Sunday, 7 June 2015

Here and Now 2015: Sculpture in an ever expanding field: Alistair Rowe: Support Acts.

By Graham Mathwin

There is certainly curatorial understanding in the presentation of what is in this show, and Andrew Purvis has done an excellent job – but the job he has done is to pare these spaces back, going so far as to separate Jacobus Capone’s work entirely. This kind of allowance for space is a wonderful luxury, and a variety of artworks that could not have existed outside of such a space are given the room they need to breathe. I therefore feel it is appropriate to deal with the works on an individual basis. The ‘rooms of pairs’ as I would put it – the two major galleries – both contain works that are well aligned, yet we are not invited to entertain linked narratives beyond this. Here the combination of only two people’s artwork allows us to see clearly the parallels, but not subsume it beneath any agenda. So it is that Alistair Rowe and Shannon Lyon’s works operate so well together, yet remain distinct.

Alistair Rowe’s work is distinguished from us, separated and enclosed within itself. I first saw Rowe’s work in OK gallery, all the way back in 2013, and remember the same sensations I had upon seeing it this time as when I saw it then: the balancing, delicate structures, suspended, seemingly about to fall, provoke a certain expectancy, not entirely nervous, but certainly tense. Although there is no kinetic work here there is a distinct sense that these works are somehow activated by force. They are simply compressed and contained rather than expanded, possessing the potential to move – and break. It is sculptural, but it gives the strange impression of not being entirely solid, it feels like if you touched it, it might all fall apart, shatter in a million pieces.

A somewhat ambivalent aspect to this work are the reflections that scatter over the floor: small, skewed rectangles of light that mirror Lyon’s more stable, rectangular ones on the wall. I am reminded of one of my favourite artworks I have seen in LWAG – Rebecca Baumann’s reflected glory, for LUMINOUSFLUX in 2013. There, I was convinced, not just by the title, but the particular use of it, that reflection was part of the work – a galaxy spread over the walls, a delightful universe made of cheap plastic and glass. Here, the effect is wonderful, but seems at odds with the deliberate, structured pillars and angles throughout the space. It is as if there are towers of glass erupting from the rubble of their reflections. The scattering of light also does not encompass the room, or delimit a space, unlike the reflection works of someone like Olafur Eliasson; instead it rests on the ground, as if the panes had already shattered, and there were so many little pieces on the floor.

Rowe’s work does not seem to be that interested in engaging us in the same encompassing, phenomenal space of Eliasson, then. Rather, the work is focused inward, framed by its dark wooden outline, and presentation on short, broad white plinths. There is a sense at which these units are self-contained, not just physically, but perceptually, and we are left on the outside. They are exercises in constraint. They are subtle objects, capably machined into being.

Rowe’s use of materials also contains implications within it – the foam, the tape; which hold the glass together, seem to be pointing towards its delicacy, its soft, temporary construction - despite its clarity and hardness. It has some reflexive notions to do with art handling too, foam bricks frequently being used to move artworks in galleries. Here, though, those material properties, the functions it usually has, are brought to the fore, and the material potential of some of the most humble of art materials – the foam that it rests on in transportation – is made our focus. We could equally say this of the glass, as pointed out by both Andrew Purvis and Andrew Varano in their respective catalogue essays. The material through which we typically look at the work, has become its feature, and is revealed to have the materiality necessary to engage us. Rowe’s works are fascinating structures, and give the appearance of being somehow inhumanly constructed. A substantial part of this work is industrially machined, but its eventual arrangement reflects a similar attention to mechanical process. One cannot help but think of Duchamp’s large glass, and all that it implies.

There is a history of Modernist architecture, as well as sculpture, that delves deep into glass, and monumentalises it, and this work reminds me more of Mies Van Der Rohe than anyone else. The (to me) miraculous suspension of the Barcelona pavilion (with those sexy Barcelona chairs that we can also appreciate in the foyer of LWAG) on marble and glass is reflected here in the balancing act that Rowe undertakes. This strange purity of materiality is somewhat nostalgic, except for its methods and (some of its) materials of construction.

The wood, by its relationship to the white walls, delimits the spaces of the works. I am more enchanted by the possibilities of the object’s disappearance, but Rowe has clearly outlined his sculptures, a deep, dark outline indeed. He seems to be indicating the structuring itself – the planning, and the balancing – as that which we must focus on. And perhaps he was right to do so. It is the strength of the work – its construction, and the references bound up in its materiality, are those elements that stand out, particularly in combination with Shannon’s work. It seems as if both bodies of artworks results from the same intense concentration span, and attention to almost transparent detail.

This work is an appreciation of delicate compositions. Though there may be a sense of looming disaster in their construction, this is not a destroyed space. There is no necessity of dissolution implied by these works. They do not enact a criticism; they operate in discourse with the space and materiality of the gallery. They are an ode to exhibition displays, and romanticise the constituents of its construction. The work certainly brings our attention our own looking, by being reflexive, and also through its materiality – but it also points to something more. The work, in its simplicity, its careful arrangement, seems complimentary of the dynamics of galleries and collections, or perhaps ambivalent, leaving it unsaid whether we are looking at a negative operation or an appreciation of the museological task – but the work is so well made that it seems to move a step beyond reflexivity, and not in a critical way. It calls for appreciation, appreciation of the interplay of transparency and reflection, of gallery spaces and forms, and materials that inhabit them. Is this work not a quiet love letter to the visual systems of the museum and gallery? To glass and packaging materials? It does seem to imply a degree of temporality to the arrangement of things, but the question of how long the system of foam, glass and tape will run on for is not given any answer here. The attention is directed to the precarity of the structures, and monumentalizes this very thing.


For, although I agree with Varano in not naming it a monument, I do not think of it as being ‘unmonumental’, I do not think this is its primary function. Perhaps a different kind of monument is invoked – a monument to precarity – a monument to seeing, and subtle systems that inform our vision. To be sure, the work is, to me, unmonumental in its more lowly materials. Yet the construction itself has monumentalised these very things, and sacralises, and is sacralised by, the gallery. Few acts of construction can be negative – and I think that this work is one of affirmation, but a precarious one.

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