Text by Emily Sack
Colchester in Essex is known as being the oldest documented town in the UK. A visit to this charming city is likely to include a tour of the castle, a pint in an historical pub, and, surprisingly, a large golden arc of a building showcasing cutting edge contemporary art from around the globe. Opening just several months ago, the new creation by Rafael Viñoly Architects makes its presence known in the historical town, encouraging an emphasis on the contemporary. Steven Claydon’s first solo UK show is the second site-specific exhibition created for the impressive space.
The contrast of old and new that is apparent in Colchester is a concept frequently explored by Claydon in his body of work, and in particular within Culpable Earth. Two of the pieces incorporate historical motifs in the form of faces as seen in sculptures and fountains in classical Rome or the Renaissance. In Who Conjured You Out of the Clay? (2012), a portrait bust of an anonymous figure sits atop a vermillion-coloured cube. The man bearded and in a flattened hat, seems at home in the gallery space – an image seen time and again in endless variations. The delicate moulding and muted colours contrast dramatically with the smooth, vibrant cube. Beneath the cube, at a vantage point more suitable for children than adults, lurks a mysterious beast waiting to devour whoever steps too close. Perhaps this creature belongs in a Last Judgement scene or is a descent of a fairy tale monster, but its presence reinforces the contrast between the historical and contemporary within the one.
A conversation with the artist revealed an interest in the lowest common denominator of objects, such as atoms and pixels, and this theme is incorporated in a number of the works on display. Several works include the cube form, often as a metallic framed cube, hollow and without surfaces. This references a simplistic conception of molecules and chemistry – the building blocks of life, so to speak – become some of the building blocks of the exhibition. The pixilation of images rendering an image in a series of tiny squares is explored through an interesting work made of beeswax. Dozens of rectangular pieces of beeswax are pinned directly to the gallery wall. From a distance, individual rectangles can be discerned, but on closer examination, it becomes apparent that each piece of material is printed with hundreds of tiny hexagons. This serves to remind the viewer that what is perceived as the lowest common denominator is rarely as simple as it is originally thought to be. Another aspect of the simplification of parts is the motif of primary colours of light: red, blue, and green throughout the exhibition in video and two dimensional works. These three colours on their own are limited, but combined in varied proportions a vast rainbow is possible. Despite the interest in the simplest of parts, Claydon acknowledges their limitations and explores the possibilities of their combinations. This is most apparent in the abstracted construction of a vehicle combining found objects in the form of wheels with assorted other media. Each piece of the puzzle remains separate and individual though their joint placement implies a complex machine.
Claydon plays with the viewer through the dichotomies of simplicity and complexity as well as history and modern. However, Claydon’s attention to the senses is what separates this exhibition from others because it is no longer a work of the visual arts, but a feast for the senses. Sight is clearly the most obvious of the senses, as highlighted in previous mentions of contradictions and complexities throughout the exhibition. The pixilated work constructed of beeswax exudes a sweet and organic scent that permeates the gallery space. The work could have been executed in any number of materials, but by electing to use beeswax, curiosity is heightened in the viewer by the increased depth of perception. Upon entering the building and approaching the exhibition space, a wavering drone fills the lofty passageway. Carrier (2012) is constructed of ceramic, a microphone, amplifier, and powder-coated steel. These unlikely materials unite to create a large bell from which a microphone is suspended, hovering like a pendulum over the amplifier. Variations in condition – from a draft to nearing footsteps – alter the position of the microphone thereby changing the quality of sound. Despite the works being held under the ‘no touching’ policy common in most gallery spaces, several of Claydon’s works give the impression of touch by the emphasis on materiality. The aforementioned Who Conjured You Out of the Clay? resembles marble or other stone, perhaps clay (as hinted in the titled). In actuality, however, the figure is composed of polyurethane foam. This contradiction in perception inspires an urge to feel the work to verify the claims of the object label. Additionally, the video installation entitled The Earth at Work includes images of pottery wheels and the sensuality of the wet clay in the potter’s hands is almost palpable.
Each of the works in Culpable Earth embodies at least one of the three dominant themes creating a varied and intellectually stimulating exhibition. In order to further the historicism and relationship of the work to the site, Claydon curated a small exhibition in an adjoining gallery called Equivalents. The title comes from the Carl Andre work featured (Equivalent VIII) referencing the multitude of possibilities that arise from the same simple components. Paired with Andre’s famous brick sculpture are several small Constable cloud studies. Both men working with bricks or the effects of water and air, attempt to document the complex results of basic combinations. And just in case the viewer has not been suitably challenged by the dichotomies of the exhibition, the works in Equivalents attract attention to the brick on the ground while simultaneously drawing the eye upwards as if to view the clouds in the sky. Steven Claydon has created an impressive collection of works for this exciting new space, and it will certainly be interesting to see what comes next.
Steve Claydon: Culpable Earth, 04/02/2012 – 07/05/2012, firstsite, Lewis Gardens, High Street, Colchester, Essex, CO1 1JH. www.firstsite.uk.net
Join artist Steven Claydon and Michelle Cotton, firstsite’s Senior Curator, as they discuss the works in Culpable Earth at 7 – 8.30pm on Thursday 16 February.
Aesthetica in Print
If you only read Aesthetica online, you’re missing out. The February/March issue of Aesthetica is out now and offers a diverse range of features from an examination of the diversity and complexity of art produced during the tumultuous decade of the 1980s in Art, Love & Politics in the 1980s, opening 11 February at MCA Chiacgo, a photographic presentation of the Irish Museum of Modern Art‘s latest opening, Conversations: Photography from the Bank of America Collection. Plus, we recount the story of British design in relation to a comprehensive exhibition opening this spring at the V&A.
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