There’s so much I could write about these shows. All three shows – Ry Haskings’ ‘Muzzle Zeal’; Masato Takasaka, Lisa Radford and Lane Cormick’s ‘Whatever doesn’t work’; and Melissa Macfarlane & Digby Banks’ ‘Social Contract 44′ – are the sort of exhibitions that look a bit like riddles that need to be unpacked by a team of specialist intellectual arty types in brown leather shoes, exposed ankles, thick rimmed glasses and facial hair. Given that a healthy proportion of the artists are postgrad researchers, this may come as no surprise. But that’s not to pass any sort of judgement on the works. I have to declare I’m a postgrad research art nerd myself so unpacking this sort of stuff is right up my alley. In fact, hopefully you’ll bear with me, because I’m going to take this as an opportunity to throw some thoughts down on this whole scene.
Here’s what I find intriguing about this stuff. My parents, bless ’em and their usefulness as template examples of non-artworld afficiandos, would come to a show like this and invariably ask, ‘so, what does this actually mean?’ As if this sort of art (and sorry, I’ll get to some specific descriptions soon, I promise) is a giant puzzle designed to either test or stymie interpretation by the, dare I say it, average person ‘off the street’, whatever that is supposed to mean (do these archetypal ‘everymen’ just wander the streets?). I get the feeling that people think a lot of art is made by wankers desperate to impress an in-crowd of intellectuals by creating bizarre enigmas of obscure meaning by whacking a piece of blu-tac onto a stick. Being inside that crowd myself, to a degree, they’re not entirely wrong. There is some of that going on for sure. But all in all, I think what we have is a group of people desperately and relentlessly pursuing ways to stimulate ideas. Of course, they’re going to be drawn together as a group by their singular love of this passion but they, on the whole, can’t even actually stop themselves from this compulsion. This drive to try and find new ways to say things using objects instead of words.
The common objective, in the end, is the communication of ideas through the process of building things out of paper, wood, sticky-tape, old photos, cardboard boxes and absolutely anything that can be commandeered and transferred into some sort of stimulant. These creations are simply catalysts. A catalyst is something that triggers a reaction but remains intact itself. Artworks trigger reactions in the body and mind of the viewer. I think, that is their first and primary role. And given that, what matters most, is your personal reaction. It doesn’t matter what the artist’s intent is, it doesn’t mean that the artist’s hidden message needs to be deciphered. It is as simple as the reaction you have to the work. You can stand in front of it and be instantly put off, you can look at it for hours and return to it again and again, or you can read about the artist and the process. Any or all of these ways of looking at the art will affect your personal reaction.
Ok – so that’s a whole lot of generalisation about art, let’s get to the review bit for a while.
Firstly, Ry Haskings and his show ‘Muzzle Zeal’, which I have to declare up front was my favourite of the three. Along one wall, a series of framed images. In the middle of the space, a giant stripe-painted wooden screen/wall. Now this screen/wall is the sort of work that made me think about my mum. At first, I was a bit like, ‘oh, ok, a big construction that looks like a wall on one side and you walk around it and you can see how it’s made, like a reveal of its internal structure, the reality of the behind-the-scenes architectural framework. like looking behind theatre sets. seen it before. it’s ok.’
So I pressed on to the images and I was taken by them straight away. Drawings and photocopies of fences, partitions, hoardings and other containment devices. Geometric, graphic and bold. In the back of my head, I’m thinking, ‘so there’s a connection with dividing zones going on here, with the wall/screen in the middle of the room now being more obviously also a type of barrier’. Then I notice that the frames that contain the drawings are cut through. This pulls me in closer, literally, as I move in to look at the crisply cut clean lines of the actual glass panels. You can see right into the frame and, in some cases, the backing of the frames are sliced through so you can see the wall behind. It breaks the planes of the work up so you become totally aware of the different levels involved in presenting, and consuming, the works. The first engagement with an image, you think, is with a drawing that someone has made and displayed for you. But then, thanks to these vertical cuts into the frames, you become way more aware that there’s a glass panel acting as a filter between you and the actual paper of the drawings. That the glass filter is as important a part of the image as the drawing itself. And even further, in the cases where the backs are cut out, you realise the paper is sitting a few inches out from the wall. All this just goes to make something that is so blindingly obvious that we ignore it, actually obvious. I’m not looking at a photocopy of steel hoarding, I’m looking through a piece of glass, at a photocopy of a steel hoarding, set into a wooden rectangle, mounted on plywood and fixed to a wall. All these elements are integral to the complete picture.
