Six large inkjet-on-canvas prints at the left-hand side of the Chisenhale Gallery contain images and text culled from anatomy textbooks, news media, product advertisements, and pornography. The works adhere to the same format: one large image serves as the work’s base, stretching across the entirety of the plane surface, while three or four additional figures are spread out on top. Each composition of elements maintains a calculated formal and semantic inconsistency. A children’s book illustration is overlaid with an archaic hand-drawn rendering of the human lungs. A monochromatic painting hanging in a gallery is superimposed with a detail of syphilis symptoms. Each fragment is suspended in a state of tension among the others, as the artist makes no attempt at resolving their dissonance. These prints follow Mandy El-Sayegh’s interest in abjection. She displays the multiple threads comprising an individual work or exhibition as opposed to integrating it all into a neat totality, thus violating the viewer’s expectation of aesthetic and methodological unity. This failure to integrate is palpable in Cite Your Sources.
Mandy El-Sayegh: Cite Your SourcesChisenhale Gallery
12 April – 9 June
The second suite of works hanging from the wall adjacent to the inkjet prints are six new additions to the artist’s ongoing series Net Grid, of which she has made 19 to date. The all-over application of garish colors in these relatively large, square canvases gives the impression of abstract paintings. Upon closer inspection, they quickly dissolve into an amorphous amalgamation of raw components, a synthetic potpourri of silkscreened text, rags, and smudged oil paint. The fragments are all affixed upon a loosely-stretched and stitched-together linen ground, which gives each of the canvasses an air of incompletion: in the leftmost Net Grid, this ground is so casually affixed to its stretcher that it insufficiently covers the lower right hand corner, leaving about a foot of its support structure exposed. Much of the textual material and anatomical diagrams are characterized by a haphazard wobbliness, indicating that they were screen printed onto the linen before sizing and stretching.
In a painting, the presence of a grid typically gestures toward a work’s rigid, self-enclosed logic. It implies that the distribution of matter in space has been comprehensively and decisively pre-determined beforehand by the artist. El-Sayegh dissents from the typical use of this staple from the Modernist arsenal. Instead, her crude, hand-drawn grid—composed of one inch squares—varies in strictness and density, according to whatever materials happen to be beneath it on the plane surface. By departing from the grid’s typical presupposition of unity, she highlights her theme of faltering under the expectation of totalized control.
The Net Grid series leads into the large-scale Figured Ground, which bisects the room and transforms its achromatic white walls and grey floor into a continuous layout of flesh-toned Financial Times spreads. Pages outlining the latest global business news replace the primed ground of the canvas. Here, El-Sayegh resists the standardized production of artistic practices, such as priming, advocated by normalized art school pedagogy. In her interview with Chisenhale curator Ellen Greig, she describes the priming of canvas as a tedious “over-investment,” the end result of which is simply a place to begin. This can be seen as an apt metaphor: just as priming is a necessary a hurdle, so too is molding one’s work to meet the material-institutional dictates of accreditation. Here, El-Sayegh refuses to adhere to the primed canvas favored by art-educational authority.
The Financial Times spreads become a new flatbed picture plane, on top of which El-Sayegh imprints several motifs from the inkjet series alongside calligraphy done by her father. By incorporating her father’s calligraphic practice, she positions her own personal archive as the show’s axis of reference, and this archive plays an important role in the next series of works in the show. As viewers migrate through this dense semiotic environment, drawing associations between the headlines and diagrams, graphics and serif text, shoes stick to a mud-colored wallpaper paste spilt underneath. Chopped-up bits and chunks of content are sutured without regard for aggregate meaning.
Nine glass-covered steel vitrines at various lengths, widths, and heights are installed at the center of the gallery. These horizontal assemblages consist of items characteristic of a personal archive, but they each renounce any unifying organizational principle, which is at the root of the artist’s formal decisions. Inside, cultural publications like ArtReview and Vice are situated amongst splattered paint, children’s books, photographs, and polymer clay. Building conceptually upon Figured Ground, these items, and their placement within vitrines surrounded by an assortment of financial news, reflect a scenario in which the value of an entity, whether a consumer commodity or an artistic practice, is determined not by its utilitarian function but instead by its position within wider systems of circulation.
While giving the viewer much to contemplate, Cite Your Sources could benefit from more of the formal homogeneity that the artist tactfully evades. She seems to have justified weaving in as many of her creative approaches—under the guise of critical strategies—as possible into her first institutional solo exhibition. However, the lack of material specificity leaves the viewer desiring more substantial communication between the artist’s different registers, as the work comes off as merely a disconnected, incomplete collection of abstract techniques and expressive gestures. There are several attempts at creating a semblance of thematic consistency. But the superimposed motifs of bodily anatomy and calligraphy feel insufficient in this respect. The figurative connotations of the linguistic snippets bear no relation to the quality of their support. While valuing ambivalence and undecidability, El-Sayegh forfeits mounting a memorable display of her work.