I bumped into a friend on the towpath on my way to look at Roy Voss’s current show at Matt’s Gallery. She asked what his work was like. “Oh,” I said, “it’s, errr, big. He makes really large landscapes with words in them that kind of comment on the imagery, or play with what we’re looking at in this witty way he does…” Then I muttered something about Ed Ruscha.
Well, I was half right (really should learn to pay closer attention to press releases.) The British artist has certainly had one of his distinctive digs around in the gaps between words, meaning and image in this new body of work. Scale-wise, though, I couldn’t have been more wrong about the exhibition’s content – a line of framed, found postcards from the 1970s and 1980s wraps around the walls of the freshly configured, rectangular space. They’re rather less immediately impactful than the sizable installations featuring painted backdrops and idiosyncratic objects that I’ve come to associate with him, but a closer look shows that Voss’s ability to skilfully scratch at layers of meaning behind signifieds and signifiers is more what’s being demonstrated here, and is as honed as ever.
He’s used a single technique to make sometimes wry, sometimes poignant, sometimes close to Carry On-style puerile comments about the contents of each postcard – cutting a single word from the back of each and sticking it to the front. An image of a pier is accompanied with ‘long’; ‘company’ is stuck onto Chicago’s skyline; and ‘mine’ onto a picture of a ruined desert building.
Sometimes the text seems to make what initially seems to be a straightforward reference to the scene it’s attached to, then your brain makes a few conceptual leaps and before you know it you’re wondering about the anonymous author of the words scribbled on the back of the garish card. ‘Long ...’, you think, ‘long for what? For who? To do what?’
Juxtapositions are employed here too, to various ends. A picture of a group of classically 1970s ridge tents in front of a lake with camp’ inserted into it is hung alongside an image of a lurid boating lake notated with ‘gay’, and the Blackpool Tower marked with ‘stiff’ next to that (I had a small snort at this point) in a marked nod to Kenneth Williams et al. Further along, cards with ‘cross’; ‘bitter’ and ‘end’ hint at something much more emotive and upsetting. Nothing is made too easy, too clear – Voss makes us work a bit for our response.
Pacing back and forth, I find myself spotting repetitions as well – ‘over’ and ‘miss’ are particularly prevalent, and the effect is similar to the rhetorical device used in poetry or song lyrics.
If I were being sceptical, I might say that a need for saleability was at the back of his mind when he was making this work – after all, framed postcards make a much easier statement in a collector’s apartment than a ginormous, painted backdrop. Matt’s Gallery has recently made the transition from more of a project space to a not-for-profit that represents a stable of artists, so they have to make their return. Luckily, this show – and its gentle chorus of voices from the past – manages to ride the line between coherent installation and desirable, individual images.