On the sublime…

IMG_0338

It’s a simple enough trope…superimposition of one scale upon another…though I suspect quite a bit harder to pull off than one might imagine.  In Richard T. Walker’s video piece its used to quite powerful effect – regular readers will know I’m quite a lot harder own video – but the poetic narrative at work here is pretty mesmerising.  It lives up to the promise of the exhibitions title.  Sadly much else here doesn’t.  Mariella Neidecker’s piece here buries her characteristic vignette into a clumsy mis en scene that proves to be a sledgehammer to crack a walnut.  The other work in the space crowded out by this bombast.  Elsewhere nothing much lives up to the billing.

IMG_0336.JPG

Luckily outside the main galleries in the Angear space there is something of exceptional and exquisite quality.  The Nottinghamshire based artist Robert Hart has been given the opportunity to display some the exceptional work he has been engaged in over the past few years.  It is an astonishing display – perhaps a little overcrowded – of the drawings, prints and paintings he has produced over recent times.

IMG_0333

He has focussed a deal of his creative ambition on the Suffolk coastline – specifically the wastelands of Orfordness and, whilst many artists have chosen this unique landscape since it was released from the Ministry of Defence a few decades back, fewer still have done so to such exceptional effect.  Anyone who has visited this location (and if you haven’t I strongly advise you do) will testify to its unique character – an ambience that Rob has captured to perfection.  His forensic visual intelligence is coupled with a poetic imagination and has resulted in a wealth of material.  His show is a triumph – catch it in the few days you have left – it ends on May 6th.

IMG_0334

 

Gurminder Sikand & Sardul Gill

IMG_1884The recent show at Harrington Mill Studios gave one the rare opportunity to see work by two of the region’s more influential and talented artists, both practicing locally since at least the 1980’s but less often featuring in exhibitions outside Nottingham itself.  In this show Gurminder Sikand focussed exclusively on black and white drawings that, although markedly different in content and style, rather effectively played out against the more experimental approach that Sardul Gill adopted in his selection of mixed media works.

IMG_1882

Dying Star by Sardul Gill

To my eye it was the deliberation in Gurminder’s drawing technique that often complements as well as contrasts with the more organic marks that are very much the basis of Sardul’s pieces.  That his work is also predominantly in black and white, occasionally augments by naturally occurring pigments, further adds to the resonances between their two bodies of work.  Sardul talks of ‘a form of self-discovery’ whilst Gurminder suggests her process is ‘a journey’ – what is certain is that both artists are on a thoughtful, intelligent and ultimately rewarding voyage, both for themselves and the audience.

IMG_1891

Mothering by Gurminder Sikand

Sikand’s work is focussed on “the social conditioning that forces women, especially, to look and behave in certain ways’ and this is effected through the use of the house as what she describes as a ‘carapace’ that whilst protecting and comforting is also a burden and a restriction.  The juxtaposition of the building against the figures produces strong and powerful images that convey the metaphors most effectively.   The stylistic manners put emphases on some elements and line is used simply elsewhere to offset the narratives.

IMG_1885

Nature Print & Ink Drawing (2) by Sardul Gill

In Gill’s work nature itself is forced into action as both subject and method, although his subtle and thoughtful interventions steer the viewer throughout.  His interests include cosmology and scientific theories with the resulting works revealing their structure slowly and exquisitely.  The printmaker in him (he has many years experience in the medium) allows the lightest of touches in the methods deployed that include exposure to natural elemental processes that further assist in the revealing of the image.  The painter Sean Scully has talked of painting as having “something of the nature of nature” and that is very evident in these works.

Sadly this show is now in the past but I’d advise anyone to seek out further exhibitions by these two in the future.

