Letter from LEEDS
by William Corwin
Windows and Doors
Fiona Rae: Maybe you can live on the moon in the next century
LEEDS ART GALLERY | MAY 11 – AUGUST 26, 2012
Michael Dean: Government
HENRY MOORE INSTITUTE | APRIL 12 – JUNE 1, 2012
Fiona Rae: Maybe you can live on the moon in the next century at the Leeds Art Gallery (through August 26th) and Michael Dean: Government at the Henry Moore Institute (through June 17th) share little commonality beyond the fact that their exhibiting galleries are next door to each other, but both abundantly fulfill architectural tropes ascribed to the visual arts. Rae’s paintings are very much objects to be admired; windows into worlds in which she is mistress, giving the viewer over to a semi-recognizable, occasionally comforting, but mostly alien dreamscape. Dean’s sculpture lurks within the architecture, sensually affecting the gallery visitor in a distracted state, and sporadically forcing a physical confrontation.
Fiona Rae’s exhibition is a retrospective of the artist’s work from 2000 through 2011, featuring a selection of 17 canvases which differ markedly from her earlier work. The change is not so much in Rae’s style of painting, or even the emotion behind it—there is still that deep curiosity that motivates a constant experimentation with form and color. What differs, rather, is the level of precision in her imagery. The Brooklyn Museum exhibition, Sensations, first introduced New Yorkers to her work, placing her firmly in the camp of pure abstraction: She was an artist who, combining stenciled forms and extravagant brushstrokes, toyed with perceptions of depth, constantly questioning how much visual activity the eye could register while remaining within its comfort zone. The works in the Leeds Art Gallery are more distinctly layered, and while they retain the brush marks and the stencils, Rae pushes that fuzzy zone between recognizability and abstract form further beyond hazy possibility and into a competition between literal imagery containing symbolic meaning and pure painterly abstraction.
The painting from which the exhibition draws its title “Maybe you…” (2009), encapsulates this clarification of the division between image and gesture in Rae’s work. The tools she employs are sharply defined and lend a specific emotion to the picture (much like a composer, Rae emphasizes certain instrument groups to great emotional effect). Drips cascading from the top of the piece provide a vertiginous background to a lone cutesy panda bear and several hearts frolicking in the foreground. These recognizable characters are painted in a thick impasto that mimics a laminated or sticker-like presence on the canvas. They surf on Wily, multicolored and loose brushstrokes that squirm and undulate, at times trying to morphologically imitate the hearts nearby, or just splaying out and exploding in drips and shards of pigment. Beneath all of this action, a sharply painted black figure recedes and protrudes into our field of vision. The components influence each other at various times, and throughout all the paintings in the show, this is the regulating geometry which coordinates the drama of the surface.
But the canvases vary wildly from one to the next—using her tried-and-true vehicles of action and comparison, Fiona Rae’s recent paintings stretch from the pastoral “We go in search of our dream” (2007), featuring a bambi and butterfly peacefully grazing at the foot of a tree, to the nihilistic and menacing “My favorite puppy’s Life” (2004), in which a now mutated bambi triskelion hurtles through the dark reaches of space, surrounded by rotating stencils, blobs, and brushstrokes (think of the opening sequence of Superman). At the heart of this difference is Rae’s constant play between chaos and order—something she has always dealt with in her paintings. Rae draws much of her imagery from animé, advertising packaging, and Dürer woodcuts, all of which aim to express visual meaning sharply and efficiently. In a painting like “Lovesexy” (2000), for example, sharply defined indecipherable symbols loom in and out of clean cumulus clouds on a fuchsia-pink background, while in “As I run and run, happiness comes closer” (2008), violent and brutal brushstrokes seethe over a dark background, engulfing the work’s cheery little stars and leaving the sensation of a seething Hieronymus Bosch composition.
Michael Dean: Government utilizes the unique ability of sculpture to subtly reconfigure and reorient the space in which it inhabits. In this exhibition he violates two of the rules which form the metaphysical bookends of the very institution of showing art in a museum: 1) he does not distinguish between the art and the museum itself, and 2) he lets the viewer touch the art, invoking a fearsome ephemerality with the spectator aiding in the eventual destruction of the work. In some cases Dean forces physical contact between the two, as in “Yes” and “No” (all works 2012) which act as door handles to the gallery.
The artist has melded two concepts of government through these site-specific pieces; there is the idea of being literally governed, as well as having one’s specific actions guided and molded by the surroundings. For one, the concrete floors of the gallery have been replaced by a gray wall-to-wall rug; in addition to dampening the resonance of the gallery and virtually eliminating the sound of footsteps, the aura of the gallery is transformed, becoming more domestic. Perhaps it is this domesticity that Dean hopes will encourage the viewer to touch the sculpture, but it makes the act of placing the three smaller pieces—“Analogue series,” “Head,” “Shere,” and “Cabbage,” all cast concrete and about the size of a deflated beach ball—much more palatable (and prevents them from rolling around). In this newfound, chimeric domestic/gallery space, the carpeted floor becomes as much of a plinth as the wedding cake marble confection underneath an Augustus St. Gaudens bronze memorial, but it can be as casual as the floor in one’s den. Conversely, the works are titled in a Greek ethical philosophic vein—“Health,” “Home,” and “Education”—and by virtue of their size, title and placement are meant to evoke the larger capabilities of governing.
Each of the larger pieces bears some proportional resemblance to the room in which they exist (being site-specific, some won’t be able to be removed intact). “Home” scales up the dimensions of the doorway between two of the galleries. The piece, which is composed of rectangular cast-concrete slabs, is then laid across this doorway, blocking much of the passage. This sculpture, as well as the handles on the front door of the gallery space, “Yes” and “No,” call attention to three-dimensional form as everyday architecture: doors, walls, even knobs.
Dean’s desire to intrude into the space of the viewer is effected actively, but he also passively tries to attract the viewer’s contact, like a flower to a honeybee. The surfaces of the sculptures are raw and veined, sometimes shiny, but rough as well, inviting tactile engagement. His working process, an intellectual rejoinder to the very blunt objects he creates, is wordy and thoughtful, and the ongoing textual stream-of-consciousness which accompanies the creation of the works is both read aloud in the gallery and exists as a book whose pages can be ripped out and taken away with the departing visitor.
The Headrow, Leeds // West Yorkshire LS1 3AA, United Kingdom
74 The Headrow, Leeds // West Yorkshire LS1 3AA, United Kingdom
WILLIAM CORWIN is a sculptor and curator based in New York City. His work has been reviewed in the Brooklyn Rail, ARTnews, Sculpture Magazine, Artcritical, and Art Monthly. In 2016, he organized I Cyborg at the Gazelli Art House in London. He currently teaches with the Meet the Met program at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and hosts a program on Clocktower Radio.