Daniel Silver: Looking showcases a new collection of the artist’s work in clay. A material departure from his previous sculpture – typically concrete, marble, stone, or bronze – Looking continues Silver’s exploration of ideas concerning bodily encounters, inviting new questions about the politics of witnessing and being seen. Bearing the marks of their creation (scrapes of fingers, impressions of thumbs), Silver’s works are layered with colourful skins of oil paint rather than glazed, creating a finish that implies absorption, not reflection, as if the figures were somehow breathing in the world and light around them. As such, the work is full of life and animation, part inviting, part grotesque, like entering a joyful crowd you can’t help but feel wary of, a condition, perhaps, of the post-lockdown environment, where the promise of reunion holds the threat of (re-)contagion.
Looming from the opening exhibition space – staring out of the gallery into the street – is The Audience (2022), a gang of eighteen brightly-coloured busts, some missing their crowns like soft-boiled eggs. Arranged on two tiers, like bleachers or a jury box, the figures produce a range of associations: soldiers, tourists, moviegoers, protesters. As with all of Silver’s works in Looking, they retain the essential, shaping-in-process quality of their clay, an immediacy and intimacy (with their maker, with each other) reflected, also, in their colour-schemes – blues and umbers, oranges, greens, Philip Guston-pinks and -reds – where the shades and splashes of one piece bleed into the next, a shared DNA. Craggy and coarse, they bring to mind a deep-sea reef, growing “Into something rich and strange,” to borrow a phrase from Shakespeare’s Ariel, singing of King Alonso’s enchanted “sea-change,” his eyes transformed to glinting pearls, his bones suddenly “coral made”.
While the nearby works on paper – large, semi-abstract heads produced in watercolour, ink and oil stick – conjure death masks and the blood-and-silicone self-portraits of Marc Quinn, The Audience seem altogether archaeological. Following the success of Silver’s 2013 installation DIG, a fabricated archaeological site housed in a derelict London cinema, these new figures evoke the monumental heads of Paris’s recently reopened Musée du Cluny: removed from Notre Dame and vandalized during the French Revolution, the so-called Kings of Judah remained missing until 1977, discovered without explanation in the rubble of a building site.
Ascending to Fruitmarket’s brightly skylit upper gallery, a cluster of smaller works (produced in response to the real-time movements of dancer Darren Devaney) occupy seven silver tables, supported by black, hoof-like legs. With echoes of Duchamp’s Nude Descending Staircase, No. 2 (1912) and Boccioni’s Unique Forms of Continuity in Space (1913) – not to mention Rodin’s own terracotta dancers – the individual gestures of these pieces, from fluid movements and cowboy poses to goofy kids ruining photographs, hint at a series of individual histories and personal narratives, the sculptures’ hidden lives. Downstairs, in the dimness of the gallery’s warehouse annex, a forest of imposing, humanoid totems completes the exhibition, their volcanic, Auerbach-thick surfaces prompting reflection and communication.
In total, Silver’s new body of work succeeds in questioning our habits of encounter, inviting us to reassess the way “we build the world around us through looking,” as he suggests to Adam Phillips. Indeed, as Phillips puts it in his own book, Attention Seeking (2019), “To begin with, the question is always: at any given moment, what is worth paying attention to? And then, what kind of attention should we be paying? And then, what are the reasons we can give for doing this? [...] We must be interested in the right things in the right way. Or at least this is what everybody tells us.”