 

Richard Perry

img_2146

5 ceramic sculptures, including 3 water columns and 2 marker pieces. Heights 4, 3, 2 and I metres.  Commissioned by Grosvenor Estates for Festival Square, Basingstoke, 2002

This is a rarity for this blog…let me explain.  I’ve known Richard Perry for over thirty years.  He got in touch with me not long after he graduated and had taken a loft studio in Newark, Nottinghamshire whilst I was working for the regional Arts Council.  From the off I recognised both his talent and his seriousness. Over the years he has developed a substantial reputation, mainly for a succession of major public commissions.  Recently we’ve become near neighbours and with his solo show in the Angear space at Lakeside coming up (criminally a rather rare event), he asked me to write a short piece for the text panel in the gallery.  So this is not a review  but the expanded text from which the panel in the gallery is abridged…

img_2121

Work in progress, studio

No surprise that in his public works the form of the tree plays a significant part of the repertoire: the sculpture of Richard Perry stands up solidly and elegantly like a fully grown English Oak full of surprising twists, turns and original features. Few contemporary carvers, especially those drawn to geometry, have been so cavalier with those most obdurate materials, such as marbles and that especially hard limestone from Kilkenny. A glance at, say, Interlocking Oaks, a piece at the old Boots HQ here in Nottingham from 2000 is indicative of the striking quality of the distinguished track record of public work right across the British Isles and beyond.

In this exhibition (a relatively rare opportunity to see a body of his work) the artist features recent studio sculptures, a few paintings and a suite of drawings, all of which in various ways touch upon ongoing concerns for the interactions and relationships of basic geometric forms in space. If there is a key component that best sums up the ambition in the work as a whole then poise might be it. Indeed this is a contemporary artist willing to engage in and admit to one of the greatest taboos in current art, beauty, and worse still for many so whisper it, craft.

img_2150

Perry is fully aware of the dangers that lurk in these waters. No-one visiting his lean-to studio, exposed to the elements and (one suspects) perishing in winter, could be in doubt that the artist (given to standing and pondering the work for long spells of time) takes very seriously the pitfalls that both form and material can easily fall into – that ‘homes & gardens’ aesthetic as it were. These are lovely materials and in Richard’s experienced hands, fashioned into just as seductive formal characteristics.

A great deal of deliberation is required – hard, painstakingly concentrated looking – to ensure that this plane, or that surface, set against another is ‘right’ or more precisely has that quality that the great ceramicist Bernard Leach called ‘thusness’ (after his studies on the work of Soetsu Yanagi) and yet is also full of surprises. Indeed it is hard to see how these interlocking forms, planes, surfaces and voids could be arranged in any other manner once they are frozen in space. Each work becomes a game of Jenga, that pastime where towers are constructed from regular wooden blocks and the removal of a single piece can bring the whole thing crashing down.

img_2138

To return to the notion of poise, and to use it in its archaic sense, it is the balance achieved in the sculpture (and just as surely in the paintings where colour is deployed with great sensitivity to both invite and contradict the sensations of moving through space) that solidifies the equilibrium of all the competing elements. That all this happens with material that is solid, stubborn and hard to fashion is a real testament to ability and durability in the character of the artist. Poise is also a technical term for a unit of dynamic viscosity, the act of resistance in shearing flows where layers move parallel to one another at differing speeds. This too seems apt in pieces where planes shift and tilt both in parallel and opposed to one another, and where the eye speeds across the surfaces but is then arrested by surprising conjunctions and original tropes.

img_2148

It is in the drawings that these twists and turns of expected and then wholly unexpected formal arrangements are sent racing along at astonishing speed. With a myriad of variated marks, tones and intervals the images reveal something of the artist’s endlessly inventive and quizzical exploration of what form and material might be able to achieve in space that is both real and imagined. Perry opens up possibilities for what sculpture might achieve were we to crack open our three physical dimensions and discover one, two, three or more that some physicists and mathematicians tell us are already out there.

