“Cope” was British artist Michael Dean’s debut solo exhibition at Herald St. Five understated concrete sculptures and four digital C-prints (all works 2011), all initially reading as abstract, were accompanied by a small paperback artist’s book. This sat open on the floor of the gallery’s front space, its first few pages unceremoniously torn out, and its remaining pages bearing botanical drawings in each of which the leaves curl and cross one another to spell out the exhibition’s title. This cryptic clue gently suggested that all might not be as it first appeared.
Indeed the four sculptures sharing this front space with Dean’s book, all of which are titled Cope (Working Title), do become more complex. These modestly scaled concrete panels, each worked into a low relief of interlocking triangular facets, leaned unobtrusively against the walls like architectural fragments waiting to be fixed to some Brutalist multiplex. When examined up close, their surfaces take on an odd quality, both artificial and organic, recalling polystyrene and textured polyurethane as well as cured animal hide. A tiny fragment of cellophane adhering to one suggests that these surfaces have been carefully smoothed and manipulated by hand, their formalist anonymity invested with an intimate sensuality. Furthermore, the rhythmically folded planes of the objects, organized in imperfect symmetry, recall (and are in fact derived from) the progression of letters in a word. The word “cope,” which squirms into clarity in Dean’s drawn plant forms, dissolves here into a rudimentary echo, becoming embodied in a surface from which it may once have rebounded.
The four photographs—titled either In (Working Title) or Out (Working Title), as if comprising two pairs—exhibited with one further sculpture in the gallery’s back space similarly move from apparent simplicity and spare, formal seduction to something more ambiguous and complicated. Each picture shows a single fragment of what at first appears to be dark marble or agate, carved so as to reiterate the pleated forms of Dean’s concrete sculptures. These fragments, however, have next to no depth beyond their pleated surfaces, and perch so lightly before the camera that the more you look, the more they seem to be made from folded paper—a photographed marble surface perhaps, quickly concertinaed to suggest the laborious carving of the absent original? In fact, the origin of this imagery is, according to the press release, “lumps of wet viscera,” and they are indeed photographs of photographs, though in the least Sherrie-Levine-like deployment of that strategy. Once again, the highly mediated ghost of the body uncoils from the work like a faint, unplaceable odor.
Photo: Michael Dean: Out (Working Title), 2011, digital C-print, 28½ by 21½ inches; at Herald St.