SE8 Gallery, 171 Deptford High Street, London SE8 3NU

Barnaby Hosking: Habitat

SE8 Gallery, London

1 March - 5 April 2014

Review by David Price

Barnaby Hosking’s exhibition ‘Habitat’ at SE8 Gallery presents a number of gently, discreetly quizzical aspects of the artist’s process: its site of thought, its site of production, its site of presentation and its recollection after the fact. It does so in the course of a show that records the results of what would nowadays be called an artist’s residency, and which in its own historical ambit would be called a period of hermitage. The exhibition, one might say, is the drying ink of a curious artist’s contract.

Hosking spent the summer of 2013 living and working in a yurt erected in the grounds of the Houghton Hall estate in Norfolk. His time there is made manifest in a number of forms in the exhibition - indeed, the title ‘habitat’ invites the viewer to consider the ecological taxonomy of the enterprise; to question whether Hosking the artist was the occupant of a subjective, ‘monotypic’ habitat, or whether his multiple outputs represent a polytypic habitat, home to several species of thing, or what Georges Perec calls ‘species of space’. The gallery’s main room is the site of a single installation of 6 sheets of hanging velvet stretching from ceiling to floor, forming a broken circle. The viewer steps within this circle to view the velvet sheets from the inside. Each sheet is screen-printed with an image of a tree’s bark, derived from a photograph. The ‘ink’ used in the screen-printing process is bleach, arrested at a certain moment by a stop-bath in the course of its eating into the black of the velvet. The result is a seemingly monochromatic image, although the closest kind of inspection of the material is prevented by the deliberately hushed lighting in the room. Rather then perceiving the image and the materials and then moving on, the viewer is instead made conscious of a chronographic and chromographic pleating in the work - the writing of time into the bark of a tree, and the bleach’s inscription of light into dark velvet. Hidden speakers play a series of field recordings of the Norfolk setting to add a further enfolding; traces of a very specific outdoors into the very specific indoors of the formal exhibition space.

This pleating, both metaphorical and materially present in the folds of velvet themselves, brings to mind Deleuze’s thoughts on the fold in the idea of the baroque, and especially the essence of the fold - subjectivity, and the folding of the ‘outside’ into the subject’s ‘inside’. This is especially pertinent in an artistic project that has placed its producing-subject (the artist) into a habitat at the edges of everyday time and space. The exhibition, and its accompanying publication (by curators Nicolas de Oliveira and Nicola Oxley, with an edited excerpt of Hosking’s hermit-journal), present a gradual unfolding of the stretched present moment of hermitage.

Even single moments of time, fixed in the form of two paintings in the gallery’s office, emphasise this elongation of the instant. Both are oil paintings on black velvet, and both depict moments of low-light that look more like dusk than dawn, but remain somewhat ambiguous in their encoding of time. The application of the paint and the fundamental surface effect of velvet (upright strands forming a pile that is anything but flat, that protrudes out towards the viewer) give the effect of something close to a photograph that is not quite in focus. The semi-darkness of the scenes depicted in the paintings weave into this a further complexity; the depth of field and picture plane appear adjusted by a ‘vivid apprehension’ on the part of the subject that is preserved in the images.

The viewer passes these paintings (drawn from a series of such works) to the courtyard of the gallery, which is almost filled by a yurt of the sort inhabited by the artist. It is smaller than the one used as his habitat in Norfolk, but is identical in size to the perimeter of the hanging pieces of velvet within the gallery. The yurt structure is neither an artwork as such, nor an exact replica of the site of production for work. Instead, it is a material and sensory representation of habitat, smelling powerfully of wood, canvas and the metal stove-fire that heats it. The yurt has been used as a ‘pavilion’ during the course of the exhibition for talks and readings. Whilst the word ‘pavilion’ is used now to describe any kind of structure that functions as a satellite to its host institution, it is fitting that the word’s origins refer to a tent, and to the latin term for a butterfly or a moth (which itself, in French, is a papillon de nuit; a night-butterfly). This reminds the viewer of the foldings of light and dark present throughout the exhibition, but also of recurring elements in Hosking’s practice - brass butterflies reflecting ‘shadows’ lighter than their own selves in particular, but also many kinds of light figures set against dark backgrounds. In this light (to use an everyday expression that gets readily complicated in this work), the exhibition ‘Habitat’ offers a rich unfurling of the artist’s habitual thoughts, passed through the filter of a decisively non-habitual setting.

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