Natalie Dray’s work gives me joy the way I feel joy when I see a weed which, lodged within the interstices of the city, has found nutrient in seemingly hostile bricks or concrete. In her current exhibition at Blain Southern, hand cast autumn foliage flourishes among industrial looking metal apparatuses. Single branches snake up vertical elements; elsewhere, the invasion is more complete, as they are draped across structures and propped against walls, like vines. The exhibition continues Dray’s exploration of the supposed antinomy of the natural and artificial, the crafted and the industrial – debates that have been revived of late by other London-based artists such as Nicolas Deshayes and Juliette Bonneviot. But while the crux of Deshayes and Bonneviot’s abstract works lie in the tension of bodily, visceral forms that are distinctly man made with industrial materials, Dray’s figurative sculptures are composed of imperceptibly accrued layers of semblance and artifice.
Dray’s seven new sculptures (all works 2018) are of two metals: aluminium or pewter alloys. The branches are hand-cast in alloys, following a technique of the artist’s invention she calls ‘home-grown’, like a horticulturist. The maple and oak leaves are cast separately, their stem passed through holes in the thorny branches or wrapped around them, a gesture that recalls transgenic plant grafts and Christmas ornaments. The aluminium supports look manufactured, yet the artwork list suggests Dray welded them as much as the vegetation, as only SICKENING notes found material (an auto part).
The branches are of October, their foliage sparse and darkening, each leaf coloured using auto-paint. Their hues are as unnatural as their metal bodies, incarnadine rather than golden. Some are the pale pink of nail beds and European skin; others are the crimson of blood or dark brown of dried scabs. These are the colours of a reddening body, and to redden a body is to make it bloody as the skin flushes in embarrassment, anger or arousal.
But Dray insists her colours are not directly of the skin. She related them to the beauty counter, a place where incarnadine abounds thanks to a long-held association between fleshy red tones and libidinous encounters. By relating their colouring to make-up, Dray’s leave are not only bodily, they are also human in their hope to enhance beauty and mask imperfections, from their thin veins to their fraying edges. Small, hand-cast leftovers of everyday life scattered across the works similarly point to a flesh full of worries and wants. We reach for pills, Band-Aids, condoms and wound probes to examine, heal and protect ourselves as blood seeps from lesions, stirs in illness and thickens with desire.
A sign before the entrance warns against wandering fingers as the works are both sharp and fragile. A touch might draw blood or lead the precarious compositions to tumble down, and there is an equation here between the fragility of our bodies and that of the sculptures. Metal is often describes as cold and inert yet its surface ages, like leaves, and like skin. Dray presents every step of metallic decay, with some supports sleek and luxe like Donald Judd sculptures (I die, I’m living, SLAY), others rusting and dented, as though foraged from a scrapyard (FIRE). Our body itself is full of mineral elements considered inanimate. In blood, there’s aluminium, iron and copper, as well as lead, mercury and cadmium, a mixture not dissimilar to Dray’s mix of alloys sprouting flesh-toned leaves.
It seems fitting that Dray marks the final instalment of an exhibition series titled Lodger. Since last October, Tom Morton has invited artists without current London representation to show in a basement room at Blain Southern. Artists such as Errka Ninnesen, Gabriella Boyd, and Sophie Jung were shown concurrently to the Chapman Brothers, Edward Kienholz and Wim Wenders, grafted foreign bodies that infused vitality into the gallery. We’ll see how it grows.