Ideally, art galleries are sealed realms of beleaguered coherence, like clearings in a forest, in which the viewer is offered a neutral space to perceive an image or make out a narrative. Constructing a shelf structure around the entire exhibition area of Tanya Leighton’s gallery, the young Welsh artist Sean Edwards created a physical metaphor for this nurturing of meaning, which addressed its essential contradictions. A gallery installation, in its solipsism, evades the chaos of the outside world and establishes a foil against which art can articulate a response to that chaos.
The shelf remained at a uniform position as it circumscribed a split-level gal- lery: aligned with your chest at ground level; by your ankles in the raised space. Its structure—a 5-inch-wide, 2-inch-thick strip of minimally varnished MDF—was also uniform throughout. Quite aggressively, it claimed the space for art—distinguishing it from that which is not art—by blocking the gallery door and forming a hurdle to leap in order to reach the offices. But there was actually nothing within this container—the gallery floor was empty—and only various insignificant-looking objects sat on the shelf, transforming it from minimalistic structure into a narrative conveyor belt or a feature of interior decor, even a re-invention of the petit bourgeois mantel- piece on which knickknacks and objets d’art are displayed. Despite its artisanal functionality, the shelf—cleaving to every bump and bend of the gallery’s walls—was a threshold that designated the space it confined as open to the free play of imagination, memory and the cross-referencing of signifiers.
The objects it supported shared a modesty reminiscent of Richard Tuttle’s work, a modesty that can appear disingenuous because so self-conscious. Repetitions had symbolic overtones: the loop—whether as masking tape rolls or rolled-up newspaper—is a basic sign for closure which, of course, was what the shelf itself affected. Another theme was the checker pattern, recurring on decorative paper and on a tote bag. It was also picked up in a newspaper clipping showing two policewomen wearing checkered neckties, and in a photo- graph of a wild flower with checkered petals. This patterning suggested formalism, the condition of art that does not transcend its purely visual and material attributes. This, again, was what the shelf—as both enclosure and barrier—might also be said to be doing in refusing to countenance the viewer’s attention straying beyond set parameters. Edwards’s installation comprehended formalism as a privileged preserve, but also a blinkered realm, defensive and divisive. The show’s photos of the policewomen and the flower, however, breached the installation’s seal, serving as escape valves that punctured the solipsism—even autism—of its sculptural idiom.
The sculptures ranged along the shelf were preciously slight, as though self-satisfied with how little needed to be done to produce a result. Conversely, they demonstrated how much they required the shelf (backed up by the authority of the gallery itself) to compen- sate for what they themselves lacked, buffering their whimsical inconsequentiality, their air of randomness and futility, and stringing them together into the links of narrative, as the words on a page require the mind of the reader to string their letters into coherent prose.
Photo: View of Sean Edwards’s exhibition “Remaining Only,” 2011-12; at Tanya Leighton.