London Art Pitch is a monthly column by Jamie Sterns, a New York–based curator and writer who until recently was attending school in the British capital. She just returned to New York.
What is an interior? What is a structure? How does an interior connote and possess feeling, mood, and conceptual turns? Architecture and art have been tied up with each other since time immemorial and there is a vast world of connections between them. Three recent exhibitions in London looked at these questions, playing with the divide between architecture and art, and the mental and emotional states their joining can produce.
‘Jos de Gruyter & Harald Thys: Fine Arts’ at Raven Row
Jos de Gruyter & Harald Thys are two Belgian artists who have been collaborating since the 1980s and are most noted for their amateur but deadpan absurdist video works. They took up the entirety of Raven Row, a three-story town house in London’s Spitalfields area, for their exhibition, which appeared this past spring at MoMA PS1 in New York. The show imagined the duo to be Sunday painters, hobbyists who lazily and haphazardly watercolor a Brittanica of images that are culled from the Internet that harken to imperialist and colonial times. Tribes, quaint village vistas, humorous and exotic animals, and pensive still lifes were hung randomly in a conservative style that befitted the galleries’ paneling and corniced features.
The works are on paper in thin black frames that have the title in hand-painted white letters—each a description of what you are looking at, such as Lord or Man Holding His Wife’s Head on His Lap. The consistency of these frames, the slight crookedness of the written text, and the overall wash of pastels over hurried pencil sketches add to the absurdity of the project. The subject matter and its display are obviously quoting what is often seen in museums and private collections and this seems particularly fitting in London, which is full to the brim with such displays at museums like the National Gallery and idiosyncratic homes such as Sir John Soane’s.
Added to this seemingly endless collection of watercolors are freestanding sculptures of figures that are slightly larger then life, made out of flat sheets of metal. They are painted white, and although one could easily call them abstract, that is not what they are about. They are more functional, modular, and are the quickest way to get to an imposing human form without the fuss. They achieve this and produce the same ominous awkwardness that bronze or stone sculptures emanate. To add to these sculptures’ pluckiness there is a sheet of white paper with a hastily drawn face of one man or another stuck onto them.
This floating face was echoed in a large three-headed fountain in the biggest gallery space. The heads are generic and formed in three dimensions, and they spit out streams of water. Everything is white, and this sculpture feels slightly off from the overall theme of things, but the familiar design—the cool, vague figuration, mixed with hotel lobby art—gets quickly to the overall mood of the show, which is sniggering at, yet embracing, the supremacy of cultured connoisseurship.
The pièce de résistance of the exhibition, though, was on the top floor, which was hinted at only by a hand-painted “Exhibition Continues” signs. Walking up a narrow staircase you entered a small hallway that is wallpapered, has retro graphic floral carpeting, and emanates a smell that only your great aunt or gran’s house could produce. There were two rooms open and in them there were video projections. One is of foam heads, painted in primaries and roughly accentuated with thumbtack eyes, patchy fake hair, and accessories. There is audio, dubbed down and subtitled, and it talks of unconnected things, such as failed painting and finding a correct battery for an electronic device. The other is of the artists’ friends and partners performing as a couple in domestic acts such as painting a room but all their actions and dialogue are stilted. This mundane tension is then punctured with surreal moments, such as people with raven heads playing cards at the kitchen table.
What makes these rooms and films even more bizarre is that the apartment in which they are installed once belonged to a woman named Rebecca, who at the time of its purchase by Raven Row (which is financed by a member of the Sainsbury family in 2009) lived there and continued to do so for about six months after the completion of the deal. There have only been a couple of shows in this space and at other times visiting artists and curators stay in these rooms, which are utterly preserved down to the corded phones and their mess of wires, the slightly off-kilter miniature chandeliers and matching curtains. The inclusion of this apartment felt like a thematic apex for the show and it gave the films an even more sinister edge. The films are unnerving and excavating, drawing up a depth of untapped feelings, and they made the rooms seem possessed of a sweet sincerity mixed with the feeling that they are haunted. Jos de Gruyter & Harald Thys’s use of this space to climax this exhibition seeped down into the floors below. Being in those rooms, it was hard to imagine that anything else could have ever inhabited this space.
‘Stuart Middleton: the gonks’ at Carlos Ishikawa
Stuart Middleton’s current exhibition at Carlos Ishikawa at first glance appears to be a simple affair. It consists of a tent-like structure made of white fabric over metal framing that spans one large gallery and also another tucked-away space that holds a miniature room. But hold on, let’s start from the beginning. It begins with a story of sorts, which is printed in a small booklet at the show’s entrance and is an exchange, actually a one-sided exchange, of messages from Don to Carol.
