Secondary Structures Definitely Uncertain Sculpture. Collyer Bristow Gallery. 5 March 2018.


Highly systemised artworks have drastically changed the way they place themselves in the room since Donald Judd's connected cubes stepped across the wall in 'Primary Structures', a 1966 exhibition at New York's Jewish Museum. Back then you could weigh a sculpture's posit and position with certainty. Its austere, macho minimalism asserting the clarity of one, single-minded solution. Surefooted declarations have since been replaced with questions, plurality, ephemerality and a slightly intimidating overlap between sculpture and other practices, disrupting expectations and defying categorisation. One curator who has showcased a number of these tricky works is Rosalind Davis. As in-house gallerist for London law firm Collyer-Bristow, she orchestrates three exhibitions a year. While her curatorial platform is focused on helping emerging artists build their profiles, diversification through exhibiting works of practitioners from their early 20s to mid 70s has helped create a cross-correlation of ideas and networks. Her exhibitions are also mindful of their location. Situated in a law practice, Rosalind acknowledges 'there are lots of links between lawyers and artists - we both have to be creative, problem solve and analyse'. With a nod to imaginative thinking and doing, her 2017-18 show 'Make_Shift' ricocheted off American artist Richard Serra's 1967-68 'Verb List' - itself a call to action guide for the making process - and included contemporary artists Andrea V Wright, Silvina Soria and Andrea Medjesi-Jones. Andrea V Wright's sculptural arrangements slip naturally into peculiar bodyscapes from her background in apparel by 'layering dialogues that relate to design, architecture and fashion'. It's as if she's peeling back the skin and picking apart the remains to understand what's there, what's underneath. The further she investigates, the more skeletal the form and the more it appears to delve into the details of matter in space. 'Vertical Ascension' 2017 is stripped to its bare bones, all limbs and elbows. The expanding, contoured shapes allow air to flow through and around them, activating both as equals. She refers to these as 'impossible planes' using illusion, light and shadow which interact with their surroundings. At times, visual trickery makes it almost impossible to delineate between dimensions, lines in space and lines on the walls. An immersion goes on between the object, the image and the architecture. As if the latter is internalised as part of the object. Perhaps too, as if we internalise the place in which we are situated as part of our identity. Another artist concerned with outlines and outliers is Silvina Soria who creates drawings in space using steel rods, wire, threads and cables. 'Rooting I' 2014 introduces one of her complex structures which, she explains, 'emerge from a nuclear centre and expand centrifugally', building up to a 'mobile cartography'. Using industrial materials, her practice revolves around creating 'underground landscapes'. The puzzling pathways of Silvina's work provoke questions around the structure of concealed systems which power, shape and control our access to services of everyday use, from underground train mapping to network wiring. Who controls their design? Who controls access and exemptions? Are we manipulated into circulating only within its parameters? A nearby step leads to hidden wireless networks which have the device operating independently, behind its friendly interface. While some structures are beyond our sightline, others rule our independence. Andrea Medjesi-Jones's 'Pink Painting Machine' series conveys enclosed rigidity where a paradox arises as the individual who participates in the system becomes an anonymous part of its construction. Then, just when you think there's no way out, that same system becomes as vulnerable as the brittle surface pigment. Her painting uses a particular shade of pink as flesh, which is placed within a windowed structure, providing both containment and constriction. Propped against the nearby wall are wooden poles wrapped in remnants of unpicked canvas, proxy to the production of the painting. The work prompts Vincent Van Gogh's 'The Harvest' 1888 with its rectangular fields and objects of workmanship - ladder, wheelbarrow, fencing. As well as George Stubbs's 'Haymakers' 1785 where white-frocked landworkers, supported by rakes and forks, tumbleweed across the canvas in a composition of perfect diagonal balance. Though critically, Andrea is not upholding a romantic view of labour. Instead, she characterises her work as 'situating the body within cultural and bio-political codes of production, instead of individual networks and relations'. It's all about the framework, not the person. Rosalind Davis also observes this tension between the personal and the order, beginning with a focus on public housing. Aside from her curatorial work, she is a published author and an artist in her own right. Her practice has developed from an exterior view of buildings to stepping inside the room and exploring the space within. 