Now it doesn’t matter if you see that. It doesn’t matter if you stare at these things and break it all up into its bits and pieces and come to that interpretation. The images are actually beautifully composed, graphically bold and engaging just completely on their own as images. But if you want, if I want, there’s a few little hints of ideas built right into the construction of the work that enables you to have that reaction to it.
So this then gets me to thinking about that screen/wall in the middle again and it’s growing on me. It works as a partner to these images, itself now more obviously dividing up the space in the room. Sculptures are generally more to about how they affect the space in the room. And while the wall-mounted images speak to me of layered planes, this sculpture is now revealing its impact on the division of the room. It breaks the flow of the room, sitting diagonally in it, casting a darkened shadow section of space into it, and impacting the way the human traffic has to navigate its way through it. It’s a barricade and it openly declares its construction (like the framed works) by showing you how it is screwed together, made of wooden planks and set up on a wooden frame.
Chatting to the gallery director after the show I discovered there was a whole process of measurement and language construction that dictated the width of the cuts in the frames and the painted columns on the wall/screen. Did I need to know that, to fully ‘get’ the work? No. And that’s the thing with this stuff. Sure, the artist used a clever system of rules to construct his works. To my mum, this is the hidden message buried and encoded into the work that she thinks is the single meaning she has to decode in order to ‘get’ the work. You can decode it, but it’s not in any way necessary. What you decode yourself, regardless of the artist’s intent, is what matters most. And for this, Ry Haskings gave me plenty of catalytic material to get my brain activated in a stimulating way.
As I walked away from the work, toward gallery 2, my mind made a connection between the title of the show and all the artwork that made it up. ‘Muzzle Zeal’ perhaps translates us the passionate motivation and desire (zeal) to control, harness and border (muzzle). Seemed like a good enough interpretation to me and added another element of interest in the work. It did make me think more about titles of works because I pretty much never look at titles. I generally just look at the art and try to figure out my own connection to it. But a title, as someone famous I can’t recall at the moment said, can be like a colour. Just another element contained in the work.
Next stop, a group show including Masato Takasaka, Lisa Radford and Lane Cormick, in the smaller back gallery. I must confess that this one didn’t grab me as much, to begin with. I encountered Takasaka’s work first, its assemblage of bits and pieces of scrap boxes, paper and cardboard sticky-taped together in vertical towers had me audibly sigh in a moment of ‘argh – sticky-tape and cardboard art again!’ This was an initial reaction – it changed with a bit more reflection of the work but I have to say that on the whole, artwork that seems to display an almost palpable sense of rejection of material skill – by which I mean, work that seems to deliberately declare ‘art is NOT craft, it is NOT about how skillfully you can build something, art is about IDEAS, and to reinforce that belief I will make this sculpture in a totally shitty fashion because that is so less important’ – is almost instantly dislikable. In fact, that seems to be the point. Half the time this sort of stuff looks rather ironically like something created in the children’s craft hour at summer daycare, or pipe-cleaner art from play school. That’s the first reaction. Harsh, I know, but after years of this sort of art, that’s where I go.
