A brief performance I once saw: Jimmie Durham, at a desk, pretends to have a phone conversation, quarrels, takes ‘advice’, tosses a rock towards the audience, retrieves it, then smashes the alarm clock marking his time limit. Fin, applause, laughter. Outwardly absurd, the event garnered lucidity from the five decades in which the American artist has often charged situations with significance while also deconstructing them. Poet, sculptor, performer and activist, Durham works flexibly towards this end. He assembles faux ethnological artefacts (mixing skulls, psychedelic patterns, varieties of wood, car parts, oil cans, piping, etc) and appends texts and photographs that would seem elucidatory but mostly trigger an unravelling; or he takes something and adds something else – perhaps most distinctively by crushing cars with boulders – in which a supplement causes chaos. If connotation is pressured from without, though, there are political corollaries. The works are seamed with references to colonialism (Durham is of Cherokee descent) and ecology. Of late, his excellent early work has been increasingly aired, and so it goes at the Serpentine, where it mingles with ‘new sculptures and key installations’.
For her series of online videos From A to B through E (2014, codirected with Valentin Bouré), filmed in crisp monochrome at a purpose-built café within the Frieze London art fair during setup, Mélanie Matranga had a couple discuss, and echo in their testy interaction, the parallels between the global economy and romantic relationships. What seems to be going well one day, and is understood to be under control, can dissolve into chaos the next. In the French artist’s work, this movement from intimacy untidily outward is a trait. Her videos, drawings and installations elasticise the local and the private, particularly when Matranga raises muted, minimalist, apartmentlike installations from a mix of cheap materials and cast elements from friends’ homes. The outwardly ordinaire assumes the shape of a discreet but significant code. Here, expect to progress through a number of environments, encountering smoking rooms and mezzanines and a new film: a termite path through which Matranga aims, she says, ‘to express something without ever truly being able to’.
Out on the periphery of signification, meanwhile, one might also find Cerith Wyn Evans. For the couple of decades since he stopped making actual films, the essentials of cinema (light, narrative, props, sound) have been the Welshman’s materials, unencumbered by cameras or script. The latter, resultantly, is your responsibility as you negotiate nods to a bounded literary/artistic canon that ranges from Proust to Brion Gysin, James Merrill to Sturtevant, Rainer Werner Fassbinder to Andy Warhol, and a slowly augmenting taxonomy of materials. Of late, the familiarity of these elements has seemed almost the point. Among these pot plants and chandeliers and Morse-code signals and neons, we’re like characters in an Alain Resnais movie – we’ve been here before but it’s somehow not the same as last time, and the director is inveigling us, again, to improvise, deal with it, perform ourselves.
Barely contained by the artworld, Lebanese artists Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige have made award-winning feature films starring Catherine Deneuve and Rabih Mroué (I Want to See, 2008) and documentaries including The Lebanese Rocket Society (2012, which also seeded installations), concerning the forgotten Lebanese space race, as well as being prolific writers and lecture-performers. At the heart of their practice, though, is the veracity (or otherwise) of representations, an aspect that swings to the fore again in I must first apologise… (2015), in which they use film, sculpture, photography and installation to explore the history of scam-based spam. Using correspondence with scammers, photographs extracted by spam-baiters, and videoworks featuring real and fictional spam victims, the pair contextualise spamming in a continuum of confidence tricks dating back to the sixteenth century, their focus also leading to correlations between spamming and sites of geopolitical turmoil – and, as before, to the question of what we can reasonably believe and how easily we’re hoodwinked.
Following BRAKE, SWAMP, siege, BRINK, scree and GIG, another muscular one-word title adorns Phyllida Barlow’s latest show, mix. The Newcastle-born, storied former Slade lecturer is maintaining a propulsive exhibition schedule for her expansive vocabulary of ricketylooking sculptures, which, though predicated on a resistance to heroic and macho sculptural gestures and formerly thrown away after installation, are now fairly monumental (and very valuable, even when the materials are cardboard and polystyrene) in themselves. Barlow, though, has ridden over that shift in status with painterly verve and juicy colour, boisterous allusiveness – her work always teetering on the lip of signification, whether it’s mock-phallic or mock-architectural – and playful polyvalence. Here, in a complement of works dating from 2008 to the present, she offers up battalions of hoops and greyish binlike containers, dangling tangles of rubber hose, tenuous architectural constructions and sprawls of gaudy matter resembling collapsing funhouses.