'Haus Constructiv' 2017 is a modular structure of steel, perspex and thread. It plays off last century's constructivist and concrete artists to create a transformative piece which looks to fold, shift, disassemble, lean and reconfigure itself with endless possibilities. Rosalind relates this to her earlier paintings of brutalist and modernist buildings as if she's 'taken the structure and pulled it out and turned it into a sculpture'. Watercolour drawings were a crucial prolepsis to the piece. Indeed the 'drawing in space' nature of the work is upheld when seen through a camera lens. Steel rods become black ink lines while the semi-translucent plastic panels appear as watery paint washes. One functions to hold the piece together; to give it strength. While the other pulses an electric charge of light around the room. Together with its ability to change composition, there is a circular narrative portraying how we move through space while adapting to structure and how we adapt structure to the way we move through space. So there's an ongoing negotiation between our perspective of being external to the structure and our bodily experience of interacting with it. These four artists broaden what was once referred to as "form" into "formation". From a singular shape to an emergence of bringing something or some things into existence. As a result, their work becomes a little more difficult to interpret than their predecessors but is all the more liberated and democratic for it. They have progressed from the mantra of the minimalists who insisted on dealing with only what was in front of them, or, in the words of Frank Stella, 'what you see is what you see', to acknowledging the body, the present unseen and personal histories. These are all arguably and equally what is there in the moment alongside the materials for making. Renowned minimalist Richard Serra was heavily influenced by his experience of working in steel mills as well as going to the shipyards with his Dad. As for anyone, artists have some awareness and subconscious understanding which they bring to the development of their work. And as non-gallery art programmes evolve, such as the one headed by Rosalind Davis at Collyer Bristow, a place is ensured for these artists to not only show and sell their work, but to permeate a working environment, challenging knowns and unknowns for employee and artist alike.

Assembly, Central Space, London. May 2016.

Paul Kilsby

At my university, friends and I had coffee every day in the same spot, right by the famous Kurt Schwitters Merzbarn. I felt I knew every inch of this extraordinary wall that Schwitters had worked on in Cumbria. It was there, in the village of Elterwater, that a farmer had been kind enough to allow the veteran Dadaist to create this magpie bricolage between 1946 and his death in 1948. In the 1960s, Richard Hamilton, at that time a lecturer at Newcastle, learning that the wall was imperilled, moved it, bit by bit, reassembling it as faithfully as he and his team could, at the Hatton Gallery in Newcastle University, where it lives on in perpetuity. Years later, in the 1990s, I was at the opening of a new 'museum' in London devoted to installation art. A panel took questions after the inaugural speeches: what, someone asked, should be considered the first example of sitespecific installation? The response was unequivocal and unanimous: Schwitters' Merzbau in Hannover. Years before he fled Germany for England via Norway, Schwitters had made this iconic, organic, extraordinary incunabulum, this sculpture/home that grew and grew until he was compelled to extend into the attic to accommodate its gradual expansion. Sadly, it was bombed into oblivion by the British in 1943. It has been reconstructed, inevitably, but these resurrections have about them a quality of pastiche. They were made at other times and in other places. Some purists have asserted a passionate disdain for these homages: they insist that site-specific means exactly that, a work made in situ resonates with a particular genius loci, it makes sense precisely because the author made it there, made it then. To re-make the Merzbau or relocate the Merzbarn, from this stance, is to violate these principles; the work, it is argued, is transvalued, fatally compromised. Well, that ostensibly high-principled response seems to me to be rather doctrinaire. As an aspiring sculpture student, I felt that the Merzbarn was a daily inspiration, a thing of great mystery and beauty, with a vital pulse that had survived its abrupt transplantation. The three sculptors gathered together in this Re Assembly have all exhibited these installations previously, both in and away from their points of conception and origin. Are we to consider these fresh manifestations as an opportunity for the works to shift and extend their meaning or, conversely, are they vitiated as new connotations, new resonances become overlaid? Consider Denise Bryan's Der Speigelsaal. This installation has its origins in Bryan's two month residency in Berlin in 2012. It was there that she assimilated a rich variety of sources as she became a flaneur, exploring the city through daily