Caroline Russell

Laure Genillard

Exhibitions don’t really begin and end at the gallery; for Caroline Russell, whose interest in display began in 1987, the invitation card plays a significant role in setting up the spectator. While the sophisticated contemporary-art audience expects to be titillated through the mail slot, Russell’s use of a grammatically incoherent excerpt from a commercial-supplier-of-display-paraphernalia catalogue is so cannily like the experience of the show itself as to be virtually ekphrastic: “Bumper Strip has vertical ribs along the entire length of the strip reducing surface contact by passing traffic, giving less drag and abrasion resulting in a cleaner, clear see-through surface for greater safety—much longer.”

If you want to wrestle with the conventions of display, then you must be prepared to explore the depths of disorientation; Russell masterfully demonstrates this in Display 44, 1992, which is an important departure from her earlier, relatively narrow, conceptual field. Russell’s current project is intelligent and visceral in a way that strongly evokes the most cogent critical aspects of Minimalism—the “suppression of the beholder.” Yet the work is in no sense derivative or stale; instead, it seems to effortlessly engage projects of a much grander scale and historical stature in a tweaking, lively dialogue.

Most analogies between Minimalist art and current work turn on a fairly useless positing of morphological similarity, as though Minimalism were simply about imposing geometries. While some current art does ceaselessly operate on just that superficial level, Russell’s refuses to ignore the other side of Minimalism; that is, the type of spectator constituted by such work. What links Russell to this issue is the way in which she orchestrates our response to her site-specific installation—both immediate and thankfully lacking the coded pretensions that seem to define a strata of mediocrity in such work—transforming the gallery from a terminus into a corridor or conduit.

“Bumper Strip” is jargon for a type of plastic thermal barrier similar to the kind used to enclose cold display units in supermarkets. Russell has installed these, floor to ceiling, in a configuration that echoes the gallery’s perimeter walls but provides a relatively cramped space for the spectator. Because these strips create a “permeable” barrier, the spectator is able to move freely between the corridor and into the interior or nested space. Owing to the translucency of the plastic, the sensation accompanying that movement is disorienting, and the spectator actively resists remaining in a fixed location. Display 44 encourages a good deal of milling-about which, combined with the occlusive effect of the plastic’s translucency on the spectator’s visual field, sustains an intensive frustration of the basic tenet of flânerie.

Michael Corris