London

Eric Bainbridge

Riverside Gallery

We are told that it’s back to basics in sculpture now: body, bed, and board, and there has been plenty of work since the early ’80s to support this claim (Robert Gober, Thomas Schütte, and Jean-Marc Bustamante for starters). Whatever its purchase on reality, there is a lot of Modernist nostalgia in the hands-off autonomy of much of this work, as well as a reluctance to engage with what most people really feel about the things they think they want. In our private lives we attempt to form images of ourselves loosened from the tyranny of acceptable taste and from the proliferation of powerful media images (and the power relations they represent). What seems to be central to Eric Bainbridge’s work over the last ten years is the belief that although we are vulnerable, we have in our bodies, our sexuality, and our memories the resources to contest that power. It is this faith that underscores the brew of ambiguity, humor, pathos, and sobriety, which, while running clear and cold in early paintings, such as Man with oxygen on his back against a dark landscape, 1981, and in the clay sculptures, such as Large head with a memory, 1981, makes his overblown fake furry objects of the mid ’80s so hard to take. The achievement of this show of just five new works is that the catalogue, which reproduces a judicious selection of earlier pieces, makes it possible to disentangle Bainbridge’s oeuvre from the knot of art-historical references—Medardo Rosso, Constantin Brancusi, Francis Picabia, Max Ernst, Joseph Beuys, Claes Oldenburg, Jeff Koons—which has dominated critical approaches to his work, obscuring precisely that which sets his effort apart.

This show consisted of four sculptures and one painting in two parts made of acrylic and fur fabric. The “canvas” here is inside out, that is, the fur is reversed to reveal a coarse but adequate ground for the titles of earlier works that are painted on its surface. It is called (a little self-parody here) History Painting, 1990. Indeed there is an ominous sense of fin-de-siècle summation, of hindsight, and of cognizance in these big sculptural monuments to a material culture that has swallowed itself and yet remains unsatiated and undernourished. Europa, 1989, is a long, roomy sequence of man-sized, closed, and rounded-off boxes covered in creamy fur fabric (inside out, again) tipped by a magisterial, brown, soft, and furry teat.

All promise but no delivery. The hieratic In Heliotrope, 1990, is compelling, even dangerous, which is remarkable given its origin—an eminently disposable, plastic, lavatory air freshener. Approximately seven feet high, in fiberglass and plywood, its fine deco styling is sharpened by the pearl knit of the lilac fur fabric, the tempting pile of which is revealed only in the delicate floral aperture at the top. The whole is lavish and cautionary like a luxury funeral casket upended for display. Likewise the minimalist sleek lines of From the roof of my mouth to the tip of my tongue, 1990, a ceiling-height fiberglass and plywood remake of a tower block stairwell, scaled down and neatly covered in flame red reversed fur fabric, dumbly acknowledge the complexity of esthetic issues, and, above of the morality of architecture. It is in the gentle, almost rococo outline of Mirror, 1990, brown, opaque, flat as an iced biscuit, and leaning casually against the wall, that the confusion of values, in art as well as life, is reflected. Bainbridge’s alter ego, Tommy Cavendish, says it quite simply after a visit to a do-it-yourself superstore: “You only ever go when you’re desperate, get caught up in all that they promise and usually leave feeling more desperate. Not only can you not find what you want, but you come out carrying something you don’t.” Bainbridge has achieved something significant: an object art that is beyond notions of taste, but which does not defer to a fixed critical agenda. Most of all this work is free of the pernicious cynicism that seems rampant everywhere.

Marjorie Althorpe-Guyton