘moments’, in which each grouping emerges at the point when, as Hepworth puts it, ‘the [previous] conversation implodes, and all goes silent... until the whispering starts...’

The artists in ‘…come the spirit’ may not all have been present in ‘Heart and Soul’, but its spirit, as they say, lives on.  Common to much of the work is a taste for decoration and high craft, low-art technique on one hand, and a corrupted revival of the formal qualities of 20th century high modernism.   Much is made of the over-wrought decoration; in his interventions in the catalogue text, Michael Wilson invokes Des Esseintes, the hyper-aesthete protagonist of J.K. Huysmans’ supremely fin de siècle novel of 1884, A Rebours. The comparison is descriptive rather than critical, but it expresses something of the airless and cloying quality of much of the show, emphasised by the sickly fragrance of Eva Rothschild’s Dissappearer, 1998-2000, which fills the main gallery.  This little cluster of slow burning incense sticks repeats the acid yellows and pinks of Rothschild’s large woven Day-Glo photocopies, which criss-cross already indecipherable blow-ups of vague, sinister figures into epileptic double-images of mute, anaesthetic horror.  A less sinister, though still disconcerting experience of coloured intoxication is to be had in Geerten Verheus’ installation Nothing Really Matters, 2000, where a room has been filled with the kind of ribbon curtains normally hung singly across kitchen doors.  The density of the ribbons make it impossible to see anything other than their coloured verticals, offering a carnivalesque re-immersion into colour theory; a child-pleaser if nothing else.

The obsessive use of craft technique is taken to a high kitsch extreme in Enrico David’s needle-and-thread canvases of exotic and mysterious androgynes. If anything, they make me think of the kind of tableaux that must furnish the turgid fantasies of the characters played by Fernando Rey, in any of Luis Bunuel’s satires on middle-class repression, yet these star-struck, tastelessly tasteful victims of glamour seem only reinforce rather than lampoon their crass fetishism, bypassing any critical formal or cognitive dialogue, straight to the collector’s mantelpiece. Des Esseintes’ ghost is not far away.

The incursion of decoration on the austere but jaded face of ‘serious’ art is further twisted in the works by Richard Reynolds and Lolly Batty.  Reynolds has filled a 12 metre wall with Immigrant, 2000, a colour pencil drawing of a tree’s trunk and roots as they penetrate a grassy ground.  It’s a light but engaging gesture which manages to retell the cubist convergence of representational and picture plane as a semantic joke, so that the represented ‘ground’, by the shallow perspective of the drawing, converges with the actual ‘ground’ of the wall. Get it? The tree, thus rooted in the gallery wall, is an immigrant of sorts, though whether the borders between the amateur and the artful are still being manned is a moot point.

In the same space Batty’s Untitled A & B (Pavilion), 1998-2000, two large white cuboid forms sculpted in polystyrene, spiral away from their minimalist point of reference by developing mutated projections from each face, baroque extrusions which throw the inviolable white cube into arabesque involutions.  Modernism never produced anything quite as dull as a perfectly white cube however, which makes Batty’s multiple variations a little disingenuous, inasmuch as the distorted recollection of formalist sculpture’s reductio ad absurdum licenses their return to it as an object to be ‘sculpted’ in the conventional sense. 

This strategy, whilst a popular one in the ‘Heart and Soul’ generation of sculpture, has it’s limits; the constant referencing of modernism’s ‘greatest hits’ signals a casual disinterest in the critical and practical contexts of 20th century art, whilst the half-cynical, half-fascinated fetishizing of its appearances insulates it from the grandiose claims and responsibilities of its forebears, whilst nevertheless guaranteeing that what you’re looking at is indeed ‘art’.

Roger Hiorns’ various pendant, foam-emitting ceramic vessels however manage succinctly rework the dialogue between representation and formal self-reference in a manner which neither loses sight of precedent, nor is content with a mere nostalgic replay of historical ciphers.  Whilst they make no overt gesture to ‘sculpture’, neither do they align themselves with cultural forms external to it, and their autonomy stems not from a purification of form but paradoxically, by its reinterpretation as a question of function; hanging in formation like an alien ambassadorial delegation, the columns of foam that slowly issue from them suggest a functional utility which serves no purpose but their own. There’s undoubtedly an amusingly onanistic undertone to these proceedings, but this only serves to reinforce the sense that these objects owe their existence neither to the context of the gallery nor the pre-existing world beyond.

If Hiorns’ sculpture manages to free itself from the second-order references to craft and decorative practice by redefining them on its own terms, Polly Staple’s fridge magnet panels throw themselves into a make-or-break assault on the division between personal taste and general aesthetic value. The steel panels of A Thousand Words and Double Degas, both 2000, present agglomerations of cultural paraphernalia; ribbons, sequins, postcards of impressionist paintings, rodeo kings, motorcycle acrobatic teams, pom-poms – a magpie collection of everything spangly and exuberant. Their interest lies in the sense that the artist’s subjective fascination with these forms is itself being put under critical scrutiny.  Though there’s no inherent virtue to their open-ended speculation, and whilst their conclusions are inevitably provisional, they nevertheless engage the viewer in a dialogue about the difference between ‘that’s gorgeous!’ and ‘this is better than…’ in sharp contrast to the hyper-resolved formal gadgetry of much of the other work, Staple’s panels hint at an art that can hold ‘high’ and ‘low’ cultural forms, and sensual and cognitive responses, in productive tension, in a form which embodies the process of that tension, rather than merely illustrate or impose it on the viewer.  Instead of nostalgically asking ‘how did I get here?’ it might be time for the ‘Heart and Soul’ generation to ask; ‘Where does that highway go to?’



Published in Art Monthly no237, June 2000 back to top


all material copyright JJ Charlesworth 2009 and original publishers where indicated