Houldsworth, 30th May – 6th July 2002
Contemporary art is currently obsessed with the world beyond its boundaries. In the commercial and aesthetic anxiety over the attentions of the media, or in the dialogue with the various forms of mainstream culture, or in the discussion of art’s supposed cultural and social responsibilities, or even as the recuperation of a confused politics of intervention, art’s legitimacy is often defined by the degree that it describes its intercourse with contexts other than its own, rather than the qualities that might make it different to experiences available elsewhere.
Such self-consciousness about art’s relation and integration are acutely felt in those practices that owe most to the traditional definitions of what separated art from everything else. The expansion of the most critical activity in art practice into situations of presentation not inherently bound to the gallery, has had a serious effect on the status and discourses of the commercial art object, the most interesting consequence of which has been the return to formal and material preoccupations in recent object art. Artists who reject the dogmatic limitations of art-object-as-critique, or agenda-driven representational discussions, or the dependency on the media for the visibility of art, have steadily returned to commodity art practices, with the consequence that questions of material, aesthetic and signification are regrouped to form a renewed if contentious interest in formalism, led unsurprisingly by painting and sculpture.
Such a return to an uncritical pop-formalism has obvious critical implications for the status of gallery-based work that relies on formal, rather than contextual aspects of presentation. It’s perhaps in response to such developments that ‘Reverberator’, curated by critic Michael Archer, attempts to outline an alternative juncture for the formal, narrative and contextual potential of gallery-based practice. Archer’s problem is summarised in the opening lines of the press release; ‘The art gallery is not an idealised space set apart from the real world. It cannot function in isolation from what exists beyond its walls. These walls are pierced and its space is plumbed and plugged into all that surrounds it. What comes in resonates, reverberates and bleeds out again.’
These are sophisticated questions, but they effectively boil down to a plea for more flexible relationship between the ongoing cultural separation of gallery art practice, and the demands for art to be critically engaged, ‘plugged into’, the cultural reality it inhabits. If this is the scale of ambition of ‘Reverberator’s undertaking, then Archer’s selection is necessarily provisional, and the solutions offered are carefully graded for their ability to firstly literalise, then enact the show’s point of contention.
Perhaps understandably, the unwieldy motifs of walled space and travel underpin Archer’s selection of works that literalise the concept of permeable and mobile boundaries of cultural space. This is particularly in evidence in work by Luisa Lambri and Franz Ackermann. Lambri’s photographs depict spaces within an austerely modern architectural interior, but their particular interest rests on the translucent fluted glass partitions that separate the inside from the obscured but sunny exterior, which although clearly present is never visible. Even forgetting the reflexive devices of photograph as surface and window, and the representational slide from the pictured space to the gallery in which the picture operates, Lambri’s images are a box-within-a-box that neatly opens Archer’s search for art that refers outside of itself whilst reflexively commenting formally on its own material presence and context.
The theme of displacement and imaginative journey reoccurs in Franz Ackermann’s photographic series Ruins I, 2000. Shots of various reisburo- travel agents- provoke both the recognition of geographical distance and the imaginative content of these mundane shopfronts as gateways to the faraway and the exotic. These are accompanied by Themroc, 2001, a print that collages Ackermann’s recurring urban-abstract motifs with maps of New York, below the grainy video image of a courtyard block, a gaping hole in one wall, that bears witness to some unspecified damage or attack. It’s a worse pun than it is an idea, but Ackermanns’ images, with their jet-set urban impressionism, suggest that artworks, however bound by their formal immediacy and context of presentation, are always imaginative ‘travel agents’.
Paul McDevitt’s Crackhouse Remembered, 2002, dodge from the here-and-now to the corruptible space between memory and reality: A series of small illustrations in acrylic on Post-It notes- a burnt-out car, troubling corners of some unwelcoming house or apartment, traces of graffiti that morph into 3D abstraction or decorative pattern- McDevitt’s comical attempts to ‘remind’ us to encounter the troubled reality of life outside, as if it were a small request not to forget to buy a pint of milk on our way back. In similar vein, Matthew Ritchie’s The Essential Diagrams, 2002, wall-vinyls that trace amalgamations of organic form and scientific equations with hints of everyday speech, echo with the half-remembered and the half-recognised.
Further on, Andre Cadere’s Barres de Bois rond (Portrait of Gilbert and George) stand in a pair against the wall. Cadere, who died in 1978, produced such multicoloured ‘rods’ to carry on planned walks, and notably to leave in galleries alongside other art works. Performance relics from another era, Cadere’s Barres cross sculptural presence with conceptual wit, energising the normal balance between artistic form and location, but not, one suspects, to the point where we might walk them back out of the gallery.
‘Reverberator’s reiteration of the transition between the rest of life and the art object/space is insistent to the point of didacticism, and its in this insistence that the show finds itself in a quandary. With all its osmotic metaphors of reverberation, resonance, bleed-through and translation, ‘Reverberator’ turns the problem of art’s separated responsiveness to the rest of experience into a kind of ethical performance of that very dynamic, minus the content that emerges when this happens for real. Such performativity has the paradoxical effect of constraining the work to a set of formalist criteria; content isn’t quite ‘avoided like the plague’ here, but it is suspended in a state of extreme self-consciousness. ‘Reverberator’s project attempts to develop an aesthetic of transition and dynamic exchange, forming poetic interrelations between form and context energised by the viewer’s investment in both art and the world outside the gallery. But the trouble may be that by anxiously promoting art’s ‘responsiveness’ and ‘interconnection’ with reality, and by conflating institutional separation with cultural segregation, ‘Reverberator’ unwittingly genuflects to the cultural orthodoxy that demands that art be ‘integrated’ and ‘responsible’. A less self-conscious art, more confident about its separation from culture, and independent enough to choose the manner of its response to the world outside, would paradoxically create a more energetic reverberation between art and the rest of life.
all material copyright JJ Charlesworth 2009 and original publishers where indicated