The Stuff of the Art Stuff

It’s a shabby, overcast and spittle afternoon in Portsmouth. We’ve had slow traffic through the doors. A few bodies sit, shrugged over hot chocolates, sniffling, in the café. Gallery 1 is all stillness and video flicker and ‘where are you, Bill?’ (an empty question asked to an empty room). Today is one of those days that have no use of art. Perhaps they are too compelling, visually, to need an artist’s enhanced focus. Rainy, dreary streets are the stuff of emotive drama, a cipher for thoughtfulness, alienation and unrest. We are all lonely when it rains, staring out of rain-shattered windows. Artists are the professional lonely, they become expert in sustaining a dialogue with themselves (it is make-believe that they are ever talking to us, just because the eyes of an artwork follow us about doesn’t infer a conversation is being had). On such miserable days as this, we’re all artists, we don’t need other people’s art. Or do we?

My own reasons for engaging with other’s art are always in flux. I used to aspire to the sheer audacity of being I felt imbued the exhibited work of artists. That still occurs, but nowadays I’m essaying the means, mode, the weight and concerns of artwork more. I recall the grievous shock I had on discovering not all artists are socialist. Not all artists are nice, some aren’t even creative. I always look to be moved by artwork (a plastic expectation – if the work in and of itself doesn’t effect me, the sheer material of it might). So, what if I stumbled into aspex today – what might I make of Emergency 5?

Taking a joy in material is not artistic in itself. We all know what we like. While some go for the sheer-lines and gloss of sports cars, others collect the biscuit-brutality of Troika. There are certain people who like to get sweaty in PVC, because it alters them, it confers a pleasurable difference on them. The material of objects has be important to us, we’re experience-educated, we’re brought-up touchy-feelie. So, let’s visit the Emergency 5 exhibition on a tactile, surface quality, material jaunt – see what delights the ‘stuff’ of the artworks offer up.

Okay, just to be clear, I’m not saying ‘touch the art’ – please, don’t touch the art – eyes are amazing things, they can speak to your fingertips, they’ll tell you what it would be like to physically touch – artists draw on this common lexicon of learned textures to compose their work – so, TOUCH WITH YOUR EYES

Kit Craig’s The Bracketed Space is quite the bi-polar bear of material substance – the rasp grey concrete discs contrasting hard with the brilliant white egg-shell blank of the flat surfaces. Especially in the context of the gallery’s white rectangle, the painted planes suggest walls, walls mapping spaces, space like unfinished rooms. The materials refer to construction, to building, to architecture, to Modernist aesthetics, implying a reference to Brutalism (visit the Hayward Gallery for an understanding of the term). Simply put, they are the stuff of a modern apartment, of those boxy Grand Designs self-builds. They are materials that speak of clean, empty space. And that’s there in the work’s title –The Bracketed Space. Enclosing, surrounding space. It’s not domestic, it got none of the paint-bruising, furniture-ravished dustiness of an emptied bedroom – it’s an organisational space, a modern institutional space. Like any emptiness, it elaborates on arrangement, on composition. The introduction of the framed image into the piece draws the gallery wall into the composition, into playing the role of a wall in the ‘bracketed space’. I can reveal, there’s a precise relationship between the pencil ‘x’ in the image and one of the two low walls above the sphere (the adjunct form). Again, a material reference to modern gallery environments, white walls, concrete and frame.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

There’s some conjuring with material expectation in The Bracketed Space, the concrete elements were cast from polystyrene, this makes them look light, a quality heightened by their hovering atop rods. These ‘mushroom’ forms remind me of the mildewy corner of a room I rented, weedy fungi started to grow from the muck-carpet – Kit’s are sterile fungi for Modernist corners (that’s just a trigger they’ve pulled inside my head, don’t go looking for this in the work – such thoughts are the bonus tracks).