Elsewhere in art-as-precariousness: Davis Rhodes, who may appear to take a lackadaisical approach to the minimal, vertical-format paintings he’s produced since the late aughts. The New York-based Canadian has, by turns, applied paint to foamcore so that the support buckles inward, focused on simple motifs such as the number one or a ‘D’ and reduced fragments of advertising (such as a gesturing hand) to cutout negative space. On a formal level, the once-opposed styles of Pop and hard-edge painting collapse together while the artist resists his own presence in the work, which draws on physical processes and the hoardings outside his studio window. How you feel about such embodied pragmatics, with their sidelining of emotional investment, might depend on whether you’re the kind of person who, in cold weather, complains or says it’s ‘bracing’.
‘Sean Kennedy is not a great painter’ is a line that a Google search quickly brings up on the LA artist (in a Frieze review by ArtReview contributor Jonathan Griffn, in fact), but it’s a backhanded compliment insofar as Kennedy is less technician than tactician. A couple of years ago he was making complex agglutinations of material: transcribed logo decals from model toys mixed with real-world objects, in the Rauschenberg Combine style, and then finished with expressive daubs –the whole recalling the discontinuous, punchy scatter of a computer desktop and then refusing to offer any commentary or even sense, while looking like highly marketable, Pop-scented art. That show was titled Mixed Messages (2013), which seems apropos; the image released ahead of Kennedy’s second show finds, among fragments of logo-strewn painting, the show title successpool finger-written in a layer of dust.
Proud affiliate of what he calls the ‘post- Pictures-generation’ and nudging forward the innovations of Christopher Williams and John Baldessari as well as the designating processes of Conceptualism, Elad Lassry trades in clean graphic punch as a cover for categorical chaos. Here, in his third solo at David Kordansky, the Israeli-born, LA-based artist uses snappy, self-shot, but stock-style photographic imagery and leftovers from real editorial photo sessions – his_images including snakes and motor engines – and encases photographs in slabs of acrylic accoutred with plastic tubes and other protuberances. Whereas earlier artists pointed to the constructed nature of commercial images, Lassry reserves the right to call anything a picture, to undo photography’s seduction technique and, along the way, to situate genre as strictly last century.
Prem Sahib’s abbreviated sculptural vocabulary tends to point towards absent bodies and aftermaths: crash mats, Puffa jackets, glasses of water for nocturnal rehydration, pairs of discs referring to the double-dot positive indication for HIV. Most particularly, for the artist and club-night runner, Sahib’s art refers to nightlife, its excitements and discontents. Alongside his first institutional show at the ICA (24 September – 15 November), for his second solo at Southard Reid – he graduated from the Royal Academy in 2013 – titled End Up and referring to the closure of clubs and the limiting of social space, Sahib plans a darkened interior, accompanied by neons and benches (made collaboratively, as is his wont, with ‘spatial designer’ Xavi) and, perhaps, other sculptural elements. From what we know of him, expect a less-is-more aesthetic that allows a melancholy and open-ended narrative to gestate out of just a few elements.
Sahib, though, might still be bested in the modest-transformation stakes by gerlach en koop, connoisseurs of understatement, whose process since 2000 – often rooted in instructions – has regularly involved copying, appropriating and generating small disparities between otherwise identical things: human error as quiet collaborative force. In the past, they’ve carried a pair of invitation cards in their back pockets for seven weeks and exhibited the variably crumpled results; made sculpture out of exposed shoulder-pads while creating a backstory about their owners’ meeting; and made public sculpture out of a nested pair of fluted bins, No two things can be the same (2012). One might predict, then, that this, their first institutional solo show, featuring sculptural and graphic work, will travel – and it does, to Cologne’s Temporary Gallery in 2016 – and that the second show will be very similar to the first and yet, of course, fundamentally, ontologically different.
This article was first published in the October 2015 issue.