David Musgrave


A quality of restrained, forceful inquisitiveness pervaded the small but intense group of pieces that made up David Musgrave’s latest exhibition (all works 2001). Within their playful diversity, the works seemed to test the boundaries of the human form and question art’s capacity to represent and articulate those boundaries. One of Musgrave’s trademarks has been wall drawings done in brown paint to create a trompe l’oeil effect, as if roughly torn strips of masking tape had been stuck jokily onto the wall, or had been carelessly left there when the thing they supported was removed. Although as delicate visually as the others of its kind have been, here the work in this style was actually the largest thing in the show. Tape figure running through space ran airily up one wall, the two tones of brown paint against the brilliant white background creating the illusion of different strands spiraling around one another in space. The reference to the double helix and to the body itself was patent. And given the way the three other elements in the show also turned around the idea of the fractured or mutant.body, the allusion extended to genetic coding and manipulation, and to the imaginative possibility of engendering a living form.

Another work, Monster, was a wall-mounted bas-relief fragment. Although the work carries the imprint of some small but disturbingly strange form, the notion that it might be a fossil is belied by the epoxy and polyurethane out of which it is fashioned. The overtones are as much futurological as teratological—one thinks of a mood akin to that evoked in King Kong Meets the Gem of Egypt, 1972, the bizarre collage by Robert Smithson in which a monster strides destructively through a high-rise city toward a giant earth mover. Scraping back through layers of the past we see the future lurching at us, and it’s difficult to know where distinctions can be drawn between the natural and the engineered. Sci-fi nightmares of the alien point to humanity’s likely dissolution into a boundless amalgam of flesh and technology. On the floor, as if at the scene of some Roswell-related crime, three rough outlines of a small bodily form, more homunculus than human, confused and interfered with one another. Each figure at first seemed to be made from a single sheet of differently colored acrylic, but the whole work is only the thickness of a single sheet, so where they overlap a piece of another color—a mix of the relevant two, or of all three—was set in. The resulting kaleidoscopic arrangement, Overlapping Figures, is at one and the same time the indistinct outline of something almost recognizable, evidence of a presence, and a claim that such a presence could, visually at least, be restored.

The title of the final work, a pencil drawing, acknowledges the uncertainty at the heart of this inquiry. Anthroposomething shows a jumble of organic forms that appear to be awaiting reassembly into structural coherence. They might be petrified, ossified, or perhaps cast, but whatever the case their provenance seems comprehensively in dispute. Musgrave here offers us the artwork as a kind of contemporary Frankenstein’s monster, a fractured shell cloaking the will to authenticity. We have so many modern discourses to which we can turn for help in interpreting the qualities of things—biochemistry, paleontology, forensics, and so on. But none of these, we understand, will ultimately help anything to stand on its own feet.

Michael Archer