Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Laura White at the Spacex Gallery

Laura White’s exhibition at the Spacex Gallery in Exeter tells us We Can Have It All. Variety seems to be a key element. The main display gallery is turned into a sculptural hall which makes play with the grandeur of cavernous museums and galleries, the churchlike spaces in which Culture is reverently displayed. The objects here arrayed reflect the kind of things you might expect to find in those hallowed halls, but irreverently fashioned from cheap and throwaway materials and shot through with artificially bright and cheekily cheerful primary colours. White’s sculptures are displayed on plinths of varying shapes and, most importantly, height. The varying elevations granted each object suggest a competitive jostling for position and attention, for a symbolic place of prominence betokening a pinnacle of influence and critical approval. The different levels of the plinths also help to create an overall panoramic view from either end of the hall, and to provide contrasting groupings as the viewer threads their way through the maze of objects. Some of these objects are built up from the stuff of moulded plastic mass production, around which clay, putty or plasticene has been built up. The thumbprints in the malleable material marking the shaping of human hands contrast nicely with the smooth and shiny surfaces of the roundly smooth plastic, whose moulding has been entirely the work of machines. Traces of the plastic objects which are the structural foundations show through. There’s the barrel of a toy gun, the curving bowl of a serving spoon, the wheel of a toy car, the arc of partially exposed carpet bowling ball globes, the cantilevered handle of a colander, the grinning teeth and bulging eyes of toy animals and the contoured spouts of watering cans. A bright canary of a yellow lemon squeezer seems to diffuse downwards through the teetering assemblage atop which it precariously perches. The symmetrical spouts of two watering cans, one green, one orange, which form the spreading ‘wings’ of a sculpture similarly infect its colouration, lending its upper half a dipped marbled mottling. The unnaturally bright colours of all these things stand out against the white and grey of the clays in which they are embedded. It’s like some amalgam dug up in the far future from a 20th/21st century geological strata, veined with the non-degradable detritus of the modern throwaway age, has been used as a sculptural material. White reclaims these plastic materials which are so ubiquitous as to be invisible and looks at them afresh, enjoying their clearly unnatural colours and contours. By layering more traditionally sculptural forms, redolent of more skilled sculptural techniques, over the top she both makes the case for the continuing relevance of sculpture in an age of mass manufacture, and creates a witty (and fun) sense of tension between the mass-produced and the artfully created – between high and low culture.

The high culture of art history is referred to throughout, set into jumbled juxtaposition, classical, religious and modernist tendencies all thrown together in close potted history proximity, staring and pointing at one another. There’s an element of light mockery to these allusions, pastiches which bring the reverence and mystification accorded to much art down to size. A rounded, hollowed out form resembles a model of a Barbara Hepworth sculpture, but the plastic objects which form the basis of those curves belie the inspiration of the natural world which was so central to her work. Another work which mixes white plaster like material with colourful inserted objects brings Miro’s sculptures to mind – the toys embedded here seeming oddly appropriate. A brightly unwinding spiral helter skelter may allude to Vladimir Tatlin’s Constructivist dream model for the Monument to the Third International, but its vivid red is more fairground colouring than post-revolutionary Soviet Russian heraldry. The twisting vines Medieval and Renaissance crosses, which would have been wrought out of gold, are here rendered in grey putty-like clay, their decorative detailing created not by fine filigreed work and embedded jewels but by the impressions of plastic fruit shapes and the faces of children’s plastic toys. There are geometrical sculptures like something by Gaudier-Brzeska (but made out of scraps of wood) and spindly iron figures in a post-war British style. A CD rack covered in different colours of plasticene (or blu-tac?) even becomes a bit of miniaturised minimalism, a compact Donald Judd piece for the mantelpiece. Classical works are given back their colour, and relieved of their ‘ideal’ forms. A mossily bearded Ptolemaic bust is given a blue and green mottled patina, as if it has been copiously crapped on by pigeons producing polychromatic birdlime. This tends to undermine the dignified philosophical regard of the sculpted features, indicating a person of deep seriousness and importance – making it all the more funny, of course. Another bust, a female figure this time, is painted in dark ashen grey, with the whites of its eyes staring solemnly out. It looks like one of the living busts from Jean Cocteau’s film La Belle et La Bete. Two other classical figures are rendered in gnome-like size and placed on low-level plinths which reduce them further in comparison with the towering objects which surround them. With their rounded pot-bellies and hands resting on hips or about to scratch balls, not to mention the fact that they’re dipped in poster-paint blue and green, they are distinctly non-heroic forms. Their physiques owe more to the Smurfs than they do to some idealised vision of Adonis or Aphrodite.

The remaining room, walled off from the main gallery, is given over to three large pictures of individual sculptures, which are leaned against the wall. This seems like a bit of a missed opportunity. It’s an ideal room for projections or works which use some element of light. Nevertheless, the photographs make the scale of the pieces ambiguous. Are they really this big, or could you in fact hold each of them in the palm of your hand? Are the vases which are piled up on top of each other in a brimful celebratory tower dolls house miniatures or the actual full-sized thing? They have the look of elaborate cakes, alternately evil and impregnated with enough e-numbers to set your eyes spinning like pinwheels. One, a layered pagoda of ornamented dishes, has black spiked excrescences protruding from its surface at regular intervals, as if some deadly mould had grown from infected spores. Another monumental cupcake (or ice cream globe) is topped with a bronze sphinx with brown headdress – caramel and chocolate, perhaps. They are confections which look both tempting and revolting. I think I’d probably have to pass.

This is an accessible and enjoyable exhibition, full of colour and variety, which wears its learning lightly and is a lot of fun to wander around. It continues until 23rd February.

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