Visual art exhibitions and events with a platform for critical writing
25 February - 18 March
Reviewed by: Heidi Wigmore »
The faintly menacing and exotic sounding 'Scintilla', is the title of a group show featuring three artists, curated by Nastassja Simensky at Coexist Galleries in Southend-on-Sea.
The word is interpreted as "a minute amount, hint, trace or particle" and my immediate impression when entering the main gallery of this former waterworks is of a sparsely hung show of visual paradoxes: installations and collaged works.
I see the show in the week after the Japanese earthquake, as the fallout is still unfolding; global events are taking a psychological toll. This is what I'm thinking about as I encounter Helen Edling's group of precarious bamboo tower constructions. Slivers and shards bound together with twine, beautifully hand crafted, they reach to my waist. They are beguiling 3D drawings in space. Each of the seven towers is a different height and incorporates a spindly ladder (mostly futile as they lead nowhere) and a platform supporting a clod of earth, each one sprouting a small mass of green grass. A single light bulb hangs in their midst and projects creeping shadows across the floor Is this the artificial light of permaculture or the interrogatory all-seeing eye? They are like gardens on stilts that, despite their inherent fragility, defiantly stay upright. The artist states an interest in "social systems and people's dreams and fears". Is this geo-engineering or survival?
A small blackout space beyond the main gallery houses miniature trees the scale of bonsai, which are actually bits of dead winter branches sourced from around the outside of the gallery. Their skeletal forms seem to sprout from the concrete floor in the dark, illuminated by a single bulb that emanates an eerie green glow on their synthetic nature. I'm acutely aware that on the other side of the world, nuclear power stations are leaking radiation.
Chloe Brooks' installation offers a dramatic contrast in the Winch Room: an eight-metre-high industrial space with the old winch mechanism and iron girders looming far above your head. Here, we have architectural language reconstructed through the interplay of high contrast clash of colour - an industrial palette of orange and grey, cables and pipe work delineated in white. It brings to mind 1960s town planning.
A large classical arched structure is propped up awkwardly over the doorway, six metres high, a fat grey plastic drainpipe resists it from beneath. This imposing structure is constructed from scuffed and worn hardboard reclaimed from building sites, and echoes the blocked-out arched windows of the building but seems disorientated: perspective out of kilter. Surrealist Giorgio de Chirico comes to mind, whose compositions present a similar spatial incoherence. For me, the entire installation functions like a collage, with its unexpected connections and shifting elements. Also, there seems to be a site-specific nod to Southend's unlovely mix of Regency architecture from its resort heyday and faceless 1960s commercial office buildings.
Laura Cherry's collages present found images as metaphorical dramas, made up of poignant psychic and physical processes. With their directly opposing elements and heightened perception, they have something in common with John Stezaker's own collages. Like his work, they deliberately delete and reconfigure finely selected visual elements. Three pieces are encased in perspex and suspended in space beneath the arches that divide the main space, thereby exhibiting a lightness of being and enabling the viewer to experience both sides of the constructed image.
One presents a hermit crab crashing into the frame of a classical Greek sculpture, finely cut with the precision of the surgeon's scalpel. Here we have 'culture', a broken relic from antiquity 'liberated' from the past and a perfect nature-hybrid of the crab appropriating an empty shell. The collision is made explicit on the reverse: an indeterminate slice of sea-life cutting through the text of a 'Handbook of Greek Sculpture' at an alarmingly oblique angle. The opposing forces of nature/culture?
One of these two-way images is of a carnivorous plant that appears - through the cut holes that function as pinpoints of light through the paper - to have eaten itself. Another, has precisely cut out negative egg forms which glow as white space. On the reverse, these alluring absences are given solid form, in the midst of an image of undergrowth. This poetic void, where the eye shifts and reads what is or is not there, questions our perceptions. The artist says that "the work requires the viewer to suspend disbelief and make a conceptual leap". In this, they owe much to the rich heritage of Max Ernst and his darkly humorous, bizarre imagination, whose mysterious collages served to bring the unconscious into view.
Alone on a far wall, I can just make out an unidentifiable ruined building in a small image of over-exposed blackness, a solar flare or burn hole cut through the paper. Is this civilisation in meltdown?
Events in Japan reveal how thin the margin is on which our modern world exists, and perhaps 'Scintilla' hints at this with its fragments of other realities and of possibilities for transformation. This may be unsettling in this most unsettling of times but a fertile and playful imagination is alive and well here.
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