WINNER OF ART & CULTURE ART CRITICISM PRIZE VOLUME III ANNOUNCED:
We are delighted to announce that Catherine Spencer is the winner of the third Art & Culture Art Criticism Prize for her review of Structure and Material at the Longside Gallery, Yorkshire. Jacques Testard and Benjamin Eastham, Editors of The White Review, were this edition's judges.
Comments from Jacques Testard and Benjamin Eastham, judges of the Art & Culture Art Criticism Prize Volume III:
The entry is successful because it stimulated, in us at least, a desire to see the show being reviewed. The piece is laudably unencumbered by jargon, and there is a natural fluency to the language that allows the writer to develop interesting and multifaceted critiques of the works without losing the reader's interest. We also appreciated the close attention paid to the work, and the fact that judgements of meaning and effect are predicated precisely upon thoughtful analysis of materials and concepts. This analysis justifies the engaging personality of the piece and the expression of the writer's opinion - the reader feels that the judgements passed are neither flippant nor overtly didactic, or pursuing a personal critical agenda.
Winner: Review by Catherine Spencer
Structure and Material
Longside Gallery, Yorskshire Sculpture Park
31 March - 26 June 2011
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My friend used to work in a Lush shop, and I’ll never forget her expression of disgust when recounting how she’d once knocked the bowl of greying, scum-skinned water where they demonstrated the bath bombs over herself. Karla Black’s Persuader Face (2011), a large rectangular spread of orangey-coloured chalky plaster pooled in the centre of the Longside Gallery’s gleaming concrete floor, immediately put me in mind of my friend’s anecdote, not least because several of the offending bath bombs litter its surface, but because it conveys the same sense of sickly pastel sweetness mixed with grimy, tacky nastiness.
At first, Persuader Face is all fun and games: you can track the playful traces made by Black’s hand as she spread out the dry plaster base, and those left by the bath bombs she rolled over it. But some of the bath bombs are cracked and split like fallen fruit, registering the projectile weapon force they were thrown with. Little mounds of plaster reveal circular cakes of eye shadow and power beneath, hidden and sly, suggesting lunar craters or the very spots and blemishes such confections are meant to cover. This is contested ground, covering the childhood sandpit to the war zone,mapped onto the female body in its battle for perfection. As you gaze down on the work’s terrain, however, it’s difficult to determine whether it critiques restrictive definitions of ‘femininity’, or celebrates transformative makeover.
Black’s concatenation of reference is achieved through the careful deployment of materials. It’s this attentiveness to the bodily and psychological ramifications of everyday items such as cosmetics that links her with Becky Beasley and Claire Barclay, the two otherwise very different artists on display. The decision to group these three artists under the Structural and Material title might seem like an easy way to bring together three practitioners represented in the Arts Council’s Collection, but what the curatorial concept lacks in ambition it makes up for in subtlety. Black, Beasley and Barclay are mining a shared seam, in which the materials used determine structure – physical and conceptual – and through which a superficial sweetness is undercut by something dark and unpleasant.
This is especially true of Beasley, whose apparently innocuous Shelves for My Parents (A Shelf for My Mother, A Shelf for my Father) (2010) pushes Ikea-style shelving units, slotted onto the gallery wall, into a meditation on mortality and generational cycles. Each neat wooden section with its light, utilitarian grain redolent of television units and computer tables, is built to fit her parent’s body measurements. It’s a simple but effective gesture: in the corner of the Longside’s hanger-like space, a slightly cold and impersonal warehouse flooded with light, I find my mind filled with images of shadowy catacombs and dusty crypts, with thoughts of death, decay and loss.
Despite this powerfully transportive affect, Shelves for My Parents nevertheless runs the risk of coming across as a bit, well, flat-pack and cheap, its relation of material to structure, its light touch with dark undertones, a little too easy. I wondered if that might be part of its point, a reflection on how our society seeks to sanitise and disinfect death, to pretend it doesn’t happen, focussing instead on the pleasures of mass-consumption in the here-and-now. Yet as with Persuader Face’s stance on the construction of femininity and gender stereotypes, Shelves for my Parents’ uncertainty is at once strength and weakness: you find yourself wishing these statements were delivered with a bit more conviction.
Beasley’s monumental black and white photographs of mute, partially shrouded pieces of furniture come closer to achieving it. Almost brutal in their pared-down aesthetic, the objects in each become charged surrogates for their owners, the forlorn legs sticking out from heavy dustsheets standing for abandoned houses, shuttered lives and concealed desires, intimating the kind of emotions that are best kept hidden. Curtains I, II, and III (2009) focus specifically on covering and wrapping. Beasley presents the delicate folds of material in each photograph, with their theatrical resonances of veils, screens, hauntings and grave cloths, as metaphors for the creative act (the extended title of each image quotes musician Glenn Gould’s account of entering the studio to start work). The curtains are transformed into a contemplation of the subterranean layers of thought that feed into artistic production, while registering the suspicion that some thoughts are best concealed.
There are moments when these works really respond to each other, as when Black’s two other pieces pick up the imagery of shrouding and wrapping. What to Ask of Others (2011), which hangs immediately in front of Beasley’s Curtains, is a tissue of light pink polythene dusted with plaster powder and held up by wires which, despite its ostensible prettiness, looks like a cartoonish ectoplasm. Unused To (2007) consists of two crumpled sections of pink and green sugar paper, coated with toothpaste, nail varnish and soap. There’s an uncomfortable association of confectionary, of dusty sherbets in twisted paper bags, with something chalky and chemical that would stick in your mouth, at the same time as a veiled comment on the futility of beauty products in the face of encroaching decay.
Claire Barclay’s work picks up on these links between tactile experience and the ways in which we understand, or misunderstand, the world around us. Quick Slow (2010) features a half-completed tapestry suspended on a black frame, but the apparent uniformity of its interlinked pattern descends into a congealed confusion of threads. This tapestry will never be complete: its pretentions to functionality and order are undermined so that it remains suspended awkwardly between abstract and concrete, challenging our ability to identify the material components of daily life with any certainty. The potential for material to confuse structure and complicate meaning infects Barclay’s other works such as Flat Peach (2010), which is also structured around a black frame, onto which several half-sphere shapes of netted fabric in pink and black have been balanced. It put me in mind of a milliners or beauty parlour in disarray, with its disintegrating base and bisecting silver pole, bent back on itself and topped at each end with mean silver points.
But I found the relation between structure and material in Barclay’s work to be almost wilfully difficult. Although arguably more complex, Flat Peach and its companion piece Soft Group (2010) lose out in comparison to the richness of associative links in Black and Beasley’s works, and the deft way in which they create an unconformable convergence of attraction and repulsion, despite their moments of unproductive ambiguity or cliché. Structure and Material stimulates productive reflection on the relationship between the physical qualities of a work and its resulting affect, but offers no overarching conclusion. Perhaps that’s as it should be: an easy way to obtain it would have been to present Black, Barclay and Beasley as female sculptors. Instead, Structure and Material presents three contemporary sculptors who are very much exploring and getting to grips with their working processes and materials – an ultimately somewhat traditional premise brilliantly enlivened by the inventiveness of its artists.