Letter From LONDONby Sherman Sam
Quiet Revolution: A Hayward Touring Exhibition
Milton Keynes Gallery, Milton Keynes, England July 4 – August 30, 2009
Just an hour outside London, the Milton Keynes Gallery is collaborating in a new Hayward Touring venture that could provide a quiet revolution of its own: a trilogy of curatorial opens intended to support young UK-based curators. This first one, Quiet Revolution, curated by Chris Fite-Wassilak, is a show of witty and instinctive assemblages and sculptures made from found objects. From Matt Calderwood's “Span”, a freestanding structure constructed from buckets, boxes and shovels, to “Heavy New Look” by Alice Channer, a long piece of wool refolded and draped in an L-shape from floor to ceiling, and David Beattie's “Arc II”, half a hula-hoop glued to a mirror set on the floor, Fite-Wassilak describes his choices as “a series of open-ended experiments in material form, sculptural doodles that begin to sketch out ways of approaching the world,” thus providing a premise as wide-ranging as the ages and nationalities of the artists in the show. Yet the works possessed a consistency of balance and wit—not quite humor but an amusement with the way things can be made from the objects around us. Matt Calderwood's “Plank”, for instance, consisting of a piece of wood balanced on one end by a bucket of water. Installed high on a wall separating two galleries, it just allows gravity to make the plank level. Like Channer’s hanging, these are simple measures, using gravity and form to great effect. The tall but square architecture of the two galleries occupied by this show further accentuates their physical materiality—think “Unmonumental” at the New Museum.
Quiet Revolution, almost an oxymoron, refers to the notion of gentle change, but also hints at an underlying political motif—that is, political in the sense that it engages with the world, our physical, everyday, thing-filled world. If the work selected here possesses a certain humility, often rendered poetic by its feel for material, it strives toward a spirit distinctly different from that of Arte Povera. Joëlle Tuerlinckx's 1989 “Water Drops Line”, for example, one of the most ephemeral pieces in the show, is merely droplets of water on a diagonal string . It is almost nothing, yet when the light catches these drips of water moving down the string, “Water Drops Line” offers a simple moment of gravity-pulling poetry.
These are all artists who make art out of things in the world, and it is this quality of transforming the ordinary into something near-extraordinary that comprises the political stance of the curator. Ever since Picasso glued a piece of chair caning and a rope around a collage in 1912 and Duchamp stuck a bicycle wheel on a stool the next year, everything in the world from then on became a possible work of art. Conversely, every artwork became part of our world rather than posing as a window into another reality. Fite-Wassilak’s seems to suggest that this group of bricoleurs are different from past masters in that they provide a quality of “uselessness”. No doubt this is a trait that most art possesses, in its lack of functional or monetary, but I suspect that Fite-Wassilak is thinking of a very Bataillian notion of an unrecoverable economy—his accursed share—that is wasted on luxury or war. This is not an extraordinary show, it is exceptional just because it seeks out the extraordinary: moving just beyond the everyday. More unmonumental than Unmonumental, it offers a snapshot of one possibility among the myriad open to today’s artists. It is just a question of gravity, balance and wit.
Alice Channer: Worn-work
The Approach, London, England June 25 – August 2, 2009
If Fite-Wassilak’s group show chose to accentuate the material aspects of the artist’s work, then Alice Channer’s solo show of fabric pieces, Worn-work, seems to play on the notions of wearing, wearing down and wearing in. Her work takes its point of departure from design history, specifically from material and fashion. This is not to say that the work is a commentary or critique of design or the fashion world, rather Channer seems to be more physical and intuitive in the nature of her response. She seems to take a Minimalist approach to her material and combine it with an instinct for metonym and design.
Prominent on the walls of the gallery are also several large, floor-to-ceiling, unframed drawings created by joining sheets of paper on which Channer has drawn seersucker patterns with graphite and water. The results are large L-shaped “reliefs”, with the paper undulating from the application of water. Somewhat like wallpaper, they appear at first bland in the faintness of her graphite application, which accentuates their shape and relief-like quality, much in the spirit of early Tuttle. Despite their size, they possess a delicateness and vulnerability. They seem worn, second-hand, as if the process of replication had used up the idea, thus leaving us with the art.
