Prodigal in Blue
Laura Bartlett Gallery
24 May - 28 July 2013
Review by Ciara Healy
Whilst studying pre-historic rock art in the Badjelannda region of Northern Sweden, the archaeologists Ingra-Maria Mulk and Tim Bayliss-Smith found that some ancient nomadic societies believed topographical anomalies to be indicative of portals into Otherworlds. They discovered that rocks near any break in the homogeneity of space, such as a spring, a hole, or a flat treeless hilltop, were often decorated, marked or carved in order to reinforce the collective memories of these peoples. It is suggested that these images symbolised, in the pre-historic conceptual sphere, places where the veil between this world and other possible worlds might be ‘Thin’.
‘Thin’ places expose thresholds of tension, or frontiers where opposing forces reach towards each other. This ancient notion is relevant to ‘Prodigal in Blue’ at the Laura Bartlett Gallery because liminal slippage, glimpses into Otherworlds and the condition of possibility are palpable not only in all the artworks on show but also throughout the gallery space itself.
The curatorial approach seen in this old umbrella factory and former studio of Wolfgang Tillmans, is not dissimilar to a small number of other ‘Thin’ gallery spaces and curatorial programmes that have quietly evolved in London (Tintype Gallery in Islington and Domobaal in Bloomsbury being two interesting examples). These galleries tend to work stylistically outside of current dominant trends, with artists who are nomadic by nature and who work with anomalous mediums and materials. Multiple realities tend to emerge and converge when such works are exhibited, creating a ‘Thin’ exhibition space.
Michael E. Smith’s ‘Untitled’ (2010), a clumpy foam and resin-clotted form, reminiscent of a dismembered arm, makes this idea powerfully corporeal. Attached to the wall of the gallery at shoulder height, it subverts our understanding of what a material can ‘be’ by transforming the solidity of the wall from which it emerges into something more liquid and penetrable, to something ‘Thinner’ than the plaster and brick substance it seems to be made of. It is as if a body, walking through some other realm, momentarily pushed an elbow through a crevice or slice in space, and now hovers on the threshold of halfway here and somewhere else.
This seepage between two worlds continues with Ruairiadh O’ Connell’s three black and white photographs of carpet floors silkscreened onto molten wax. Hanging in suspended drips over rigid metal frames, these wax images, with titles ‘New York New York’ (2013), ‘Paris’ (2013) and ‘Bellagio’ (2013), all refer to the Las Vegas casinos where the carpets were photographed. Two of the three images are coated in a single monotone colour. Blue on the left, red on the right, creating an expectation that some kind of 3D visual transformation or spectacle is about to emerge before our eyes. But nothing happens. The tension, therefore, is in the materials themselves and their positioning. The assumed order of things - our perpetual illusion - is consequently subverted as three floors in Las Vegas hang on one wall in London. The temptation to touch the wax is overwhelming. Like a veil between two places, the surface seductively invites us to push through its mutatable skin, until we fall down through the image, onto the swirling patterned floor of an Otherworld, where fruit machine coins chink and clang, far from the back streets of Bethnal Green.
There is something Voodoo about this show that both agitates and intrigues, seen most prominently in Jessica Jackson Hutchins ‘Five’ (2013); a plaster and papier-mâché sofa half coated in crudely cut dismembered faces from advertisements. Bejewelled and kohl-coated eyes and limbs, which we might worship or covet in magazines, have been layered one on top of the other. Disembodied and de-contextualised from their original source, they begin to look tribal. Reclining between these body parts, a billowing papier-mâché plaster coated blob swells from the midst of the sofa; painted a lurid baby blue jade. Teetering on the tip of the swell sits a large ceramic vessel and a tie-dye / acid washed pair of jeans: a relic of the counter-culture.
On the opposite wall, Stewart Uoo’s resin-dipped Abercrombie & Fitch bags titled ‘Untitled Shopping Bag 1 - 4’ (2013) echo and subvert this sentiment. The Greek Adonis-like male model on each of the bags also seems to have undergone some kind of tribal ritual transformation; his chest and face adorned with strands of human hair, maggot cocoons and viscous gloopy daubs of colour, he becomes a relic of consumerism.
Like many archaeological excavations, what one discovers about people from the past is often chillingly consistent with how we function in the present. Unearthed sedentary dwellings frequently disclose artefacts indicative of hierarchical tendencies, socioeconomic inequalities, a desire for surplus, and the rise of an elite power structure. But those who lived a more peripheral existence however, who functioned outside of the sedentary, outside of the homogenous, within the suspended realms of the anomalous and the liminal, knew that time was not a line, but a dimension.
Looking at ourselves in George Henry Longly’s hand-silvered mirror with mushroom painted stripes, the illusion of division and separation is revealed. We appear and disappear between the thin lines of ‘Who IS she’ (2013), but even when we are gone, we are still here. The nomadic tribes of Badjelannda, who crossed the tundra, mountains and rivers of Northern Sweden, knew this long ago. The artists in ‘Prodigal in Blue’ know it too. This is the duality of ‘Thinness’. It is what William James called a belief in an unseen order; an understanding that our experience of the material world always exceeds every consciousness we have of it and every linear structure we impose on it.
‘Prodigal in Blue’ therefore, like the rock art of Badjelannda, shows us that there is always a deep below everything, a rushing stream of other dreams, of half-finished sentences, a space-between. For the globe of life, Virginia Woolf once suggested, far from being hard and cold to the touch, has walls of thinnest air.