There’s no cosy welcome at ‘Drunk Brown House’, Helen Marten’s solo exhibition in the Serpentine Sackler Gallery. The iron framework filling the entrance acts as a gate, its outline of a hand holding a knife carves up the gallery, invoking an act of violence to tame the challenging space. It works. The Sackler Gallery is unforgiving and hard to get purchase on; perhaps it needed such a decisive intervention to lay the groundwork for Marten’s work. The motif of the hand and the knife recur in Marten’s bricolages and sculptures. Together with fragments of Zaha Hadid’s architectural plans for the gallery space, they hint at an uneasiness with the space, a defensiveness – a need for the work to armour itself against harsh reality.
Here, Marten presents a range of silkscreens that nudge towards sculpture, with boxy geometric frames intruding on the collaged digital images and fragments of text. Though they have clear roots in art history, they could only exist here and now. They are as informed by digital imagery as they are by structure and material, like Rauschenberg reimagined by machines. The works march off the walls and on to the floor below, where they are joined by a series of sprawling and eclectic sculptural works. It is oddly muscular and singular, with a clear internal coherence.
Reading the descriptions of the works and materials (ostrich eggs, nigella seeds, neoprene) you might expect chaos, or a messy and enthusiastic materiality. But Marten’s authorial grasp is too strong for that and randomness is never allowed to reign. It’s clear that her assemblages aren’t haphazard at all, but mathematically precise and fiercely complicated – the theory is belied by an utterly rigorous sense of logic.
That’s not to say that Marten’s sculptures aren’t characterised by a hungry and greedy enthusiasm for matter and objects. Folk textiles and organic matter share space with immaculate fabrications and machine hardware, while Asian embroidery is contrasted with woolly tartan, and gendered and familiar objects rub up against the unfamiliar and inhuman. But the juxtapositions are never binary or reductive – these are multi-layered and complex arrangements. Sparingly running through the whole exhibition is Marten’s inventive use of text. School uniform name tapes embroidered with abstract phrases (‘tiny cochlea’, ‘pancake makeup’) nestle in alongside musical notes and forms which look like cursive but remain stubbornly indecipherable.
In ‘Drunk Brown House’ Marten channels an unmistakable aesthetic, diffidently pretending not to be an aesthetic at all. Her colour palette is wide-ranging but utterly consistent within itself; every splash of prettiness (pastels, pom-poms, doilies) is disrupted, and tempered by equal and opposite sludgy taupes. While the playful elements that pop up are plentiful, any sense of decorative fun is meticulously dismantled and reassembled, or sabotaged by mismatches and bum notes. We’re not permitted the luxury of an uncomplicated enjoyment of the decorative. There’s nothing breezy or effortless about the work here and that’s the whole point.