Hania Stella-Sawicka’s Table of Practice is about construction too. The materials are planed wood, paint-coated metal, MDF, leather, plastic and avocado stones. The benches reference changing rooms: immaculate, unused changing rooms. With the ‘tool’-like elements about, the benches refer to IKEA, to a process of ‘putting together’ – the bespoke nature of the tool forms might represent the bits and bobs IKEA include, without which the furniture cannot be made. The leather of the pouches gives these MDF tools an air of authority, of fetishism. They might be the instruments of a highly-skilled professional, or the prized boy’s-toys of a DIY enthusiast. Then, like in Kit’s work, there’s the conjuring with materials: the precise, worked finish of the benches seems at odds with the MDF tools that it’s suggested made them. What is Hania saying about ‘practice’ – a word that’s been adopted by most in the art world as a means of professionalising artists (it avoids the need for ‘I do this, I do that’, it becomes ‘in my practice’)? Is there an answer to illicit from the curvy stacks and avocado stones? They say ‘vase’ to me, they’ve a candlestick form, a suggestion of a barley twist – they’re practical, it seems, they hold the avocado seeds in place to grow, they hold water. One holds a cream, an avocado cream, I think. The forms are a mechanism in the making of this cream, an engine perhaps. Looking carefully at Table of Practice, there’s sawdust and calibrating tools left underneath, suggesting adjustment or an unfinished state, or to signify the non-pristine nature of making – there’s a smear of something on one leg, it might’ve been applied on purpose (a tool is coated in the same goo) or it’s an accident, a missed issue, a clumsiness in the making amplified by the fine quality of the rest of it.

I’ll need to think about both works beyond the material, but I feel launched on the right ocean. I’m not suggesting the works are a conundrum to be resolved – looking and seeing don’t function in finites, they collaborate in making sense of things (sense isn’t a resolution – it’s at best an estimation or empirical guess). Sometimes, the work is all about the material.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Dan Coopey’s Untitled (Stutter) are material as medium. They are drawings. They’re always site specific, regardless of where they’re placed. There are three shaped mirrors to each arrangement. Each mirror has had its silvered backing erased, so the planes are both reflective and transparent. The planes are overlaid. They were ‘drawn’ into position by Dan, they are very precise drawings too. Mirrors always discuss ‘us’ – you – the Janus viewer, looking into and out of. Transparency is a monologue, it shows us what we could already see. Here, the material conjures – the actual gallery is multiplied, tilted askew, and denied. You might not appear in the reflection, though you’re stood facing the work – instead you have become a hanging rope of gloss black orbs, or a tv. Polished mirror, heck, polished glass is always futuristic, classic and cheap ( as in Disco cheap, tacky-exotic) – it’s nightclubs, skyscrapers and nightmares. It’s silver, it’s jewels. We can share in Dan’s delight, in his revery with the substance of glass, mirrored or not, or we just shrug and move on. It has an effect on you, or it doesn’t.

There will still be chains of thought that’ll run barefoot through your mind after seeing Dan’s work, all manner of contextual, incongruous and perverse thoughts will pop into your head. It is inevitable. Immediacy doesn’t mean slightness.

Blue Curry’s two works are immediate. They’re uncomplicated, I think. The tyres sequinned with aduki beans, they’re such tactile objects – DON”T TOUCH – they’re so satisfying. They might not require any greater sense than existing (the way jewellery, or ceramics, or designer stuff doesn’t) – but the tyres have been Africian-ised. Africa and tyres. South Africa and tyres. In the 80’s vigilante’s in South African townships, often in the name of the ANC, used ‘necklacing’ as a form of lynching. They’d place a tyre over the head and shoulders of the victim and set it alight. Gruesome. Consider Blue’s work again. There’s that conjuring, the distraction of the material disguising the darker narrative. I might be wrong (but I don’t care – if you ask the artist, they could or could try and explain away a work, only that’s negating their raison d’état – if you’re to enjoy Visual Art, you must always ask the artwork your questions.