discursive walks, filtering her experiences through drawing. Another inspiration includes the opulent eighteenth century palaces of Berlin, with their ornate Rococo stucco decorations and their grand mirror-lined rooms. Fusing these and other sources, she generated the installation specifically for the Pavillon am Milchhof, relishing the repetition of the doubled forms as the windows of the gallery acted as mirrors to the piece. Re-installed in the Glass Tank gallery at Oxford, how are these multi-layered allusions refracted? As the gallery's title suggests, it is the abundance of glass that most vividly characterises the Oxford venue, so this aspect of the work's nature is, in fact, revisited in this incarnation. But do we need to familiarise ourselves with the work's myth of origin to understand other details – such as those fabric swags and festoons which are draped so expressively over the rich burgundy geometric frame; these motifs surely speak of the opulence of Charlottenburg? Or can we say that they are formally satisfying in and as themselves, elegantly resolved sculptural decisions to be relished sans subtext? Of course, an ardent formalist would argue that the ideal setting for any work of art is the White Cube, that elusive space purportedly outside of all local contingencies and inflections. But we know, don't we, that the formal contents of any art work are only a part of its totality and meaning? Indeed, Joanna Sands' installation title here, also shown as part of Re Assemble, was commissioned by an agency dedicated precisely to investigating what happens when artists are asked to make work for specific historically-charged spaces, the antithesis of the White Cube ideology. This installation, which indeed uses the formalist language of minimalism in its own visual economy, was in fact made, in its first incarnation, specifically for a Huguenot house with, remarkably, a very early synagogue built, as a kind of seamless extension, in the back garden. Sands' elegantly sculptural installation seems to allude to the ebb and flow as, over time, this locus shifted from worship, to workshop, to lodging, even serving once as a venue for English lessons for Somali immigrants. Perhaps this could be seen as emblematic of the incessant cycle of people who arrive, assimilate and move on in this distinctive area of London around Brick Lane. Revisited in the Glass Tank, the work naturally shifts its register, the space is renegotiated within a very different social and spatial matrix. The artist herself, speaking of the Conceptual aesthetic in which her work is clearly grounded, has expressed her doubts that a work of art can ever be truly unmediated, preferring to emphasise the exact materiality of her installations, relishing tangible qualities such as the grain, patina, and flexibility of her chosen medium, most often wood. At one time, Sands made works with some urgency in improvised spaces, including squats, her eloquently crafted installations yielding vital new reverberations in these marginal spaces. What does it mean for these elegant arcing constructions, these curves and walkways, now to inhabit the orthogonal geometry of the Glass Tank, a pristine and preened space at the very centre of a large and mainstream institution? Sands quotes the laconic Frank Stella on this issue of interpretation: 'What you see is what you see'. It is, she believes, up to ourselves, the viewers, to determine meanings as they emerge in our own specific encounters with her works, wherever that may be. Silvina Soria's installation Rooting articulates a regularised space, clinging to the surfaces of the gallery walls with the discipline of Mercator's projection, colonising this new space in its supple wire and cable grip. Chameleon and subversive, this installation initially masquerades as utilitarian, it disappears back into the gallery walls like a gecko into a crack between stones. Her work reveals, with subtle and oblique artistry, the lurking presence of complex rhizome networks of communications behind our walls, above our false ceilings, below our feet, that hidden latticed matrix that binds our space together. She is a cartographer, mapping out with each fresh installation both the overt and covert spatial dynamics of each exact locus. Looking at her installation in the Glass Tank we might be reminded of Harry Beck's iconic map of the London Underground from the early 1930s but whereas that represents a radical and elegant conceptual simplification of a complex system, Rooting seems to function rather as its diametric opposite: a radical and elegant problematising of the apparent simplicity of urban communication, whether palpable or virtual: the metrics of alienation. And what of that other space these installations open up for the viewer, the synaptic space in our own heads formed by these new relations, as we see each installation reassembled in the light of the other? What new dialogues ensue? What new narratives are started? Where else might these installations reappear in the future and how will their meanings reassemble, yield and shift to fresh imperatives, new parameters? Paul Kilsby, May 2016