Last week two very different art forms evoked similar responses in me: cringe, fascination, laughter, discomfort as well as leaving lasting impressions.
Sarah Lucas and Gareth Brookes address our obsession with the physical stuff of sex with all its lack of grace and leakage.
As we awkwardly navigated our way around Sarah Lucas’s SITUATION Absolute Beach Man Rubble at the Whitechapel Gallery it was as if she was accompanying us, her self portrait photographs lending the exhibition an autobiographical aspect.
Gareth Brookes has produced a graphic novel, The Black Project, (Myriad Editions, 2013) The imagery throughout is from embroidered pieces and lino cut prints. It is an unsettling story, presented as fiction that also suggests being informed by autobiography.
In Lucas’s work there is a sense of the immediate – the throwaway laddish gestures and the jokes. We recognize these and as we walk around the show, we are perhaps reminded of the relentlessness of the innuendos and signs that surround us in our world, as in this exhibition.
Brookes’ work is the story of an adolescent boy, Richard, grappling with his burgeoning sexual urges, through the disturbingly painstaking making of dolls – sex dolls. He experiments to create vaginas for each doll that he can put his penis into as he lies on top of her, so it will feel as he imagines it ought to. It is this last facet that makes the book so brilliantly excrutiating. He takes pairs of his mother’s tights and fills them with old socks to form the doll’s legs. He does not consider the objects as dolls but as his girlfriends. He talks to them each night. They are objects though. Lucas also has pieces made from stuffed tights. Near the entrance is a polyurethane resin toilet bowl on a plinth with a stuffed tights sculpture alongside. The human ness of the reference to piles of excrement or intestines is obvious but it is also a nod to Marcel Duchamp and Louise Bourgeois. Sited at the entrance to the space, it contextualizes the exhibition.
Lucas has created sex dolls too. Objects. I might be shy but I’m still a pig (2000) is two hams connected with a pair of knickers and positioned with all their oozing traces on a mattress. We read it as a human woman and as a piece of meat. We humans really are animals aren’t we. We secrete, we issue discharge, it’s what we do, never more than during sex. And it’s all so unbearable and funny. The ham legs could easily have appeared in Brookes’ Richard’s experiments if he’d had access to ham, instead he is limited to the stuff he finds in his grandad’s shed, bits of rubber tubing, some false teeth, a lady’s wig!
Both Lucas and Brookes make use of the obvious and the throwaway. Lucas turns everyday objects into phallic symbols and Brookes reminds us that many of us will have made our own dolls or guys, it’s not as odd as it may appear. No more than the strange rituals around bonfire night. My favourite part of his book is…*skip this bit if you haven’t read the book* when Richard’s father discovers his latest “girlfriend” doll under his bed and Richard explains it as an entry for the school guy competition. His doll wins and Richard, devastated, feigns delight at watching her burn at the stake.
Included in Lucas’s exhibition are cement-based pieces, castes of the stuffed tights from cement and also from bronze. The quick and obvious gestures become more fixed, produced with a slower deliberation and process. Cement benches are formed from square panels. Within each panel, marks of the natural setting of the cement are visible, in this context they become stains. We may react to sex with quick throwaway comments and jokes, yet there are ingrained attitudes to sex at work within our cultural institutions, rigid and hard, like cement.
Throughout The Black Project one cannot help but be distracted by the amount of time Brookes has put into stitching and printing to create the artwork for this book. It is a book of process, slow and ongoing…like the process of growing up.
As I walked around the Lucas show, I heard some art students discuss with world weary cynicism how really Lucas has overdone all this sort of thing now. I didn’t butt in, but I didn’t agree as I looked at an enormous photo collage, of what looked like a pizza base covering one wall. Superimposed on top were little balls made from photos of end-of-penises. This is the earliest work in the show, 1989…ages ago…but how often are penises of any kind seen in public art galleries? yet so many art exhibitions have breasts or vaginas lurking about somewhere.
SITUATION Absolute Beach Man Rubble
2 October-15 December 2013
Stoke-on-Trent is the home to the now empty Spode factory. It was once the heart of the British ceramic manufacturing industry and driving through the rather forlorn centre the brown signs to Emma Bridgewater and Wedgewood catch the eye. We followed the brown signs to the ‘Cultural Quarter’ and arrived at….Debenhams.