bh-579

Barbara Hepworth – Small One, Two, Three (Vertical) 1975

Of course geometric sculpture (emerging in the early twentieth century) went through many reiterations of all kinds over the succeeding decades but pretty much fell out of favour by the mid sixties as the minimalists boiled it down to its essences. But curiously a small late (perhaps the last complete) work by Barbara Hepworth – Small One, Two, Three (Vertical) 1975 – might be seen as something of a precursor to these pieces by Richard.  In it she precariously balances a group of planes across three blocks atop each other. It is intriguing to imagine how these might have been extrapolated and developed into more complex arrangements had she lived…I’m taken with an idea that they might well have resembled a Richard Perry piece in this gallery.

img_2142

Halley 3, 2013

 

Known Masterpieces…

img_9896HMS OPEN STUDIOS & THE UNKNOWN MASTERPIECE by ARTEMIS POTAMIANOU

This is a rather strange outing for me…after all its only just two years back that I was a part of this event rather than simply a visitor. But hopefully distance lends at least some critical judgment. HMS is, in the main, very much a painters place and there is a good deal of work here that shows how accomplished much of it is.

img_9890

As usual Jackie Berridge has some excellent work underway. There are drawings on show that amply demonstrate the solid underpinning this gives to her work (and underlines the excellence that comes from her background as an illustrator) but it is the paintings that go from strength to strength. In the larger canvases it is the astonishing variety of technical devices allied to the myriad of narrative vignettes of human behavoirs that show just how good a painter Jackie is. But I was also struck by this wonderful small painting that pairs the vulnerability of the single figure matched only by the vacant sofa that is her companion.

img_9891

Justine Nettleton as always is full of exuberant painterly activity, alongside much else, including some intriguing new works that weld re-quoted painterly passages with digital photographic elements. Alison Whitmore is exhibiting some fascinating new box works but also a riveting and nakedly honest set of small self portrait drawings that repay close examination.

img_9893

John Paul Cooke tackles the sense of place that is the Peak with a surer touch and an unerring ability to capture the light than most of the battalions who choose this location as subject matter. Patrick Prentice amply demonstrates both his powerful sense of place and a delightfully playful sureness of arrangement. The painting here is as good as it gets.

img_9886

Carole Hawthorn has a number of her beautifully calibrated colour studies on show and several of them glow with a luminous intensity like the one I’ve posted here.

img_9887

Clay Smith is perhaps best known for his moody, atmospheric and compelling photo montages (and several were on display) but he has, over the past decade or so, experimented with painting. Alongside a large recent canvas that displays a sureness of touch and is infused with a similar sense of ethereality there were two, I think, new experimental canvases that look very exciting.

img_9888   img_9889

Sculpture makes a statement with work by Lesley Kelly, Louise Garland and Dee Shiels. Louise has an unerring ability to fashion fresh juxtapositions with humble found materials.

img_9892

Dee shows a range of media including some light, airy and yet oddly disturbing and provocative hanging pieces.

img_9885

Is the work of Chris Wright categorisable? I suspect she hopes not, with its address to a wide range of disciplines and media allied by her ongoing interest in exploring transitional spaces and borders. Her pieces throw up strong and powerful emotional and intellectual congruences and dissonances. All in all, there was much to see here.

img_9897

Including this years invited artist, Artemis Potamianou, from Athens, who sadly couldn’t be present at the weekend. Rather than explain the project I’m attaching the introduction to it. Suffice to say that these alterations and improvisations put the works that had been riffed into new and disturbing conjunctions.

img_9894

Mela – HMS, Long Eaton

12974251_10154150649968336_4744633689186771009_n

Rob Van Beek

Drawing used to play a central role in any self respecting artist’s practice…I say ‘used to’ as it seems nowadays that much contemporary work makes very different kinds of statements about, and defines our relationships to the self and the world around us by other means, so that we certainly see less of it regardless of whether it goes on or not. Of course now we have a battery of other ways of recording or replicating our observations of the external worth or the interior worlds of our imaginations, and the advent of the digital age has exploded and befuddled our grasp on where those boundaries we thought existed. But drawing, on this evidence certainly does ‘go on’.

