Caroline Russell

Chisenhale Gallery

The large exhibition space here is the ground floor of a warehouse that has been turned into artists’ studios. Until recently it bore the look of its light-industrial past, an uneven floor and dilapidated ceiling lending it a less than salubrious air. Caroline Russell’s Display 21, 1989, however, presented it in a new light. Walls and ceilings were coated with brilliant white emulsion, a central dividing screen was upgraded to the status of a wall (marking off the back half of the area as the main exhibiting space), and the floor had a smart new coat of gray paint. The finishing touch to this refurbishment—in fact, the essence of Display 21 itself—was a plastic scotia in the angle between floor and wall, running round the entire gallery. It was very simple in form, a concave quarter-circle producing a smooth transition from horizontal to vertical. Pale green in color, apart from the white corner pieces and end stops, it was clearly visible without being too obtrusive.

Visitors to the show were given information on the materials used to make the work—“extruded plastic bathroom seal (TD850 + TR807), endstops, corner joints and butt joints, 5674cm x 2.5cm x 2.5cm”—and a photocopy of the relevant page in the trade catalogue from which the materials had been selected. The latter sheet told us that “PVC covings and scotias provide a neat, hygienic, and maintenance-free seal where walls, ceilings and worktops meet,” that there are “over 80 finishes and colours to meet yourdesign specifications,” and that there is a “custom design and colour matching service available.” This prosaic information created a powerful imaginative trigger. The range of variables offered by each element suggested a seemingly infinite number of possible realities.

“Display” is the generic title Russell applies to all her work, and Display 21 lives up to that labeling in two related ways. Firstly, it often uses fittings and materials generally employed in the display or presentation of things. Secondly, it takes these items, which are by nature of secondary functional value (paper bags, shop display racks, packing material), and focuses attention on them, accords them primary status. Being of secondary importance, they stay tied to those narrow requirements for the satisfaction of which they were called into being. Beyond that, they remain mute and intransigent. Display 21 is no exception to this. The bathroom seal masks, tidies, and prettifies in ways that seem important to some cultivated idea of closure, but it is truly a nonessential item. Similarly, the question of the relationship between the floor and the wall, of whether or not something may belong to both at once, of whether or not one is looking at an object or at the planes that enclose and support it, might ultimately seem an equally insubstantial bubble. Russell’s success in this instance is that she has made a choice, nominated a reality from among ideal options, and thrown these issues into relief.

Michael Archer