Spode was one of the two largest potteries in Staffordshire and the huge, factory is currently host to the third British Ceramics Biennial. In 2008, the factory was closed. The workers were ushered from the factory, leaving their belongings behind. The contents of the factory were left.
The vast China Hall was the central focus of the Biennial. Here, in the Ibstock Brick Pavilion, artist Lawrence Epps‘ office workers made into brick blocks were stacked for the audience to take. The pile was depleted, echoing the historical decimation of the British manufacturing potteries industry so pertinent to the site. Epps was filming the activity.
We were visiting to see Topographies of the Obsolete: Vociferous Void which was in a separate part of the Spode site. It is a site-specific research project, a collaboration between partner universities and institutions in Denmark, Germany and the UK and included the work of fellow post methodist artist, Danica Maier.
British Ceramics Biennial
28 Sept until 10 Nov 2013
In 2010, John made new work for Beacon Art Project’s exhibition Profusion at Calke Abbey in Derbyshire. It was made for the saw pit in the grounds of Calke Abbey. The texts were collected over years from snippets John heard on the radio or read whilst working in his studio. Jumbled up in the saw pit it was a bit like the inside or our heads, where ideas we’ve come across compete with one another.
After de-installation, the wooden texts were left, like ideas are left in our brains, to breath and flourish. Recently, John developed the work, now exhibited outside the Chapel in Wellingore. The wooden planks and texts – weathered, cut and re-positioned, have merged and connected to one another, the way ideas should, to form a new narrative and meaning.
We are big fans of artist Simon Faithfull and have a copy of his limited edition book, King’s Cross: A Pictorial Guide (unreliable) 2012 Ditto Press
It is a charming and beautifully designed walk around King’s Cross, combining historical details of the area with Simon’s own historical details.
The grandness of the statues and buildings identified is juxtaposed with Simon’s idiosyncratic personal anecdotes, such as falling of a bicycle drunk and knocking his tooth out, bringing the geography and narrative of the walk alive. Each page features Simon’s drawings.
In 2011 Nottingham Castle Museum & Art Gallery won the Contemporary Art Society Annual Award of £60,000 to commission artist Christina Mackie to work on Commission to Collect. The award is for a Museum to commission an artist of their choice to make work to add to their permanent collection. On Friday 8 March 2013, we went to the opening of the work, The Judges III
and how well it was placed in this space…
Trestle tables were set out displaying a collection of “stuff” including photos of rocks from her trip to Australia, some with watercolour paint on; shapes of clay with glaze drizzled in parts; piles of ground clay/pigment.
It’s always great to bump into student artists/curators who have been working on a show installation or are invigilating, because they get really close to the work and artist. “What’s this about then?” I asked a young curator. She told me that whilst in Australia, Mackie had been struck by the faces in the rocks…often looming over as if judging. Once pointed out, there they were…these judging faces, evident throughout the display. But there was other stuff…ephemera too…
We went downstairs to hear Paul Dobson, Director of the Contemporary Art Society talk about the work and the point of the award…He implored us not to experience the work with an attempt to understand it, as, he quite rightly said, we often do when looking at contemporary art. It was a good instruction and freed us when we returned to walk around.
We noticed details…there were carefully positioned objects under the trestles in some places. The ropes connecting the trestles were hand made from Pakistan and the artist had had them in her studio for some time, waiting for a use.
I enjoyed the work. There was a film of a conversation between Deborah Dean, Director and curator of Nottingham Castle and Christina Mackie that I watched. It provided a really good context. Deborah asked some really clear questions (like about the faces). Some of the footage was taken in Christina’s studio with her showing some of the things she has collected there waiting for a piece where they will fit.
Perhaps my favourite detail was this
An ambiguous bit of paint on the museum’s ledge, that I assumed was part of the museum referred to in the artist’s use of paint colour.
There was a collection of catalogues about Mackie’s work. I was drawn to this one, because of the title
And felt quite excited to discover a post it note inside it, intrigued to see what had been left in by mistake…to realise it was part of the book.
Read more about the exhibition and read about The Contemporary Art Society