12936581_10154150649043336_2934785515830549723_n-1

Sardul Gill discussing his drawing

In the context of this relative ‘hidden’ life of drawing, the idea of what drawing is or can be has been mined in very novel ways several times over recent years, we have of course the Jerwood prize, the fascinating Rabley sketchbook competition, the utterly marvellous ’43 Uses’ show curated by Paul Curaton & Craig Staff back in 2011 that ought to have been seen and discussed by many more than it was, and in its modest way, we can now add this outing.

Stimulated by a conversation a year or so back at Backlit Studios between HMS’s Jackie Berridge, Rob Van Beek and Martin Lewis the idea of the MELA came up as a means to explore aspects of drawing in the region. One of the key notions behind the show was to bring in new artists to the venue alongside those above and others who have shown here before. Hence the first appearances at HMS of quite a few whom I am unfamiliar with as well as others I know quite well but have previously not shown here. The idea of the MELA is spelt out by the organisers here.

12963921_10154150650303336_4870710532902137839_n

Stephen Waterhouse

The illustrator Stephen Waterhouse is one of the new names to me. Stephen’s topographical study of Manhattan stretching northwards from the Twin Towers is both lyrical and poignant – he revealed, during a short ‘show and tell’ session that was a rewarding feature of the opening, that he had begun the work on site before returning home where, whilst continuing to develop it he heard the news of the 9/11 attack, whereupon he ceased working it up. Like much of the work on show there is considerable delicacy and deftness of touch at work here…and then passages that remain tentative or wholly undeveloped – a reminder of the horror of the event.

A quite other demonstration of this deft and delicate approach to the idea of a drawing comes in the form of a lovely abstraction by Sardul Gill. Sardul is an artist I’ve known for many years but whose work is much less frequently seen out and about than it ought to be (he isn’t the only one represented in this show). Sardul’s piece is playful, relying upon collage and accidental elements that he then riffs off of, and has a sense of balance and ‘thusness‘ (that Buddhist term beloved of Bernard Leach in describing ceramics of real quality).

Amongst the other ‘newcomers’ to the Mill is Gabriel Tejada who hails from Peru by way of the Royal College and, nowadays, Repton in South Derbyshire. There’s three smallish drawings here with considerable finesse – a lightness of touch that builds into dense, intense and atmospheric space within which curious figures are partially submerged. These figures have something of the bulbous quality one might find in the great Columbian master Botero, though there the comparison ends as these characters are dark, mysterious and somewhat threatening. If any other artist is called to mind its the feverish imaginings of Odilon Redon but here too the comparison doesn’t hold, if anything these are simply Tejada’s people coming at us tentatively, almost liminally, off of the page.

12990868_10154150649563336_8076789402609565213_n

David Willetts introduces his drawings

Facing across from Tejada is another artist whose drawings are worked up very sensitively indeed. perhaps not surprisingly as David Willetts is both one of the region’s most talented and most experienced artists with a reputation for impeccable draughtsmanship. Here he shows a small group of drawings of a plant to which he returns again and again discovering more about both the subject and the object, exuberant and luminous pastel and pencil pieces, and in the process, more about himself. Willetts is one of our best artists hereabouts and deserves to been seen more often. When his work has been shown in the past few decades it has often been in the company of Peter Cartwright. Cartwright is another of the more senior artists in Notts and has been painting and drawing fabulously strong work for many years. He says of his approach that “I make intense unpremeditated responses through drawing, to fragments, objects and situations, creating a stock of images that feed the working process.” Here he brings a counterpoint to much of the work around him in that there’s a raw energy to his drawing that contrasts with many of the other works on show.

