London

Richard Wilson

Playing on the relationship between interior and exterior has become a tired formula, so overused by artists and critics alike that to invoke its relevance is tantamount to a declaration of intellectual and creative bankruptcy. But, there are exceptions to this.

In his previous two projects at this gallery, Richard Wilson made spectacular capital out of this idea. In She Came in Through the Bathroom Window, 1989, Wilson removed a portion of the window that ran down one wall and projected it into the exhibition space. The area between this window, now suspended in the middle of the gallery, and the space it used to occupy was boxed in and curtained off so that one could still only look “through” it. Before this, in 1987, Wilson constructed a waist-high, shallow metal tray that covered the gallery, wall-to-wall except for a narrow access passage leading from the doorway into the center of the room. Filled with used engine oil (hence the work’s title, 20. .50), the tray became a reflecting surface so perfect that the gallery seemed to dematerialize.

To inaugurate the second space at the new gallery space, Wilson produced watertable, 1994, a work that builds on both of these earlier pieces. He dug a rectangular pit in the concrete floor of the gallery, slightly broader and longer than the billiard table that sits in it, and exactly the same depth, so that the table’s cushioned rim lies flush with the floor surface. A large, circular hole was cut in the table from which a concrete pipe extended beneath the floor of the pit. There is water at the bottom of the pipe making it, in effect, a shallow well sunk into what is a very high water table.

Whereas the liquid surface of 20. .50 unsettled the viewer by dissolving the physical limits of the space, watertable is disconcerting in another way. At the corner of the pit nearest the pipe, the brick foundations of one of the buildings’ cast-iron supports were revealed. The water at the bottom of the pipe sloshed, sucked, and gurgled gently the whole time, making it apparent that however sturdy they look, the foundations themselves have little upon which to rest. Now it is the entire building that floats precariously.

Through the gallery windows, one can see the canal that runs right by the building and, on its opposite hank, four large gas holders. Watertable is partly the product of adjusting to his environment. Within the usual robust irreverence of Wilson’s treatment of his surroundings (an approach influenced both by Gordon Matta-Clark and by the mechanical follies and pyrotechnic excesses of the late British artist Stephen Cripps), there is a quieter, more reflective strain of straightforward formal play. For instance, the pattern of the window mesh is similar to that of the strengthening membrane revealed in the concrete floor, and both of these contrast with the netting of the billiard table’s pockets.

Since 1987, the characteristically cynical English art world has, sotto voce naturally, been daring Wilson to go one better than the sublime knock-out punch delivered to anyone viewing 20. .50 for the first time. By eschewing the spectacle of that earlier work and stepping sideways with a piece that offers a much slower build-up he has done that and more.

Michael Archer