National Gallery of Canada June 24 – September 20, 2009
Thomas Nozkowski has been making small abstract paintings in a landscape format for some forty years. There was a time when the only way to see one was to scour art magazines or ring his gallery every few years, then fly to Manhattan. Now within the space of 12 months, he has shown in London, a survey of his early work opens this fall at Yale as well as a print retrospective at SUNY Ulster, and, most importantly, there is a painting retrospective in Ottawa. For an artist in his sixties, it seems a little late for a retrospective, but then again, in a less hyped-up era, this would have been just the right moment to take stock of a career.
Packed into three large rooms, the exhibition unfolds more or less chronologically, with the more recent, slightly larger pieces grouped into the final space. With the earliest dating from 1987, this survey covers approximately twenty years with some sixty objects. At quick glance, they seem to move from the “moldy” and “opaque” to a more emotive and exuberant mode. In fact there seems to be a greater openness, facility, and even happiness in the more recent pieces.
Marjorie Welish has very appropriately described the isolated figures sitting in the middle of a scumbled or melted field painted on canvas board as “vexed silhouettes”. These shapes figure predominately in the earlier work as torn or punctured forms, linear structures and, of course, silhouettes. There’s even a glaring red square centered on a scraped and mottled ground (perhaps an existential Malevich homage? Or critique?). They play with the organic and geometric, the diagrammatic and descriptive—all at once. It would appear that, in the past decade, these forms have given way to fields of “shapes,” as if the silhouettes had been so stretched or inflated that they had come to take up all the picture space. In one case, curly white comma-shapes spin around the edges, emphasizing a nearly “empty” centre—suggesting a plane view or a cave-like space, like an Indian miniature. It is as if his vantage point has moved closer or further away, giving us either a macro or micro view of his “subject.” Nozkowski has mentioned that over time his work has shifted from a sense of “thing-ness” to a sense of “place-ness”. His is a figure/ground structure that has long been subdued in the language of abstraction, due to the metaphysical and expansive grand narrative of the Abstract Expressionists or the formal and empirical attitude of the Minimalist and Post-Painterly painting. In effect this figure/ground nature hints at a narrative, and in locating the painting’s “subjects” in the world, these Nozkowskis tantalize the viewer with the possibility of a tale, which he then frustrates or sublimates through abstraction.
No one makes abstraction quite like this. They are unironic, and not metaphysical, they are not icons, and neither are they non-representational. There is no semiotics or code to be found here. They are descriptive without describing, emotional without emoting. If he had been born earlier and been a sculptor, Nozkowski could well have figured in what Lucy Lippard termed, “Eccentric Abstraction” in 1966—her affront to the Greenbergian and Minimalist models. Eccentric Abstraction offered “an improbable combination of this death premise (of formalism and Minimalism] with a wholly sensuous, life-giving element ... it introduces humour into the structural idiom...” Nozkowski’s paintings are both idiosyncratic and eccentric, but this should not marginalize the nature of his achievement. He claims that the ability to find such interesting and varied “solutions” comes from the fact that his paintings are in fact derived from his experiences in the world; one would guess from both memory and emotion. Take note that this is Nozkowski’s point of departure, rather than his means of exchange. He has no interest in the viewer “finding” the source material, yet it seems to me key that we know he paints from “life.” He is locating abstraction in a humble place, in our world. Art does not come from art, it comes from life; it is just the language of art that we need to make art. As the curator and the museum’s director, Marc Mayer so precisely phrases it, “their aboutness is manifest, but their what-ness is occult.”
For Nozkowski, the small scale of his paintings is a political point. He says that his “initial reason for working in this format was political. [He] wanted to create paintings that didn't require institutions for their exhibition—ones that could hang in the apartments of my friends. That went against the big mode of the 50s and 60s.” Hence it is not the politics of Barbara Kruger, Leon Golub, or even Cheri Samba, rather this is a politics with a small “p”. One which still applies today, and with so much corporate culture around us perhaps more so. It is a politics with a respect to the viewer; that is art that does not dictate, rather it demands an engagement. Nozkowski is interested in a sense of “wonderment”, that awe we feel when we connect with visual objects and nature. This is what I believe Mayer is referring to when he speaks of Nozkowski’s “sublime democracy”.
Sherman Sam is a writer and artist based in London and Singapore.