Surface Gallery

Nottingham has been positively stuffed with contemporary art across the last few months, thanks to the British Art Show 7 and its attendant fringe programme, Sideshow 2010. There’s been a good deal of interesting work in a variety of projects and exhibitions, but to tell the truth, the thing as a whole became rather overwhelming. With so much going on, I confess I struggled to get around all the things on my ‘to see’ list (working in the city but living elsewhere, I have limited time available) so given this sense of work stacking up, my encounter with a project at Surface Gallery entitled Pile seemed rather apposite. For a start Pile includes work by some 26 artists from the east Midlands and beyond, so it’s an opportunity to get a big ‘hit’ of art in one go, and despite the tag that this is a sculpture show, the works presented are as diverse a range of offerings as contemporary art can muster. (They include paintings, drawings and animation, though their ‘content’ or means of display certainly explore sculptural concerns.) But whilst it is a microcosm of British art conveniently presented in one venue, Pile isn’t at all interested in notional surveys and seeks instead to question current conventions of how works are shown within a group exhibition.

Rather than offering each piece the usual interpretative cordon defined by blank wall or floor space, here the art objects are brought into close proximity through a series of groupings: works lean on or against one another, and are even, as the title indicates, piled up. This isn’t the conceptual car crash some might imagine: the reality is much more orderly. Each grouping (one of seven numbered areas identified in the gallery handout) seems to have a particular flavour or theme. In one section, many of the works involve or relate to furniture and furnishings: Gerard Williams’ ‘Caenarfon’ is a structure involving maple veneer and Damask upholstery, David Esser’s ‘Untitled (Coke Stack)’ presents a trestle manufactured implausibly from balsa wood (upon which balances a stumpy relative of Brancusi’s ‘Endless Column’, formed from a series of gilded coke cans) and the grouping itself is delineated by the extent of Audrey Reynold’s ‘Curbelow Belton’, aka a length of blue foam-backed carpet. Elsewhere in the gallery another heap of art works seem preoccupied with landscapes and the natural world, though in rather mutable/mutant manifestations: Lauren O’Grady’s ‘Only give me back the world I threw away’ involves a sort of blobby planet adhered to a domestic coffee table, Annie Whiles’ scary beakless birds have grinning little lips replacing their mandibles and Lynn Fulton’s ‘Hedge’ renders this staple of the English landscape into a flattened caricature of itself, which ultimately becomes a sort of stage set for the other works. And yet another group brings together various over-scale objects: Laura McCafferty’s outsize apron lying across a huge stool and Neil Zackiewicz’s clothes hanger in oak and steel, or his enormous coloured pencils.

Ultimately, though, matters are not quite so neat: there are echoes and reflections between groupings, which trouble and disrupt the apparent categorisations. A recurrent motif across several piles is Sean Edwards’ fascination with boxes patterned with an RS logo where it is hard to discern in each instance if we are looking at a real RS box or something fabricated to look like one: it is difficult to tell the difference between a sculpture and mere packaging (and the fact that this box is also represented in a painting only adds to the confusion…) The uncertain status of objects is increased still further as Zoe Mendelson’s vintage slide projector (itself cannibalised with a paper cone in place of a lens, which then ‘projects’ a graphite drawing on a paper screen) sits on top of what appears to be a bit of real packaging (from Hedley’s Humpers – ‘shippers of fine art and antiques worldwide’.) Simon Franklin and Lee Triming, meanwhile, construct their own varieties of box in cardboard or paper, and David Bance takes a ‘Brown Box Sculpture’, as the subject of his painting.

Out in the world beyond the gallery, piles often exist as a means of sorting and categorisation; things are brought together (temporarily) for consideration before they find a more permanent home or assignment. Such a process is made explicit in this project: works coalesce in one grouping, but other possibilities remain potent. Certain approaches to pattern reoccur across different artists’ work and in different piles (Triming’s boxed triangles evoke Sean Cummins’ zigzagging paintings); there seems to be a conversation about colour between those who prefer a murky, rather melancholic palette (paintings by Bance, Dan Ford, Frank Kent) and those opting for more lurid possibilities (sculpture from Craig Fisher, Jonathan Baldock, Jock Mooney, S. Mark Gubb); and a series of works offer sculptural simulations (Fisher’s ‘Platform’ has Styrofoam and Neoprene standing in for wood, Triming’s work appears to have been created through pencil shading, but is instead formed from folded paper, and it transpires that Brendan Lyons ‘Snasm’ uses acrylic paint to mimic plastic incident tape.) There is, then, the feeling that one might undo the current arrangement to form other conjunctions and thus foreground quite different ideas. We are used to discussing ideas in which the works in a group show are thought to explore a particular issue or create some kind of conversation: here the volume is raised and there is an energetic but purposeful cacophony.

Much has been said and written in recent years about the varying and sometimes vexed role of the curator in contemporary art: aided by an international proliferation of MA courses, the curator has seemingly assumed the mantle of power once assigned to critics. Artists often suspect curators of misrepresenting their practice and turning it to their own (probably nefarious) critical ends, but here the premise is absolutely clear: Pile’s curators set out to transform their own work and that of all the other artists into ‘one overarching piece’. That the two curators’ own objects are included in the pile up adds nicely to the complexity; they write in the gallery handout that the show starts ‘to make the definition between artist and curator’, but what’s interesting is that ultimately it muddies the waters between these roles: the definition seems to be that it is a purposefully grey area. In the end I’m left with the thought that both artists and curators are (perhaps counter-intuitively) rather subservient to the works they make and show. Anxiety about the right way to present work seems to suggest that artworks are quite feeble things, which somehow need protecting if they are to survive the exhibitionary process: by contrast Pile makes very clear just how resilient and assertive artworks can be, and how vibrant the visual, spatial and conceptual collisions that result from a bit of artistic rough and tumble.

Pile was curated by Craig Fisher and Simon Franklin. It was commissioned as part of Sideshow 2010, the official fringe festival for the British Art Show 7 in Nottingham and will tour to Chapter Arts Centre in Cardiff, running from 4 February to 20 March, 2011.