12928154_10154150650278336_1309454342350465344_n

Martin Lewis

There are strong offerings, in quite different ways, from each of the show’s progenitors. Martin Lewis shows two small conceptually driven pieces…one a thousand white lines, that the artist rightly insisted were all there! Jackie shows a lovely piece that opens the show with a strong narrative element whilst Rob assembles a fine array of curious small plastic frames in which his equally oddball pictographic drawings sit on a shelf. I’ve not mentioned quite a few of the other artists here but suffice to say there’s a delicate and, simply lovely, work by Gurminder Sikand, a strong iPad drawing from Mik Godley and two especially fine observational drawings from Ian Whitfield, who is also from Repton by way of the Royal College. With another dozen or so equally strong offerings from other artists this show is well worth a visit.

Open
Saturday 23rd, April 1-3pm 
Sunday 24th, April 1-3pm
‘Measurement and Anti-Measurement in Drawing’
Sunday 24th April, 2-3pm
Talk and discussion introduced by Rob Van Beek

Grateful thanks to Maggy Milner for use of her photos of the show.

 

Wet, Wet, Wet

Garstin.the-rain-it-raineth-every-day

I have just managed to catch up with Cornish Light at Nottingham’s Castle Museum – if you are reading this within four days of posting then you can just catch it otherwise a trip to Penlee House in Penzance between 20 June & 15 Sept. is required (and why not?!).  I spent three years in Cornwall in my teens and twenties and have made numerous visits to West Penwith over the years so have a special affection for the place.  But I thought I’d use Garstin’s The Rain It Raineth Every Day at the top of this post, not only because its a fine painting but it is an antidote to all those glorious views of the place that is only part of the Cornish experience.  My recollection of winters in south Cornwall is that they were often wet, wet and wet!

Garstin is an interesting artist and this picture is probably the one he is known best for.  Most of the artists who have ever lived are pretty much forgotten over time…a sobering thought for all of us!  But he studied in Antwerp and Paris and its probably there that he spotted the Impressionists and it is their influence (and their admiration for Japanese art) that’s at work in this canvas.  In particular I can’t think of this picture without thinking too of Gustave Caillebotte’s Paris Street;Rainy Day painted by that much underrated member of the Impressionists circle in 1877…just before Garstin arrived in the French capital.  Did he see it?  I’d like to think so…I can imagine myself as young Garstin thinking of working up the glistening promenade in similar vein to the cobbled street and deploying the formal shapes of the umbrella’s in much the same way as Caillebotte was attracted to them.  It’s the way I like to think that we painters think – like magpies storing pictorial tropes and forms away for future usage.

215300_3365286

This is a show easily overlooked…after all many of these painters though highly regarded in their heyday now only pop up mostly in the gloomy 19c galleries in our regional museums.  In such circumstances jostled and hedged in with the Pre-Raphaelites, Academicians and such many of the works would be overlooked.  Some are, in truth, of mainly academic or pleasurable interest only, but the best of them Walter Langley, Frank Bramley and of course, to my mind, the incomparable Stanhope Forbes here represented by a marvellous large painting, in which his Cornish light might be the leitmotif of the show, are wonderful works by artists, who – whilst not by that point at the cutting edge of contemporary art of their day – were at the top of their game.

Encounters & Collisions, Glenn Ligon at Nottingham Contemporary

Boetti-Incontri-pic

There’s a tiny embroidery by Alighiero e Boetti just inside gallery four that lends its title to that of the exhibition.  Boetti who famously added the ‘and’ to his name to indicate his dual personas and trailed it out into a whole series of contradictory positions is a seminal fellow traveller for the curator of what is essentially a group show.  Though Glenn Ligon‘s name is on the tin he imposes his own works but lightly in this event.  It was just momentarily a tad disappointing as I’ve seen relatively few of his ‘signature’ black text paintings in the flesh from a decade or so back. That said there are two representative and rather magnificent examples included here.

But overall this format provides riches a plenty.  The dualities are evident everywhere but perhaps the most significant and certainly the one that played out mightily in those early pictures is the continuing tussle between the desire to make substantive social comment against that of someone in thrall to a love of high modernism.  This leads to the full on collisions such as between a felt piece by Robert Morris cheek by jowl with Steve McQueen‘s seminal early work Bear.  These encounters and collisions enable us to experience quite disparate works that might never fetch up together again but the prism through which one is viewing them is entirely consistent with Ligon’s view of the world in which he has lived, the work into which he has delved and the wider sociopolitical contexts of our times.   It is both deliciously consistent and contradictory.

