Cooper Gallery Dundee

Drawing Breath, the second phase of the Materiality and Metaphysics series at Dundee’s Cooper Gallery, pairs photographs and video by Kraig Wilson, a recent graduate of the Royal Academy Schools, with drawings by Lys Hansen, whose reputation as the painter is long established. Bringing together two such distinct bodies of work in one exhibition is a potentially risky strategy. In the event, however, the risk pays off handsomely: constellations of matched works open out shared concerns and complex relations emerge between individual pieces. The result is as much dialogue as display.

From the entrance foyer, haunting music pervades the exhibition, distinguishing the gallery from the busy art school corridors that surround it, and marking it out as a site of melancholy reflection. The space is sparsely furnished: small groups and pairings are hung at intervals and several works are simply propped against the wall. The abstracted figure that populates many of Hansen’s drawings appears again and again around the room, a mere outline, a ghost or spectre. This is the first exhibition of Hansen’s drawings, making visible a part of her practice that has until now been private and obscured. The fruit of her yearly trips to Berlin, the works record the shifting state of that city: they are a meditation on its dark past and its subsequent reconstruction, an exploration of how the city is marked by history and time. For Hansen this process finds its embodiment in the human figure, created by and creating the urban environment: architectural planes are used as compositional elements, sometimes framing the body, sometimes created by the repetition of the human form itself. A series of three works are presented at floor level: in each, the outline of head and shoulders is repeated; figure is overlaid with figure creating a sense of fractured subjects, internally riven. Titles such as Paint Out the Memories add a sense of unease and anxiety. This is the subject stripped back, raw and uncovered.

Against the black, white and grey of Hansen’s paper works, Wilson’s large-scale colour prints draw the eye. Dominating the room is Still Life I (Mother), part of his Origins series. A middle-aged woman sits on a bed, turning, with towels wrapped around her hair and body: the camera captures every line, sag, and pore, every broken blood vessel. There is no attempt to makes the surrounding appear other than banal and ordinary. But at the same time, swathed in blue and white, this woman is also a Renaissance Madonna. The timeless essence of idealised womanhood, she gazes past the camera, transcending the indignities of bodily life. She is a figure between the flesh and the spirit, between the real and the ideal, between the human and the inhuman.

Other eyes are also raised heavenwards. In Hansen’s Reach, a three-faced figure is foregrounded against the repetitive rectangles of skyscraper windows, stretching to a beam that hovers unsupported in the space above. Perspective and scale give a sense of movement and of masking: a small face within a larger downcast face merge with an uplifted profile. In an inhuman environment, this masked grey figure stands for a universal gesture rather than any individuality. Hung with Reach are with Wilson’s Noah I and 2, part of a body of work created in Texas, where the photographer spent time living with a devout Baptist community. Seeking the transcendent within the everyday lives of the community, Wilson ended up focusing his lens primarily on children. Noah jumps into the air while playing on the street, fixing his eyes on the clouds, stretching his young body towards the sky. This child is a liminal figure, suspended like Hansen’s Carousel Child 2, which tellingly mirrors the composition of her Angel, between the human and the divine.

The child also serves as the focus of a less romantic constellation of ideas. In one corner, works are hung high on the wall: the viewer physically strains to understand Hansen’s Howl and In a Dark Place. Wilson’s accompanying composition shows a man turned away from the camera: the sight upon which he is focused is inaccessible, its significance unknowable. Here the viewer is aligned with a child’s perspective, protected perhaps but also denied, held at a distance. This exclusion points to a darker reading of the child’s liminal position. For if the child can stand as a figure of the divine within the human, then it can also stand as a figure for the animal within, untamed and uncivilised. It is Wilson’s video installation Lost Boys II which explores this idea most obviously. Shown in a dark anteroom, it turns out to be the source of the music: this space has been calling to us since our arrival. In slow motion, young men prowl towards the camera and then fade like phantoms into the darkness: wild and sinister, a laughing face appears and disappears, is replaced by a boy caressing a gun, bare-chested figures walk into the background, away from the camera and the light. Cast outs perfoming a rite of passage, these moody boys are symbols of dangerous sexuality and fierce desires.

In this dark space we also find Laboratorium, the largest of Hansen’s drawings, made especially for this show. It too explores the dark side of the human, in this case the mass extinction of the Nazi’s final solution. Cold rationalitisation at its most extreme negates itself as it becomes extreme irrationalism: the most barbaric act of animal cruelty. In Laboritorum, the abstracted human figure no longer stands for the universal, but, moving along planes that have become assembly lines, for the dehumanised, experimental subject.

‘Materiality’ is currently something of a buzzword, ‘metaphysics’ its unfashionable twin. But as this display shows, these concepts are intimately bound up with and dependent upon one another. As an exhibition, Drawing Breath opens the space for an interchange on the question of what it is to be human. The pairing of Wilson and Hansen is an inspired one: their works, so different on the surface, illuminate and refract one another creating a haunting meditation on the contradictions and difficulties of being at once flesh and spirit.