A pitch-black clock, The Ecliptic, 2014, holds pride of place in Raqs Media Collective’s current exhibition, “Corrections to the First Draft of History.” Replacing numbers, one half of the clock bears the word TIME, while on the other half, the words FREE, FOLD, FIGURE, FUN, FIX, and FREEZE alternatingly light up. The alliteration provides rhythm and a sense of repetition but also brings to mind the F-word: future. Subjected to a relationship with the noun TIME, the verbs are rendered inactive, becoming adjectives, as if the future will watch the futility of our grasping for a voice or light, elided and eclipsed.
On the opposite wall is Corrections to the First Draft of History (Redraft 1), 2014, a series of nineteen framed newspaper pages, some of which have been erased with chalkboard paint and overwritten with epigrams in chalk. These debate the distortions of history, the primacy of the journalist’s pen, and the fiction of finance (as seen by a drawing of a donkey on the stock-market pages). They are indeterminate, creating a rift in both time and meaning, so much so that it is the pristine composition of the frames in space and less the content of the markings that leaves the viewer taut between the past and future. It is the form that we must extract from the formidable.
Though the show verges on being too spare, it is in this lacuna, in the silence before (or after) language (or emotion), in which one could arguably occupy a viewer for a few minutes and a few months alike.
This exhibition in a small, single-room gallery displays twenty-two works by nine artists. It should feel claustrophobic, but the curation by Alex Ross is acutely balanced and simple without being too austere or overly Minimalist. Comprising a variety of mediums—digital prints on fabric, embroidered canvas hung on metal rods, painted papier-mÔchÚ, and printed sleeves inside PlayStation game cases from a series of works addressing recent, highly publicized school shootings—the works on view would give the impression of being thematically related, given its organization under a title taken from the 1988 black comedy Heathers, yet it is the acute focus on materiality that each piece has in common.
Daniele Milvio’s glazed clay works, including colorful bowls and ashtrays, are hung on walls and have toothy, wicked grins cut into their bottoms as if delighting in rejecting a more functional use. Two canvasses by May Hands, both made of polythene and netting stretched over aluminum, have fragrance test strips affixed to the backs. Titled Endless Euphoria (Calvin Klein), and Guilty, (Gucci), both 2014, these have a sensual appeal that engages our sense of smell, widening the typical boundaries of interaction with artworks. The pieces in this exhibition demonstrate a compelling, contemporary engagement with craftsmanship, luxuriating in their technical, tactile qualities. The overall impression is a bit like that of a teenager’s bedroom, filled with handmade objects serving as signs of embellished individuality slightly detached from the outside world, cumulatively creating a deep sense of intimacy in a public space.
“Reality changes,” Bertolt Brecht once said, and “in order to represent it, modes of representation must also change.” K. P. Brehmer’s exhibition thinks through two opposed terms in the history of art: realism and abstraction. Brehmer deploys the tools of bureaucracy—maps, graphs, indexes—in order to survey the effects of capitalism on everyday life. In the enlarged chart, Seele und GefŘhl eines Arbeiters (Soul and Feelings of a Worker), 1975, an undulating grid registers the day-to-day emotions and drudgery associated with work. Predictably, in Brehmer’s Cold War world, feeling “neutral” or “neutral plus” prevails over “happy” or “hopeful.”
Realkapital—Produktion (Real Capital—Production), 1974, displays three painted graphs charting the fickle state of corporate profits. The swirl of sinuous lines, painted on self-adhesive film on top of melamine, is viscous and aggressive—specifics are lost in transcription. Similar to the undated Schuldentilgung der ÷effentlichen Hand (Bailout of the Public Sector), Brehmer’s graph appears irrational and crisis prone. The graphs are not crafted to display information per se, but a general attitude towards the economy. Understanding falters, and so it should. In a dÚtourned topographical map, Farbengeographie 7, Lokalisierung von Rotwerten (Color Geography 7: Location of Shades of Red), 1972–73, Vietnam is visualized as as blood stains. The challenge of this work, however, is that an altered topology does not operate in the same way as a cognitive map, whose form is less symbolic and schematic. When abstraction merges with realism, instead of allegory, the results are demanding rather than diagrammatic.
A group of mannequins face the gallery’s entrance in Korakrit Arunanondchai’s debut UK exhibition and collaboration with his twin brother, Korapat, “2557 (Painting with history in a room filled with men with funny names 2).” The models are dressed in a combination of denim and sportswear, including Manchester United FC uniforms, as well as traditional Thai morhoms, and a sweatsuit the artist produced with Disown. The whole scene is covered in paint. In fact, the entire exhibition has been doused in various hues—from the canvasses on the walls to the cushions on the floor—and in the center of this display is a massage chair, which has been upholstered in bleached denim, while miniature arms protrude from the seat.
Also in the mix is a video that shares the title of the show. Here, we see the artist and his brother visiting Thailand’s ornate Wat Rong Khun on a pilgrimage. The brothers examine the building’s surreal sculptural elements: armed demons and hands that swell from the earth in a vision of hell. The temple’s white-and-gold color scheme provides the palette for the exhibition’s canvasses, and the mannequins on view are based on different characters in the film played by the artist and his brother.
