The idea at the core of this group show is as antique as the artist’s studio itself: the creative dwelling and working place is mooted as a subject, medium or structural limit to each work. You could trace this idea back at least as far as Johannes Vermeer’s ‘The Artist’s Studio’, 1665-66, and probably further, into the very distant past of the Lascaux caves. But the idea has recently taken a battering, the victim of high rent, cheap laptops, and 30-odd years of poststudio practice and theory. The workshop—grim, dank, solitary—seems more and more like an albatross keeping artists from the hubbub of the streets, or an ideological battleground for the public art gallery. This exhibition seeks to redress the balance.
Although he isn’t represented here, Bruce Nauman’s early video works, in which he paced his patch like a caged colobus, is the beacon under which much of the work here operates. Most obviously, Charles Atlas’ early Super 8 film ‘Floor’, 1974, is a short loop in which a man, with the physique and clothes of a dancer (tracksuit trousers tucked into white socks, thin black pumps), languidly paces and rolls around a polished wooden floor. Nauman can claim to have executed his piece earlier, but Atlas’ work is more elegant and sensual. Matt Mullican’s video ‘Untitled (Mullican Shooting-Close) from: Psycho Architecture: Experiments in the Studio, November 5-7’, 2001, ‘Part 2.2’, 2001-2004, is as long and rambling as the tile, but essentially features the artist filming his own feet and furnishings, capturing the boredom and mundane character of the studio.
Alex Hubbard’s video ‘Screens for Recalling a Blackout’, 2009, owes its method and style to Fischli and Weiss’ ‘Der Lauf der Dinge’, 1987. A camera rotates in a circle around a studio space filled with propped, stacked and scattered materials. A row of cans on a shelf explode as if shot from offscreen before the shelf itself autonomously collapses. A breezeblock wall disports itself into a pile on the floor, like some failed Rube Goldberg device. Amusingly, some objects simply fail to perform: a very Fischli and Weissesque vignette of a bag on a string and cordless string seem primed for action; but the camera passes the arrangement by without incident.
One repeated motif here is the collagelike potential of overlapping surfaces. Hubbard’s video, for instance, features large panels of colourful material being dragged repeatedly off-screen like a sort of mobile, ad hoc abstraction. Similarly concerned with surfaces, RH Quaytman presents an abstract striped work, ‘Distracting Distance, Chapter 16 [color stripes], and a figurative work, Distracting Distance, Chapter 16 (Woman in the Sun, Yellow Scuff)’—a silkscreened black and white photograph of a naked woman standing in a room, cigarette in hand, with a set of faux scuff marks in fluorescent yellow disrupting the image’s surface. Das Institut’s three untitled works from 2009 explore this surface territory too, here squashing full-page newspaper ads (for mobile phones and designer watches) beneath sheets of coloured glass. Das Institut’s untitled floor piece, 2010, also features a kaleidoscopic layering of bright, carnivalesque colours.
Helena Almeida’s set of framed photographic self-portraits is yet another example of surfaces overlapping surfaces. In ‘Tela Habitada/Inhabited Canvas’, 1976, she appears behind and in front of a painting frame, which is covered, not in canvas, but in translucent gauze.
Fellow Portuguese artists Pedro Paiva and João Maria Gusmão show a somewhat inevitably lush 16mm film, ‘The Unbreakable Stone’, 2004, in which three men attempt to prise open a vast boulder using long, lever-like poles. The duo’s work won me over a couple of years back, but it’s hard to feel that their work is progressing beyond the seductive colouration and quixotic charm that they’ve perfected so well. Joseph Strau’s work has a sense of sprawling literary habitation, suggesting that life is a Frankenstein collage of texts. Here, Strau is in typically self reflective mood, his canvas ‘How to Change the Past’, 2010, featuring textual snippets such as, ‘How to really practice surrealism?’.
The most referential layering in this selection, was Alex Waterman’s installation ‘Beacons of Ancestorship’, 2010. On a desk is a script for a radio play, written supposedly about the outsider poet John Barton Wolgamot. A radio connected to an iPod plays a melee of sounds (a one-off performance was held during the exhibition).
Gathered together, these works release the studio space from any negative stereotyping back into being playful, inventive, creative places to be. This is an interesting, amusing, seductive and not at all boring exhibition.
Colin Perry is a writer based in London