That Low Lights and Trick Mirrors is a three-person exhibition, rather than a group show, may seem a trivial observation, but the links between the works of each artist, and the manner in which they complement and reflect one another, is fundamental.
While nothing has been produced collaboratively, the spare, fastidious positioning of objects in the gallery space serves to emphasise both the complex relationships between artist, viewer and work and the silent conversations between the artworks themselves. This exhibition is the antithesis of the territorial group show which jealously guards and divides.
Initially seeming so opaque and impenetrable, closer inspection of the work points to the generosity and sincerity of each artist in their willingness to expose the process of making. Lorna Macintyre’s ‘Sketch One’ and ‘The Word for Moonlight is Moonlight’, or Clare Stephenson’s ‘Bamboo Figure with Bamboo Sash’ invite reflection, and multiple, open-ended readings. This is not mere post-structuralist posturing or denial of specific content. The work seems to point not only to the audience for their reception, but to reflect the questions they elicit back to their maker, so that she stands, still assessing and translating, with the rest of us.
Almost all of the works here engage in an elaborate circle of references— Stephenson’s serpentine wigs or Macintyre’s scattered, self-referential works, fragmented components of a whole. And the ‘trickery and fakery’ set up by the show entices the viewer down numerous symbolic blind alleys—simultaneously teasing and disorientating. As one meaning is grasped, it slips away to be replaced by another.
Art historical sources act as another uniting thread, punctuating the work of each artist (the title of the exhibition itself is snaffled from Warhol). Stephenson’s ‘Autonomous Form’ recalls both her previous works, along with Lord Leighton’s 1877 bronze ‘Athlete Wrestling with a Python’ (and, by extension, the Hellenistic ‘Laocoon’), and a morass of wigs plundered from Daumier’s caricature of Louis XIV. This fictional composite of existing works is made ‘absolute moderne’, with the metaphorical overlay of an acid pink disco beat.
In the ‘Unexpected Smell of Menthol’, Topping perhaps alludes to the synaethesic potential of juxtaposing the earthy colours of Louis Comfort Tiffany glass (mustard yellow, olive green) in glossy oils, while Fantin-Latour looms large over ‘Love Train, Love Train’. Throughout ‘Sketch One, Sketch Two and Novembergroup’, Macintyre allows us glimpses of her own working practice via a treasure hunt of Polaroids and photocopied remnants of the installations which appear again, chimera-like, recomposed in various guises throughout the gallery, and shows us images of Frank Lloyd Wright engaging in the same reflective process.
Jean Cocteau believed in keeping methods secret, that to talk about them would stop them working (‘Keep braiding one’s wavelengths back into oneself’). This exhibition is perhaps more in keeping with Anthony Caro’s sentiments when he stated: ‘Art comes from art: I remember going to the Matisse show and seeing how Matisse had taken one of his own paintings, worked from it and transformed it, and that had led on to the next one and the next’.
The complex, contradictory work of Stephenson, Macintyre and Topping is assured enough to expose its vulnerability, tentative enough to be eloquent, and always doubling back to gaze into broken mirrors.
Susannah Thompson is an art writer and lecturer at Glasgow School of Art