For the past two years sisters Hayley and Sue Tompkins have been working as part of Spike Island’s design team for its £2.25m capital refurbishment project. That they should be invited to participate in the inaugural exhibition is apt considering their close involvement with the development of the new gallery spaces and the nature of their individual practices wherein work is often hung in response to the architectural idiosyncrasies of a space.
Continuing the trajectory of her recent work, Tompkins is exhibiting typewritten texts on sheets of newsprint which are hung from the gallery walls in various configurations. The papers flap in the breeze and curl at the edges. Their enigmatic texts are culled from her collections of words and phrases kept in notebooks and used as source material for her performances. Peculiar acronyms sit alongside recognisable words in a style reminiscent of concrete poetry, for example: ‘EASTATSIES a year later’, ‘ITS NEWS’ or ‘suffra get’ all appear, repudiating any determinate interpretation. Folds in the paper reveal how each sheet was manipulated and coaxed into the typewriter, emphasising the newsprint’s status as object as well as its fragile and ephemeral qualities. Tompkins has used the unusually tall gallery to hang some of the sheets frustratingly high, so that their texts become unreadable. While this is surely intentional (and somewhat mischievous) it doesn’t particularly encourage engagement with work that is already intentionally abstruse.
These works are inextricably linked to Tompkins’ performances, a fact that would probably elude gallery visitors unfamiliar with her oeuvre. In fact, her work is often written about in relation to the performative elements of her practice, with Tompkins herself speaking of the newsprint works as ‘the origin of her performances’. It raises the question of whether these gallery pieces can be appreciated as works in their own right or are they to be viewed merely as preliminary sketches, preludes to some other work that we may or may not be privy to?
Hanging alongside these are paintings by Hayley Tompkins. Overt references to Minimalism and geometrical abstraction run throughout her work; indeed, she has cited Malevich as one of her influences. Her own black monochrome, ‘No Title’, 2007, also brings to mind the black paintings of Frank Stella and others, although her modest watercolour sits as a direct negation of David Sylvester’s assertion that working with black paint signifies ‘something splendidly macho’. Like her other works, this small watercolour on paper is unframed and attached directly to the wall. Its edges are curling considerably, as if it were trying to escape the wall altogether. There are further small monochromes here too; a grey one, a pink one and three green ones, all of differing sizes. There are also several diminutive sculptural paintings (watercolours on balsa wood) that alone would probably pass unnoticed. It is only when they are juxtaposed with other works in this vast space that they seem to find their place.
The work of both artists is deliberately unspectacular and is installed here in such a way that the gallery has become incorporated as part of the work, affording viewers the opportunity to appreciate the new space itself as much as the art on its walls.
David Trigg is an artist and writer based in Bristol