Clive van den Berg at Goodman Gallery
by Michael Smith
That the fallibility of the body is a compelling if perennial subject in culture needs little arguing: everyone, from Shakespeare to the Stones, has inevitably arrived at the realisation that, carnal exploits of youth notwithstanding, our bodies are bound to fail us or disappoint us. Clive van den Berg's latest show, 'Skin and Ghosts', at Goodman Gallery, reveals how his work has shifted in recent years to increasingly reflect his understanding of this.
What marks this show is a sense that this realisation is not accompanied by surrender, but rather by a re-negotiation of terms with the body. One of the capacities of the body that has to be reconfigured is that of sexuality. Van den Berg's enduring engagement with 'eros', or desire, undergoes re-evaluation in this show. As is appropriate for such an exploration, van den Berg states that he is interested in the 'thingness of things', artworks with non-iconographic meanings that are received when an audience truly considers the physicality of materials that make up a work. Textures of wood and fabric, colouring accrued through painting and sanding, contingent qualities gained through juxtapositions and lighting; all are part of a visual vocabulary which seems deliberately pitted against the simplistic gimmicks of sculptural or pictorial mimesis that dominate much of visual culture.
And this is how sexuality forms part of this show: not in a theatrical manner, but in the small, considered details of each sculpture and small painting. Like one gets to know and love the minutiae of a body alongside which one may age, it appears van den Berg has gone about making art in the same way. While the small paintings are calculatedly mean, scratchy affairs (arguably ripostes to van den Berg's own fairly grandiose style of painting in the 80s), the sculptures, generally less imposing than the artist's light works shown in the same gallery in 2003, are lovingly produced, each crevice and mark seemingly worked with great attention.
Nonetheless, the show is certainly no soft-focus taking on the inevitabilities of ageing. One of the most compelling aspects of van den Berg's exploration is that of ghosts. He talks about the prevalence of ghosts, absences, within the gay community as the ravages of HIV/Aids take hold. As a gay man, ghosts increasingly people his life and memories. HIV/Aids itself takes on a spectral quality, haunting and beleaguering the sexual practice of those who try to live in its wake. This is powerfully communicated by two works, Libidinous Ghost and Skin (both 2006), hung at opposite ends of the main space.
Skin is a large-scale, complex arrangement of small wood shavings, the products of some unseen carving process, reconstituted with visible deposits of wood glue. Its placement inside a cabinet-style frame means that it reads as an artifact, like some product of the 'archaeology of the erotic' that van den Berg refers to: a flayed or reclaimed skin which one strains to mentally match up to its missing body. The process of reconstituting speaks eloquently of the process of trying to piece together memories of friends or lovers who have passed. Furthermore, the work considers the porous quality of skin, not so much a protective veneer but an entirely penetrable surface that allows things (liquids, viruses) in while at other times expelling others (impurities, secretions). Libidinous Ghost is similarly visceral, in spite of its reference to human absence: the upturned wood fragments that gather to form a truncated figure auger danger and pain.
Love's Ballast (2004) is the only complete figure on the show, and as such serves as a reference point for the fragments that populate the rest of the space. Caught in a gesture of reaching out for some absent thing or person, the work also serves to explicate the territory that many of the other more complex works explore: desire denied by absences, haunted by loss. Its white pallour and short, unidealised body are a far cry from the heroism of the soldiers of Frontier Erotics, and accentuate the degree to which van den Berg is willing to re-negotiate his terms with the body, and remain creatively productive for it.
Opened: October 14
Closed: November 4
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