But that’s not a fair assessment of Takasaka’s work because the more I looked at it, the more little things became obvious and slowly the catalytic effects kicked in. Much of the material was commercial product-packaging from asia. So instantly this had overtones of commentary on capitalism and consumerist culture, on the nature of rubbish and product advertising. The vertical towers started to read like architectural forms, skyscrapers of cheap capitalist waste, like termite nests proliferating all over the floor. And then I was a giant, standing around, looking down on this mass of flimsy structures, able to wade my way into it and topple it at will, but knowing that outside, somewhere, millions of piles of less artily arranged commercial package piles were mounting and mounting and gobbling the planet.
On one wall, three abstract paintings of differing patterns by Lisa Radford sat overlooking four cubes on the floor by Lane Cormick. The colours in the paintings were a rather unsettling selection of what struck me as 1950s era tones and I could tell I was totally overlaying my own personal feeling about the crushing conformity and rigid conservatism of the 1950s onto these paintings, simply because the colours reminded me of that era. Again, I imagine my mum (I promise I never think about my mum all the time, contrary to her constant re-appearance in this article) and her reaction. She’d have a totally different interpretation of the work because her mind would not read the use of colours in the same way mine does. And this again reinforces my comments earlier about the fact that my interpretations of these works are not judgements passed on the artists but are simple reactions to the objects I encounter, which are affected by the life history I carry with me in my head, and body.
Anyway, these paintings were very strongly about pattern. I almost turned away, based purely on my aversion to the choice of colours, but then I remembered something I read recently. The gist of which was that humans have set about understanding the world, the universe and everything on two fronts: by understanding what things are made up of, and by understanding how things go together. The first way has been dominating our approach but lately there’s a shift toward the latter. We’ve broken everything up into fragments, into molecules, into atoms, into sub-atomic matter and we’ve come no closer to finding what we maybe hoped we’ve been looking for. In fact quantum theory is so bizarre we’re left bewildered. But lately, trying to understand how things are put together, how things form into patterns, how relationships between things evolve into bigger systems has become more interesting to us. Ecology, networks and ultimately just patterns are of great concern to us now. So, lost in those ideas, I find myself staring back at the abstract paintings with my mind conjuring various interpretative outcomes for what each pattern might be a metaphor of.
Turning to the fourth image on the wall, another work by Takasaka, just seemed to reinforce this whole train of thought. In amongst a pattern of cellular configurations, nuclei seemed to be vibrating and wandering, charged full of energy, ready to fulfil some chemical transformation. Each cell hinting at the organism of which it must form a part – the organised pattern of behaviour that is somewhere acting out the consequences of the particular configurations of these cells and nuclei.
I think this might have been the point that my head decided it had had enough because I looked at the four cubes on the floor, scattered like large dice, only perfectly spaced and lined up, and couldn’t get any reaction from them. Maybe they were reflections of the four patterned images on the wall, sculptural equivalents. No, that didn’t seem right. They were too balanced, too even – if such a thing could be said to exist.
Finally, ‘Social Contract 44’ was a collection of prints, all beautifully framed and mounted, like a vast archive. There was three plinths with perfume bottles on top, each with rather hideous but recognisable fragrances in them that you could spray onto white cards, like they have at department stores. Mounted on the wall behind each one was a 1950s style advertisement. What grabbed me though in this room was the old photographs of houses, seasides and weddings which had been overlaid by drawings of geometric patterns. One work had an electrical engineering drawing over an apparently recently married couple, as if to imply that our human relationships might in some way be similar to digital computer networks, or electrical systems. Amplifiers, filters and routers could find their echo in held hands, a knowing look or a pair of polished patent leather shoes.
Find whatever you like in any of these exhibitions and their artworks – there’s plenty to be found. And really, that’s the joy of checking out this sort of stuff. Each one of these artists has committed their time, thought and energy into concocted these packets of energy, filled with little ideas, filled with big ideas, all there to be unpacked and decoded, interpreted and misinterpreted, read and misread.
The shows run until November 6. The ideas they stimulate run indefinitely.