A Carnival of Things: Samantha Donnelly’s Contour States at Cornerhouse, Manchester. Review by Evelyn Char
Samantha Donnelly’s sculptures bring together disparate materials, including beauty products, jewellery, stationery, household cleaning products, building materials, books and magazines, to form eclectic and makeshift unions which speak of accident, contradiction and transience at every turn. With a sense of rhythm that is built into the physical structure of the works, these materials give the impression of dancing wildly to a dissonant tune.
One’s natural desire to identify familiar objects within the works is facilitated by the exhaustive lists of materials on the wall labels, but for the viewer-consumer there are inevitable pitfalls when one fails to recognize a name - a failure that forces one to admit defeat in face of the vast universe of consumer products. If knowledge is power, this defeat on the minutest of scales nevertheless highlights our impotence as we are forced to admit that we can never thoroughly know and understand the material world in which we live.
But from a distance, it is the bright and somewhat bland colours that catch the eye first. By employing a kitsch aesthetic that is often associated with glossy magazines, Donnelly creates structures that simultaneously attract and repel the viewer. In Circular Fictions and Absolute Truths, for instance, an open magazine, bright yellow fake nails and a bottle of spilled green nail polish are strewn on plinth-like blocks. The work provokes us to renounce what we are conditioned to consider as desirable, as the same objects are set in a context to look alien and insufferable. As such the work presents itself as an assault on our tastes and sensibilities.
I have spoken of Donnelly’s practice as sculptural thus far, but her work actually poses an unabashed challenge to the medium, as it defies the inherent logic of sculpture as a finite, self-contained entity. The parts are scattered and only come together to form a whole temporarily. They prefer to dance around rather than sit still, giving rise to a ‘sculpture’ that is constantly in a state of flux. The use of clamps and paper clips to hold the parts together highlights the temporality of the structures, which are like parts of a stage set that is going to be dissembled once the show is over. Precariousness is the rule, so much so that the work can be read as a parody of art forms that rely on the pretence of immortality to justify their existence and relevance.
Using the strategy of cut and paste both literally and figuratively, Donnelly compellingly questions the stability and legitimacy of contemporary taste, so deeply imbued with symbols of consumerism, and exposes the power of mass culture to control what we desire. Perhaps it inspires a newfound self-awareness in the viewer that will in turn give rise to the possibility of resisting and subverting the aspirations that are packaged and forced upon us.