This video quietly, almost imperceptibly anchors the exhibition—balancing the visually disruptive elements here. Moreover, it extends the installation into the totemic as it indicates an unconscious spiritual kinship between people, which is both enhanced and poisoned by contemporary culture. The serene imagery of the temple and the luxury objects in the installation are treated with an even-handed objectivity. The installation becomes a hypocenter of cross-cultural miscellany. It ultimately represents the debris of lifestyles distributed over the Web traveling without context.
Mohammed Qasim Ashfaq’s latest exhibition is a cold, dark cosmos of almost entirely monochrome new sculptures and works on paper. From afar, the graphite drawing BLACK HOLE IV, 2013–2014, appears to be a solid, gray orb, but up close it’s revealed to be constructed of intricate, closely hatched lines beaming from the center of the paper. Within the circle, both light shading and forceful scoring create a perfect eight-pointed star. The only glimmer of color in the exhibition appears in BEADS, 2010–2014, wherein three black, brown, and clear resin spheres composed of hexagons are connected circuitously by a rope. Light from the gallery’s ceiling lamps refracts as it hits the clear globe, firing out a rainbow. Another work, FALLING STARS II, 2014, comprises three sculptures—one of which leans against a wall—assembled from lacquered, black steel spears that, like the artist’s drawings, appear to explode outward from a fixed core with fiercely sharp points. Flanking the back of the gallery is a three-meter-high shaft of solid aluminum, ROD, 2010–2014, the length of which tapers to a point and hangs slightly off-center, as if it were a bolt of lightning flung from the sky to lodge itself in the floor.
With frenzied lines morphing into composed circles and vibrant rays radiating from a colorless source, Ashfaq brings together a mass of contradictions. Installed along the perimeters of the gallery like static planets, a viewer finds they are caught in the center of the works’ orbit.
With a wink to both Man Ray’s La Fortune, 1938, and Sherrie Levine’s subsequent ’90s homage, the seventy-six ordinary-looking objects arranged neatly on a snooker table in this exhibition resemble a very odd junk sale. However, “On the Devolution of Culture” is inspired by nineteenth-century British army officer Lieutenant General Augustus Henry Pitt-Rivers’s collection archived in the Pitt-Rivers Museum at the University of Oxford. A charming institution of archaeology and ethnography, the museum’s objects are catalogued and exhibited by type rather than by history or chronology. Mirroring that organizing principle, this show displays a Roman perfume bottle next to curious, blown-glass versions by Francis Upritchard, Perfume Bottles #1 and Perfume Bottles #2, both 2005, while two cast-bronze Sherrie Levine animal skulls, Bobcat Skull and Javelina Skull, both 2010, are laid near an actual Anglo-Saxon human one a little farther along the table.
As a whole, the display could be considered a large still life gathered to present a microcosm of the diversity in contemporary sculptural practice. The objects range from Keith Coventry’s plastic cast of an inhaler repurposed as a crack pipe, Inhaler, 1998, or David Adamo’s painted bronze candies, Untitled (M&Ms), 2010, to conceptual pieces such as Pavel Buchler’s Cannon, 2014, composed of a real snooker ball sitting on a postcard of a war-damaged building. The piece wittily conflates a billiards shot with the firing of artillery—a nod to the juxtapositions inherent to collage. As much as the assortment here is an homage to the curatorial task of organizing objects in terms of their form or content, this exhibition is also a sly reminder of the acquisitive needs of humanity—how else could museum collections come about?
“A Volatile Medium,” the title of this exhibition, is also how Keith Vaughan referred to gouache, the material and technique he employed increasingly in the last fifteen years of his life, following his 1962 retrospective at Whitechapel Gallery. He would often mix his gouaches with other materials, such as vinegar, to further increase the process’s volatility, finding a new sort of freedom in chaos and uncontrollability. As journal excerpts included in the exhibition reveal, Vaughan was something of an automatist, producing inspired studies of the male figure faster than his dealer could sell them.
In Warrior, 1960, a male figure is depicted with his back to the viewer. The background landscape is smudged with swaths of color, as is the figure himself, his body nearly becoming one with its surroundings. Often, Vaughan depicted myriad figures in a single image, the delirious thick black lines that form their bodies intersecting and merging, one on top of another, as in an untitled gouache on paper work from 1975.
That there is a certain degree of gloominess haunting these late works is fitting and understandable, given the circumstances under which they were created. Vaughan wrestled throughout most of his life with depression related to his homosexuality and difficulties in sustaining long-term relationships, although these struggles never depleted the prolific outpour of his work. Indeed, his melancholy may well have helped feed his work’s increasingly expressionistic and dreamlike qualities. He was diagnosed with colon cancer in 1975 and committed suicide two years later, documenting the process of dying by writing in his journal as the pills kicked in. Yet the joyful and desirous frenzy of the line emerging in drawings such as Man Feeding Birds, 1975, implies that art was also, for Vaughan, a zone of happiness, and perhaps the sole domain where the potentialities of hope could flourish.