There were works I’d not previously seen and of course one’s well known to many but here given a fresh and distinctive context…that Franz Kline from the Tate looking very splendid given more space to breathe for example.  Amongst those few works I didn’t know was one that spoke very powerfully to several of Ligon’s underlying concerns Dave McKenzie (whose work in the 2014 Whitney Biennial I must have overlooked) harrowing video Babble in which a young man (the artist?) repeatedly stuffs a microphone into his mouth and tries to speak but gags and splutters. This powerful metaphor for the contemporary condition in the media saturated age especially still for many young black Americans spoke volumes and in an open ended questioning way that quite a few of the other works either didn’t or did so more didactically and ultimately perhaps a little less satisfactorily.  Overall this was one of NC’s best offerings to date as though a compendium of diverse material (like so many other shows over these past few years) this one hangs compellingly on a vision, that although eclectic like most of us, is that of an artist with plenty to say.

Solid Mass

18a827_fa31ef2b523e4a04a97b3e076744342b.jpg_srb_p_600_784_75_22_0.50_1.20_0

Hide, 2015 black and white clay, forged nails Lotti V Closs

In a virginal new space in the centre of Nottingham just across the way from the Nottingham Contemporary entrance (the enterprising Jennie Syson’s new gallery) there’s a long plinth on which sit nine new table top sculptures – the exhibition is Lotti V Closs‘s Mass.  In a way they might be rather old fashioned but for the way in which form is conjured up.  After all they are ‘proper’ sculptures – not least in the array of materials deployed that range from alabaster (a ‘proper’ Nottingham material that) through clay, brass, serpentine and soap stone and onto rubber, mahogany and other timbers. There are three wall mounted pieces, a panel or two, one that is mainly composed of the negative spaces of the three pieces that sit across from it winking back at it and saying in a sly way ‘look I can be part of something else and yet still be a part of you too’.  And two drawings…and what drawings, the one so slight and using colour in a spare manner but so beautifully judged.  Colour that crops up just a little here and there…that glowing red square thats pushed into the black clay purse…and elsewhere so carefully accenting the ways in which the inherent material colours the form in each piece so lovingly caressed into existence.  Juxtapositioning and draping, resting, supporting of each formal characteristic is the order of the day…and an abiding, achingly passionate love of material and form.  If I was reminded of anything here it was Alison Wilding‘s early work that I once had the privilege of working with, a manner of respecting and yet bending material into form that conjured up surprising and original poetic nuances and whispered suggestions of things half remembered or dreamt.  And if comparisons there must be (and in 2015 how can they be avoided?) for me there are none higher.  I hope that Lotti can sustain this level of engagement – if she can then we are in for real treats in the future.