A message at first reveals that there seems to be a misunderstanding, and that Don wants to make amends by taking Carol on another date. Then a message reveals that there was some sort of sexual misinterpretation that Don wants to clarify. Then the messages become accusing and berating. Then a message makes clear that Don is in fact Carol’s boss and that the lines of that are getting crossed. Then the message becomes formalized, involving a complaint to another worker on the situation of Carol. Then the message is a termination letter. Then the message is one of apology. Throughout these messages Carol never responds—this is clarified in the last letter—but these messages are obviously not about Carol but rather about Don. Don and his imaginings, Don and his rantings, Don and his looping obsessional mind, Don and his inadequacies.
Now, let’s enter the space. After reading these messages the starkness of the structure that on first glance seemed so calming becomes something else entirely. It feels as if you have entered Don’s brain. The tent feels like neural pathways that are linking, looping, and circling back into themselves. The hallways are like his trains of thought; there is a structural sense to it, but the echo-chamber-like quality creates claustrophobia mixed with a blank daze. Turning a corner and not knowing if it is an exit feels like searching for Carol. Is she over here? No. Is she over there? No. But the sereneness of the space and its construction fight against the urges of anxiety. It seems to want to affect a sense of calm, and if you (Don) did calm down, then maybe the urge to find Carol would dissipate. But it doesn’t—being inside makes you know there is only one way out, and being inside means you are trapped.
Once you are out of the structure and walking the perimeter you immediately start remembering what it felt like to be inside. While you’re contemplating this and skimming the outside of the sculpture there is a small doorway and only if you possess the right amount of curiosity do you get tempted to peak in. If you do, you confront a dirty shower stall in which there is a miniature of a room made of carved white foam, with a bed, a kitchen, a toilet (by the actual drain), a stove, and a table with two mismatched chairs. Does Don live here? You wonder. The room feels familiar and archetypal of a sadness and loneliness that feels prying in its exposure. Seeing this reinforces the urge to escape, leave, and to untangle yourself from Don’s brain and life.
Middleton is exceedingly precise in his gestures and in constructing the story and these environments. There is a minimalism, a reduction, an almost mathematical feeling to how he created these objects. This does not strip or make harsh the potential for connection and feeling, though. Rather it makes them resonate deeper. Like a single rock hitting the bottom of a well.
“Rachel Rose: Palisades” at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery
Rachel Rose is an ascending art star and you can practically hear the art machine drums that are clearing her path. Her winning the Frieze Artist Award this year went handily with her current exhibition at Serpentine Sackler Gallery in London and has been followed by her new show at the Whitney Museum in New York. Do these beating drums know what they are doing? In a simple word, yes, and the proof is in this show.
Palisades consists of two video works and a sound installation that connects the two. While the show’s namesake video work, Palisades in Palisades, is clever and focuses on this geographic region in New Jersey as the site of narrative and visual structuring, it felt a bit too stylized and self aware of its cleverness. This possibly irrational response to this work might be produced due to it being contrasted to the enrapturing success of the other video work, entitled A Minute Ago. This video focuses on Philip Johnson’s modernist Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut. Rose creates a visual collage that dissolves and distorts the boundaries of space and nature with masterful editing techniques that are unlike anything imagined before.
This house is more than a house—it is a symbol of modernity, and it represents the condition of heightened living, existing, and modification of a building and a body in space and nature. A tour-like view is given of the inside of the house but it feels slightly off. There is muffled conversation, there are video-game-type viewpoints and directional movements, and there are dissolving surfaces that feel like moments of both ecstasy and extinction. The scene of the house is interspersed with clips and audio of a sudden hailstorm at a beach in which people scramble for cover against the giant end-of-days-like stones of ice falling from the sky. Nature is cruel and is again spliced through the video with an image of a deer that is edited to appear to be breaking at its knees, always about to collapse but yet never quite.
The tension of calamity within the preserve of modernity’s usually unflappable signifier of harmony makes A Minute Ago more then a video work. It becomes a document of the vulnerabilities and follies of even the most venerated and lauded cultural symbols. Rose’s installation of sounds and the dispersal and then zooming in and out of focus of history and narratives within her work create a pendulum of the condition of inhabiting nature. The sense of becoming, evaporating, and succumbing to our bodies and the spaces in which they inhabit, both man-made and natural, alludes to our connection to time and nature but also to the simultaneous possibilities of that unraveling.