'Between Meaning and Matter' at Bell-Roberts
by Katharine Jacobs
Reading the invitation to the opening of the Bell-Roberts' new space, I must admit I was fairly excited about an exhibition which promised to explore the distance 'Between Meaning and Matter'. My enthusiasm was spurred on by the thought of a new shiny venue and the additional possibility of there being some snacks. I thought, in anticipation of writing this review, about the work of Marc Quinn. In Quinn's work, the distance between material and subject is foregrounded, as the move is made from the distance of metaphor to the proximity of synecdoche. Instead of using traditional art materials metaphorically to represent the subject, Quinn uses part of that which is represented to stand for the whole: a self portrait is cast from the artist's blood or a portrait of a human genome researcher is cultured from the man's own bacteria.
Locally, Michael Stevenson gave us an examination of some of these issues with 'In the Making' in 2005, an exhibition exploring materiality and process, which had some fairly exciting moments. Here, artists like Nicholas Hlobo and Nandipha Mntambo used loaded materials such as rubber inner tubing and green sunlight soap, cowry shells and cow hide to give us a sense of how materiality can engender all kinds of cultural and social implications. With happy, pious art viewer thoughts of this kind of 'spiritual materialism' (and maybe some snacks) I made my way to the opening.
My first observation was that the space is, like the others in this little art colony, quite lovely. The expansion into Woodstock has given Bell-Roberts a bit more Lebensraum. The shiny and new gallery has movable partitions and a glass front which promises similar benefits to Blank Projects' glass-fronted design. Something which promises more ambitious projects in the future, but which also, with its security guards to keep unwanted Woodstock residents out, completes the little art enclave in a way which makes me wonder whether gentrification is not a little problematic.
My first disappointment was the distinct lack of snacks, though many seemed pleased to discover the addition of whisky to the menu. My second was to discover that my artistic expectations had overshot the mark somewhat. The artists have answered this brief to different extents, and thus, the show hangs together in parts, but not in others.
There is quite a pleasing curatorial link between the work of Norman O'Flynn, Anthony Strack, Amelia Smith, and Kevin Brand. O'Flynn shows Border Ramblers, little potbellied organic figures carved from Zimbabwean soapstone, which gives their rambling a context and, as I write this on the eve of that country's presidential re-runs, some poignancy. If one allows one's gaze to pass over the border of Nigel Mullins' hard edge paintings, Space and Many, Many Lonely Hours (an easy thing to do), one finds Amelia Smith's 7 Images of the Digging of the Kimberley Mine (1872-1885). The meditation on the changing imaging of the land, and the vast removal of rock which took place to excavate the Big Hole, strikes a chord alongside the evocation of O'Flynn's contemporary migrant worker, who is also displaced from his source in Zimbabwe.
Anthony Strack's Mosselbay I and II continues this meditation on rocks and the land. Closest to Smith's work, Mosselbay II presents a photograph of a large rock standing in stagnant seawater, whilst a wall made from similar stone marks the edge of the ocean and another wall behind it completes the border. Mosselbay I alongside continues this meditation on the liminal space of the seashore, and completes the journey from O'Flynn's unimposing little figures earlier on.
Ninety degrees to the left, we find Brand's piece: a large painting which reads like a climbing wall, the low relief created by what looks like packaging from climbing karabiners, which have been painted on the reverse in Brand's industrial greys and browns, with occasional bright handholds. The apparent use of a material associated with the climbing wall of course suggests Quinn's synecdoche, if in a slightly diluted form. This false rock (if that's what it is), paint and plastic also contrasts with Strack's meditation on the natural land and together, if not alone, they answer the brief, questioning the distance between material and meaning, the degree of metaphor varying between the two.
Elsewhere, Lyndi Sales presents another large laser-cut collage, this time using the rather fragile materiality of her thinly cut paper to represent something thoroughly immaterial: the paths generated by internet ramblings. This is interesting when one considers the notion of 'immateriality', a 'prevailing notion in current discussions on art in the context of new media', where 'digitised data are replacing the traditional physical dimensions of the artworks' (Lillemose 2005: online). Of course, as in Sales' previous work on the subject of mortality, the distinct lack of materiality of her extremely finely cut paper, suggests the fragility and the tenuousness of these virtual connections.
Alongside Sales, Tanya Poole's translation of a film still into the more material substance of paint Film Still From Babel and Film Still From Kill Bill I undergoes a similar re-materialisation. The transient image takes on a fixed identity in the brushstrokes. Given the possibilities here though, I would've liked to have seen Poole pushing the materiality of her painting, using the paint a little more interestingly to problematise the image a little. Instead, the hazy, sentimental smoothness with which she has treated the surface seems to reiterate its source rather than undergo a transformation into painting.
The videos on the show used the materiality of the genre in different ways. Fahama Pecou's Fahama Pecou is the Shit made me chuckle. The 15 minute video of interviews with curators, friends and art-eratti praising the artist, plays like a daydream I'm sure many an artist has filmed in their mind. It does pretty much what Ed Young does, dealing with fame in a slightly more American context than the Young British Artists of Young's interest, and in a slightly more obvious, less nuanced way.
Jacques Coetzer's Room to Roam was likewise humorous. The video featuring Mike Scott of the Waterboys singing with the people of Huntly, Scotland, also laughs at itself, the home video-type footage and the quirky moustachioed locals, who read like the cast of Little Britain, combining to find some irony in the genre of video.
Between the two is Johan Thom's more serious Theory of Displacement, a three-channel video projection which shows a body lying in a shallow stream, slowly shedding its coat of black feathers. Shaking off the Berni Searle shudder, it does read quite poignantly, especially when one compares it with the displacements we talked about earlier.
Overall, each of the artists has answered the brief after a fashion. I can't disguise my sense of disappointment however, as I do think it was generally in a wishy-washy fashion - especially if one considers the possibilities of what could have been done in this new space and in the commission provided by the gallery to the artists to explore the space 'between meaning and matter'. Perhaps the space will be better used in their next show...
Opens: June 25
Closes: August 8
Fairweather House, 176 Sir Lowry Road, Woodstock
Hours: Mon - Fri 8.30am - 5.30pm, Sat 10am - 2pm
Lillemose, J. 2005. 'Conceptualising Materiality: art from the dematerialisation of the object to the condition of immateriality' [online] Available: http://umintermedia501.blogspot.com/2008/01/conceptualising-materiality-art-from.html