Exposure (Format Festival) @ Deda

IMG_7981

Format photography festival has set itself the problem of having to come up with a theme for every iteration…of which there have now been seven. Given the vagaries of creative impulse, finance, availability and open submission it has to be a rather capacious holdall. This time around the title is Evidence. Well quite. Thats photography for you! At Deda the selection of the eight photographers from the open submission provides ample ‘evidence’ of both subject and interpretation. Images are culled from parts of the globe from abandoned cottages in Ireland to indigenous peoples struggling with climate change in Greenland, from fourteen year olds in Belgium, the Congo and Palestine. These last all the work of Benedicte Vanderreydt are amongst the most fascinating.  Not the images themselves that one might pass over erronously as in the vein of Larry Sultan or Bill Henson of those gauche young Americans but rather a fascinating trail through the tentacles of social media and how it throws a light on the ways in which the globe is shrinking digitally.  Giacomo Brunelli has developed a rather compelling, though highly romanticised, gloomy black and white shtick that most famously came into view in The Animals several years back.  After Animals 2 he’s now turned his attention onto Eternal London. They are attractive enough but I felt them a wee bit cliched what with the old ‘Paul Hill Man in the Snow with his back to us’ routine.  Back in the day this was not only striking and original – the clever contrast of the heavy black figure against the snow – but here it is played out against a grey sky and Big Ben…  and then played out rather repeatedly in contexts that don’t seem to speak much to the city’s nuances.  Ciril Jazbec‘s On Thin Ice came to Derby hot on the heels of the last Rencontres d’Arles and there is no denying either the quality of image making or the intensity of the images that speak directly to the dilemmas facing Unnartoq people.  These were cleverly constructed images and I’d have loved to see the whole series.  As a painter I am easily bored by photographic work that assembles vaguely poetic images and presents them in random combinations and there’s a little bit of that here…we all have a photo scrapbook nowadays that contains plenty of such pictures…so I’ll pass over those contributions and risk missing something truly profound maybe!  More coherently and properly constructed is the beautiful essay Cottages Of Quigley’s Point by – I assume – the young Irish artist Jill Quigley.  This uses the lightest of interventions – physical and/or digital? – to objectify the existing content and draw yet more attention to the questions that surround abandoned property in rural Ireland.  Its rare that a suite of images does exactly what it says on the packet (the artist’s own statement) but I felt he’d got this one spot on.  Overall there were plenty enough images here to grab one’s attention and hold it.  On this evidence there’s a deal of interesting and exciting work at this Festival – let’s hope it continues.

Einstein all lit up…

Wilson Robert

There’s a growing fashion, fuelled in part by a certain revisionist tendency in NYC gallery circles that one might cynically see as economic rather than creative, for revisiting the fifties and sixties. It partly explains an artist like Walter Darby Bannard popping up in Chelsea with the poppy minimal paintings of his youth. Given how dull, lifeless and frankly unexciting much recent work is there’s nothing wrong with casting an eye back at where it all went wrong. You might imagine that by the 70’s the bloom might have faded but there were still pockets of space where something new could spring up. That something was interdisciplinary collaboration and nobody did it with more energy than Robert Wilson, aided and abetted by a cast of characters that included Philip Glass and Lucinda Childs. In an extraordinary decade their joint masterpiece ‘Einstein on the Beach‘ stands as an outrider for a great deal of the cultural product coming out of New York in the subsequent four decades.

Goodness knows how Matthew Chesney and colleagues prised original material out of the hands of the gallerists to present the exhibition on at Backlit Studios until 17th May but it gives a local audience a unique opportunity to appraise this work’s context through primary source materials. Of course ‘Einstein’ is a work much discussed and admired but little experienced in full. Stagings have been few and far between over the years, not least because of the legendary costs associated with the work (over the years the economics of mounting Wilson’s works have defeated many including the Los Angeles Olympic Committee) and even when performed it is hard to imagine oneself disciplined enough to maintain full concentration through its nearly five hours duration. Many of us are probably familiar enough with the general tone of Glass’ work but again its likely that excerpts are remembered more often than not. Childs’ choreography too is probably recalled mostly through still images or short clips.

