As iconoclasts go, artist, theorist, former head of Glasgow School of Art’s Fine Art Department and currently Research Professor in Art and Design at Manchester Metropolitan University, Pavel Büchler is a quietly contrary presence. He describes his own practice as ‘making nothing happen’ and has a forensic interest in samizdat publications that flourished in his Czech birthplace while under post–1968 Czech rule. It wouldn’t be fanciful to suggest that such necessity for subterfuge, coded messages and double bluffs has been the biggest influence on his own oblique strategies.
As the sliver of an accompanying text to this group show makes plain, when approached by Castlefield with an open brief, Büchler’s response was to reclaim the stripped-down identity of the gallery as, simply, ‘a place where art and the public encounter one another’. No themes, no big statements, no dot-to-dot connections and subsequently no fanfares for the 15 works by six artists, including Büchler himself, collected here. Just lots of space, between and around each piece which stand impassively alone, offering few clues in a non-commital state of grace that just is. Nothing was commissioned, and everything existed already.
So, Berlin-based artist Gregor Hylla’s three untitled paintings, 2008, offer up boldy-coloured arrangements of constructivist-inspired geometric shapes that bear no tangible stylistic relation to the black and yellow splurges of Antwerp’s Kris Fierens equally untitled series from 2004. From Switzerland, Pamela Rosenkranz’s ‘Aspirin’, 2006, shows a white-on-black microdot that makes some kind of sense after watching ‘Resistance’, 2006, a slide show of a scrawl-filled blackboard depicting some equation or other that’s eventually erased so the same white dot of ‘Aspirin’ blurs into close-up.
Manchester artist Ian Rawlinson’s three pieces break up both the main gallery space and the tiny upstairs mezzanine. ‘Hub’, 2008, looks like some space age customised stereo speaker given pride of place in a lookbut- can’t-touch showroom. Downstairs, iron shelves stand empty and unstacked, while ‘Wedges’, 2007-2009, a long network of strewn-together door-stops, leaves everything open wide. On the stairs in Maeve Rendle’s video installation, ‘La Berma’s Voice’, 2008, in which a pianist plays some extended impressionistic piece that leaves as much room to manoeuvre as the show itself.
It’s Büchler’s five contributions, however, that are the most accomplished, and go some way to define—if that’s not overstating things—Unresolved. Taken from his ‘Unfinished Sentence’ series, 2007-2009, three sheets of A4 paper are hung next to each other, the old-school typewriter font marking the beginning, middle and end of the self-reflexive sentence in question. A fourth turns in on itself with minimalist Beckettian word-play even more. A fifth, hung alone, says just two words. That these are ‘three words’ speaks volumes.
Even with such Zen word games, however, Unresolved’s less-is-more attitude is wilfully slight, its take it or leave it attitude, with no accompanying essays or documentation, harking back to consciously maverick points of sale. The bare-bones information adorning the classicist posters for Glasgow’s Citizens Theatre during its 1970s golden age spring to mind, as does Eric’s, the Liverpool punk club that spawned an entire music scene, and which is reputed to have advertised a gig for a band called The Table, by putting an actual table outside the club. If you got the idea, Unresolved seems to say, then you’re welcome. Now you do the work. If not, well, it’s your loss, but then you probably wouldn’t have liked what’s on offer anyway.
Since then, of course, the free marketeers have taken over the asylum. Reacting against such accepted (il)logic is Unresolved’s entire point. It’s the self-consciously contrary statements about what this show isn’t that makes it such a similar slow-burning tease as Eric’s and The Citz, and which, by inviting its audience to think for itself, honours them.
In an artworld which has spent the last decade and a half watching now household names make the transformation from dole-queue kids to designer-suited elderstatespeople, such spareness is a breath of fresh air. Where sensation-seeking-artstars look increasingly like clichéd ciphers marking the social shift from a collectively committed 1970s to attention-seeking Thatcherite excess, Cool Britannia and beyond in an English garden-set Stephen Poliakoff state-of-the-nation play, Büchler and co are quietly, confidently hanging back.
The rest of the world, meanwhile, are still frantically elbowing each other out of the way. More fool them. It’s the quiet ones, after all, you have to watch.
Neil Cooper is a writer and critic