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Just an observation? Review – Duchy Gallery, Glasgow

Review by Alistair Q

As you come off High Street and enter the beginnings of the bedraggled East End, across from a noisy new construction site and in the midst of a row of hollowed out skeletal shop fronts you could be forgiven for the surprise at finding the large boisterous works of Michael White hidden amongst the churning hub of renewal taking place outside the small Duchy gallery in Glasgow.

Inside, White’s large totemic plaster work looms over the viewer, perched atop a large black stage, its presence squeezing the onlooker as it dominates the white washed space. Within the show are three disgruntled ambiguous works made up from a technique of layered and slapped-on plaster and paint over polystyrene, with fingerprints carved into their surface in an Arnulf Rainer-esque struggle with the medium. White has employed an almost alchemical technique in his approach to the pieces, working fabric dye and acrylics into the plaster which changes and moves as the work begins to dry: such being a theme of the work in that weeks later the two main pieces, Colossal Head and Grendel have changed in hue and dark veins begin to appear within the plaster itself from shifts in the pigment. Within it you can see various forms splash in and out of the mass; caves, faces, mouths and mountains piled up like uncertain cairns. They truly embody some kind of primordial clay as a theme, yet to be sculpted, or goals yet to be founded.

When speaking to the artist his investigations seem to go deeper into the role of sculpture as a classical and state supported practise but also investigating its former overruling ideologies. His research into anthropology and post-colonial contexts is mixed in with his contemporary interests in the seemingly endless mass consumption of inane information that influences our globalised lives. A strong point within this is that with the history of imperial monuments being cemented in the ideology of progression and power it’s a strong parallel when faced with today’s conflicted feelings of muddled direction, aim and goals, which sits well with the amorphous beings on display, not quite sure of what they are or what they want to be.

From this angle it can seem as if the work itself is a culprit to this lost ideology, in that they signify little towards a goal or path for this or the next generation, it is only in looking into the titling of the work that the viewer gains a little in reaction to a decade of confused objectives. Colossal Head for example slowly creates a commentary; being titled after a museum artefact, it reiterates the questions of object, ritual and meaning through its mute existence as an item of worship or utility. In writings on ancient communities, the head had no distinct function and so remains a mystery as to its use and relevance to the culture in question. The concept plays through in my mind as to what connections, if discovered hundreds of years from now, could archaeologists pull together in relation to our times and the works at hand? Michael himself states that his work is “just an observation” and that it is a reaction to the prevailing mood of the times, stressing the idea of an overall age of uncertain meaning.

The name, So Miami, helps cement and contextualise the works in our current culture, centring the show in parody to other contemporary artworks and artists. The artist describes the title as a pun on the care-less-ness of some of the amoral art of the past decade, particularly with the British talent of the 90s and noughties (which, as the title for a decade and on the theme of the work, is an abbreviation worthy of comment). The use of So Miami as a title is effective in grounding the work in mockery of our current British culture, with its reactionary scornful repulsive forms, splattered in functionless colours, strangely placing it in a seemingly pivotal moment for our generation.

With these ugly forms in mind the uncertain and ambiguous imagery of the work can be seen as a burden and a blessing: does it refuse to comment with certainty on the possibility of a banal future since it’s only past experience has been that of an unenlightening osmosis, as White aptly calls it, of celebrity gossip and advertising. Is it not just like other British art with it’s no comment attitude? Or does it truly embody a feeling of movement, shape-shifting and change, of the possibilities for a generation to gather a voice in reaction to the ocean of ideologies?

Before leaving the space, a local in the area, chapped on the door and began to tell us what he thought of the show, since he had been past a couple of times and said this was the first time he’d really been drawn in. “There’s quite a lot of things it could be, you know? I can see a face, a mouth, a man…”. With this in mind maybe the role of the work may not be to comment or preach as to what should be done, but rather to inspire our imagination to make changes that we ourselves can see through.

The next show to open at The Duchy will be Samuel Nias, presented by ARCANMELLOR, A prism applied to the eye glass of my reflector. For further details please visit The Duchy Gallery

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