So what to make of the couple dozen items assembled here? Well firstly its a polished presentation, entering the gallery reminded me powerfully of being in Chelsea on the lower west side a few weeks back…until that is one of the two desk bound gallery assistants jumped up and came over to press programme and catalogue into my hands (that doesn’t happen in Chelsea or Bushwick for that matter), and the display itself is immaculately laid out in two rooms. The first sets out the libretto, score and Wilson’s sketchbook. These set the scene and powerfully convey the strange and intuitive way in which the work emerged. The rather curious manner in which Wilson enlisted the help of the young (very young) Christopher Knowles has been mulled over by many and the typed sheets here show just how prescient the material was at the time…a kind of post digital mash up of thoughts and observances set into a formalist structure (of sorts) and bashed out on an old underwood (probably…). The seven sheets were fascinating, and brought to mind Carl Andre, Dom Sylvester Houedard and Brian Connolly, the besequinned lead vocalist of The Sweet! amongst others. Glass’ score was ok…though just a couple pages of plain notation really, but Wilson’s sketchbook (of French vintage it seemed) was the real deal…the fresh, unvarnished initial workings out. And really they are simply expressed as an essentially visual exploration of light and shade, of spaces and nuance. I guess this is what drew him to Glass, a man exploring aural light and shade and a really obsessive attention to nuance. For it is nuances within timbres that Glass subtly exploits in a way that his main mentors (La Monte Young, Riley and Reich) were always a little less interested in…or at least never quite opened up in the way that he did. So everyone involved in the project got hitched onto the ways in which waves (aural and visual) can be squeezed up and stretched out and space can become tangible in ways that had hitherto been hidden from view. Or at least not viewed from within collaged narratives of inexplicable and indecipherable condition. There were of course precursors of a sort knocking around NYC at the time. I don’t know if Wilson saw Bruce Nauman’s early retrospective at the Whitney in 72 but I’d take a small wager on it…and he must have seen and discussed Robert Morris. We know his connections with avant garde dance and theater already but the heady brew of connections must have included a raft of the new art at the time. But that didn’t often extend to pointed but jumbled narrative connections in the way that Wilson and collaborators voraciously consumed them. For me one of the nearest aural comparators to ‘Einstein’ is the Bley/Haines/ Mantler masterwork ‘Escalator Over The Hill‘ simply for its ability to bend genres. I bet Robert was aware of that one too. So the sketchbook extracts are a knockout and you are left thinking you wish you could dip into the whole package. In addition Room one has a very gnomic little drawing from Lucinda Childs that could just as easily be a minimalist, say Don Judd, sculptor’s piece as a choreographic notation. More nuanced spaces being packaged up on graph paper neat as sixpence. Lovely.

Wilson Robert 1

So into the second room. Dominated by the Einstein chair, the actual piece from the first run of the work that seems on one level to be rather prosaic, the room is suffused with the sound track to the large video work, a portrait of Lucinda Childs, one of a series made in 2004. The chair is very totemic, not only because of its provenance (though its centrality in the work gives it real frisson) but also as an object in its own right. It has a super sense of balance and grace, complemented by the steel base and suggests that Wilson’s study of architecture plays a huge part in the shaping of his aesthetic. Around the walls are a selection of pencil drawings, sketches really, in which he deftly outlines the ways in which he plans to delineate the stage. They have that lazy grace that seems to define pretty much all post war American artists drawings (shades of Nauman again or even Paul McCarthy or Eva Hesse…or so many others) but also allow massive breathing space for the collaborators to interpret in bringing the sets to life. I was especially amused by Act IV, Scene C, Building…that looks for all the world like a quick sketch of The Baltic in Gateshead. There’s one other piece in the room by Andy De Groat, and thanks to Matthew Chesney’s illuminating talk, its rather intriguing. A small work, somewhere between a formalist drawing and a concrete poem, made in 2012 but titled ‘Paris Sequence, 1973‘ it hints at his place in the cast of characters who contributed to the overall genesis of ‘Einstein’. I’ve ghosted past the video portrait…for me it suggested Wilson riffing off his offspring a little. I may be wrong, and even if not, he could rightly lay claim to his historical role in providing the grounding for it, but I couldn’t help seeing Viola’s hand here…maybe Sam Taylor Wood (gawd help us) and perhaps too something of David Claerbout’s investigations of similar territory. I’m a big admirer of Claerbout and comparisons are odious but I felt the portrait was really only interesting as a coda to the exhibition and the relationship. Perhaps thats a little harsh…it did conjure up yet more thoughts on light and shade and of course bags more nuance.

So the show is a major achievement for an artist run space anywhere and even more so in a ‘provincial’ city in the Midlands…but I doubt anyone will be up on the train from ‘town’ to see it. Their loss I’d say.