Roger Hiorns & David Musgrave

Marc Foxx, Los Angeles 15th February – 15th March

There are various ways of calling contemporary art to account for itself at the moment. These all turn on what relationships the work itself bear towards a wider set of social and cultural contexts, so you have art ‘about’, and art ‘engaged’, art that almost – but not quite - dissolves itself into other forms of social activity, or art that uses what is supposed to be culturally excluded as a critical stick to beat itself up with. What disappears in the habit of critical contextualisation is any speculative attention to the work’s immediate qualities and capacities, what might emerge if these other critical approaches are suspended, even for a moment. Crucially, looking for meaning emanating from the work outward, rather than implied from the critical context inward, is a process increasingly absent from both criticism and art works themselves.

Nevertheless, there are still artists whose main preoccupation is the potentiality of visual experience within the historical conventions of artistic form and presentation; in its combination of Roger Hiorns and David Musgrave, Marc Foxx gallery offered a moment of acute reflection on visual art’s current cultural ‘terms and conditions’, but one where the work started from a position of self-affirmation rather than self-critique. Hiorns and Musgrave’s widely differing approaches to drawing and sculpture nevertheless turned on a common axis, the artist as the producer of encounters between a viewer, and a work whose content refers neither to the artist nor to any wider cultural responsibility: In other words, the aesthetic agency of the work itself.

Of the two, Musgrave’s work is the most strongly analytical; Musgrave’s odd anthropomorphs have for several years probed the mutually exclusive exchange between art as representation and art as production process, a dichotomy which means that Musgrave’s humanoids are perpetually on the cusp of subject-hood or obliteration, through the various material transcriptions he employs in their formation. Musgrave’s new sculptures and drawings push the legibility of his figures to an unprecedented limit; each of the works is based on an unseen original, which is then enlarged and simulated in some entirely different material, a translation that only barely preserves the identity of its origin through the uncanny veracity of the reproduction. So Poured Figures Overlapping (all works 2003) can be seen as originating from a blot of overlaid coloured liquids, in the rough outline of a figure, enlarged and rendered in different sheets of coloured acrylic. It is only on closer observation that one notices that the admixtures between the ‘original’ colours are not the result of physical overlaying, but that the whole set of coloured intersections have been cut to form a single interlocking surface. These games of deception and recognition are fundamental to Musgrave’s works, as they divert the viewer’s resolution of a recognisable ‘subject’ (the human form) into a pursuit of the elusive ‘original’ of the work’s facture. Both content and form become subjects of ‘representation’, a metonymic conflation where the human subject as representation becomes materially subject to its own transcription, paradoxically calling into question its status as a subject, whilst reasserting it through its survival of the various stages of Musgrave’s formal processing. Musgrave’s complex and compelling ontological short-circuits, unlike its minimalist and conceptual forebears, internalise the dynamic between form and content, representation and manufacture, reference and self-reference on which the continued specificity of artistic practice can be played out.

Hiorns’ pieces are by contrast more attentive to context, less immediately hermetic, but only if one accepts that ‘context’ might define a similarly heterogeneous combination of cultural and artistic references fused to produce the work’s singularity. Hiorns’ primarily sculptural work is at first glance illegible; totemic structures and inexplicable combinations of elements form the basis of Vauxhall and Intelligence and Sacrifice, which sees the return of Hiorns’ Caro-referencing metal structure, this time fabricated in different gauges of perforated steel. A line of thistles, encrusted with Hiorns’ signature blue crystals adorns its front panel. Sense or meaning, such as it is in Hiorns’ works, is elliptical, elusive, downright fugitive, but as with Musgrave’s paradoxical intimations of the human subject, is nevertheless staged as if it were undeniably present. Unravelling such a work is process of historical dispersion and re-condensation; Caro’s 24 Hours, through which we might find pointers back to suprematism and constructivism, but with an austere and curiously authoritarian use of materials that speak of modernist ideals giving way to brute industrial force. All of this further complicated by the melancholic symbolist incursion of the down-pointing thistles, cold-clime survivors of northern Europe transfixed in a shell of mineral jewels. But Hiorns’ work doesn’t particularly depend on the possibility of such connections, even if they are plausible; the encounter with machined materials, the apparently purposive nature of Hiorns’ structures remove the viewer from relations of immediate ‘cultural’ references, but the austerity of his modernist motif is still troubled by the presence of adornment, a rivalry between the functional and the baroque that draws on society’s fetishist evaluation of manufactured objects. This tension between the functional and the sacred runs throughout Hiorns’ new work, and accentuates the exchange between a ‘public’ discourse of form couched in the polite sensuality of good design, with a more troubling and uncensored imaginary realm, which is nevertheless driven by an anonymous and not necessarily benign will, directly organising principles and material processes.

Neither Hiorns nor Musgrave care much for the conditions of culture and society, at least not to attest to it in the work itself. But neither do they participate in the increasingly inane unravelling of aesthetic ‘irresponsibility’ that has afflicted much formally driven American and British painting and sculpture. Neither are there references to pop culture or melancholic repeats of modernist optimism or ‘engaged’ conceptualism; Both Hiorns and Musgrave do however offer situations where visual experience is modulated both by aesthetic pleasure and conceptual work, where the conditions of intention and production that frame such practice are internalised by the work for the viewer, and where imagination and real experience crisscross one other as much as the line between art in galleries and everything else. Such work accounts for nothing but itself, but this itself calls to account activities that would wish away the ongoing separation of artistic practice from other forms of activity in a flurry of ‘engagement’ and ‘responsibility’.



First published in Art Monthly no back to top


all material copyright JJ Charlesworth 2009 and original publishers where indicated