London

Richard Wentworth

Richard Wentworth’s work depends on two positions about our relationship to objects. First, that it is governed by an acknowledged grammar of small moves performed unconsciously with things near to hand; second, that it is constantly modified by words. Each of his sculptures exists at an intersection of modes of communication, distinguished for convenience but mingled constantly in daily life. Though Wentworth may draw on it, he is not trying to imitate the vernacular. Indeed, one of his recurring scenes is the rift between high and low, art and life, function and use. These may be contrasted, but neither appears alone. Inflection of found elements is balanced by craftsmanship, which brings about slight, but irrevocable, alterations.

In Store, 1986, a galvanized-steel tank of what appears to be water, but is in fact a false surface also made of galvanized steel, is supported at one end by an upturned glass covering a pack of Camel cigarettes, a fact that causes the false liquid to seem to tip. The combination of the two approaches—casual and deliberate—yields two quite different readings. “Someone has invented a way to guard cigarettes,” runs the casual alternative, “but this miserly approach is self-defeating. They are in danger of getting wet” The deliberate reading is associative. “Camel suggests ’ship’ suggests hump. Hump suggests wave suggests tilt suggests danger. But hump also suggests storage suggests safety” One may sound facile, the other too elaborate, yet neither works without the other.

Something is being explained, it seems. But what, exactly? Wentworth’s use of French derivatives for his titles suggests that if a word resists translation by straddling languages, an object may define it instead. So the 1984 Queue, which in English is a line of waiting people, in French a tail, consists of a long bent pipe winding over and through a row of tubular chairs,making a connection between them.The trouble is, both literally and metaphorically the bond is too obvious, too clumsy. Queues need no commandeering; despite an unbreakable etiquette that governs their behavior, participants strive to look as if they are there by accident. Something that seems as casual as a tail is ruled with a rod of iron. Though often farfetched, Wentworth’s explanations are persuasive because he is so aware of the very oddness of the titling process. Held with tweezers as if for scientific investigation, a quoted word is matched with some unlikely solid. That is one way of looking at it. The other would be to argue, as William Empson did, that having now become an integral part of a poem, the word means all of its dictionary definitions simultaneously.

These works generate conversation. A concrete lump sitting on a gutted tire in Logo, 1986, turns out to be a letter rack with the spaces filled in. But why? An answer might involve drowning and defeat, teeth and gripping, laps and clutching, and much more. Image, gesture, and attitude are reduced to a three-dimensional haiku. In Britain, avant-garde developments are tempered and humanized; only here is anecdotal minimalism conceivable as a serious option. But given that Went-worth’s sculpture amounts to more than a teatime chat, each of his works is a collision, a misunderstanding, a trick, a knot, a joke. The argument against complexity is self-evident. What is gained by splitting hairs again and again instead of pursuing linear, detachable argumentation? The answer is pleasure, sensitivity, wit, the exercise of the mind for its own sake. What is to be “gained” by art at all? Søren Kierkegaard said that philosophy was like a man who brought his clothes to a shop where he saw the sign “Clothes Pressed Here”; but when he went in, they said they didn’t press clothes, they only made the sign.

Stuart Morgan