S1 Artspace, 120 Trafalgar Street, Sheffield, S1 4JT

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Nicolas Deshayes: Crude Oil
S1 Artspace, Sheffield
10 August - 21 September 2013
Review by Chloe Reith

Reflecting buoyant tendencies towards curatorial eclecticism and a desire to reconcile contemporary art with its once estranged art historical forebears, artist Nicolas Deshayes has selected a number of 19th- and 20th- century sculptures to share the gallery with a newly commissioned body of work in this latest solo project ‘Crude Oil’ (all works 2013). Following a period of research at the Henry Moore Institute in collaboration with the Leeds Museum and Galleries sculpture collection from which various maquettes and wall reliefs have been loaned, Deshayes has produced five new large scale works.

Backward looking trends aside, this device has provided an unexpected and enriching new dimension to the experience of Deshayes’ at times unrelentingly post-minimal work. The artist’s sparing selection of principally modernist works - including sculptural maquettes, casts and carvings in bronze, plaster and stone by the likes of Jacob Epstein, Geoffrey Clarke, Frank Dobson and of course Henry Moore - cleverly offsets Deshayes’ planar, industrially processed aluminium casts and vacuum-formed plastic reliefs. This unlikely arrangement offers elucidating associations, parallels, and surprising juxtapositions and presents Deshayes as an artist with a refined capacity for self-reflexivity and an awareness of his own practice, ensuring this exhibition does much more than simply follow the curatorial zeitgeist.

Displayed alongside canonised sculptural techniques, Deshayes’ slick industrialised aesthetic and heavy manufacturing processes launch a carefully orchestrated dialectic of historical and contemporary; art and industry; natural and artificial; and creation and destruction, addressing the murky substance at the centre of this universe of associations: crude oil.

The lifeblood of 21st-century living and raw material for countless everyday products - not least plastics and polystyrene - this organic substance extracted from our oceans, once manufactured, cannot return to a biological state. Plastics, despite their natural origins cannot themselves biodegrade. Deshayes is concerned with this paradox as ‘Crude Oil’ is with re-establishing a clear connectedness between manmade and natural materials, and products and processes. In this sense, the vacuum-moulded virulent yellow relief ‘Many Cooks’ is just as natural as the stone on which ‘Beach Scene’ (c. 1910s) attributed to Hermon Cawthra is carved.

Geoffrey Clarke’s ‘Maquettes for Castrol House’s ‘The Extraction and Refining of Oil’’ (1959-60) and Alain Resnais’ 1958 film ‘Le Chant du Styrene’ encapsulate Deshayes’ exploration. The studies for Clarke’s monumental 40 foot relief commissioned by the oil oligarchs depict an epic petroleum creation story whilst Resnais’ short, commissioned by aluminium manufactures Pechiney, is a playful ode to plastics production narrated with naïve wonderment. The latter has become the namesake for a delicate aluminium frieze supported by heavy-duty steel poles, whose sandcasting technique also links back to Clarke’s relief. Literal sand-casts themselves, the frieze runs the length of one gallery wall like a fossilised shoreline.

A joy in material resonates clearly throughout this exhibition but elsewhere material takes on a different tone, alluding to contaminated nature which by association brings to mind global markets, corruption, power, natural disasters and the greed involved in oil extraction. Perhaps then ‘crude’ oil is even meant as a double entendre. The desolate beauty of ‘Jetsam Ennui’ presents an arrangement of Technicolor anodised aluminium table tops alongside a pair of bronze busts which emerge from their surfaces as if from the sea. Their green-tinged, craggy bodies look stricken however and as they gaze at each other and their own reflections in the highly polished opalescent surface, it begins to resemble an oil slick. ‘Gulls in Gypsum’, a series of blistered, oozing plastic panels, make gruesome, mutated forms from white aseptic sheets which are simultaneously repulsive and seductively tactile, and ‘Flints in Gluten’s thickly lacquered iridescent pools where viscerally hyperreal octopi have run aground are similarly grotesque.

Within this narrative of industry, combustible materials and petroleum there is something primal and machismo which is very appropriate to the legacy of Modern British Sculpture. Aside from the quality of the work of which there can be no doubt, my only question remains as to the meaning of this overtly museum-style exhibition staged within a project space environment. Does this signal a more conservative bent for artist-run spaces or indeed a more progressive one’

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