Gravity and Disgrace
Review by Rebecca Newell
It has been almost two decades since the Hayward Gallery presented Gravity and Grace: The Changing Condition of Sculpture, 1965 - 1975. In that exhibition the weighty conceptual narrative of the Arte Povera and Post-Minimalist works on show was second to that of physicality. The delight of the display lay in the experience with and in front of the provocative sculptural being. The current display at Blain : Southern takes much from this feat: not only in name is it a homage to the triumph of aesthetic pleasure in the Hayward space.
Sisyphus, of Greek mythology, was condemned to repeat forever the same meaningless task of pushing a boulder up a mountain, only to see it roll down again. Albert Camus, in his 1942 essay Le Mythe de Sisyphe, wrote “The struggle itself [...] is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” Camus concluded that the practical struggle of life presents sufficient meaning in its own right, despite theoretical possibilities or cerebral credentials. Rachel Howard, here as curator as well as artist, forefronts materiality as maker of meaning; in turn it is the materiality of the six works on display that makes this exhibition.
Jane Simpson’s practice lulls us into a meditative rhythm. Using innately provocative and unstable materials - in this case, ice - she challenges the idea of permanence and stasis. Here, at the back of the Dering Street space, an ice-plated sewing machine, called A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing refocuses the everyday magic of thawing and freezing. Drip, drip, drip: a small pool of water sits underneath the contraption. The artist relinquishes control in the changing substance of this piece; materiality itself takes a role of co-authorship, writing its own physical art history.
Amelia Newton Whitelaw follows suit with her time-specific installation and tableau settings. Orientalised decorative pots, indicative of another time and place, sit back in niches. Elsewhere, Whitelaw’s suspended mass of raw salt dough hovers imperceptibly on the threshold between movement and stasis, awaiting the pull of the earth. The scented dough exists between physical and mental poles.
In Rachel Howard’s work, gravity produces the final painterly act, dragging paint down the surface of the canvasses, tearing at fixed edges and perspectives. In Eva (2005) she depicts a faceless figure hanging from a rope, confronting the hopeless figure of Sisyphus. Aligning the controlled and uncontrolled act of painting on canvas - the dripping, pulling, smearing of her materials - with the physical, tactile reality of the viewer in the gallery, the image is striking. While Camus’ absurdist discourse culminates in the essential idea of bodily fulfilment, Howard presents the notion that we are headless, limbless, weightless beings lost in a locus-less material world. True to form, Howard unsettles with this exhibition: we are no longer free to meditate materiality; instead we stagnate in the gallery space.