Boyle Family

Mark Boyle started out as a poet, Joan Hills as a painter. Under her influence he took up the brush too—this was in the late ’50s—and by the beginning of the next decade the two young Scots had moved to London and were making junk assemblages and, soon, “events” or happenings, all under the name Mark Boyle, though in fact collaborative. Since 1985 they have exhibited as the Boyle Family, working with their children Sebastian and Georgia. As Mark Boyle put it in 1965, they came to understand as their goal “to include everything in a single work. . . . In the end the only medium in which it will be possible to say everything will be reality.” They took actual material—earth, debris, and so on—from randomly selected spots in vacant lots and demolition sites and used resin to fix it, exactly as found, to rectangular boards which they then hung like paintings. (These were to landscape as Daniel Spoerri’s tableaux pièges were to still life.) The use of chance and the determined avoidance of subjectivity or self-expression were standard post-Cageian aesthetics; the displacement of the real—before Smithson or Long—was perhaps more challenging. But the Boyles’ urge to pictorialize led to “interesting” compositions surprisingly amenable to formalist judgments of taste.

The Boyles’ work quickly became nevertheless even more pictorial, as their reliefs became reproductions (made by means of processes about which they are oddly secretive) rather than samples. Their range of topographies is vast—from deserts to demolition sites, potato fields to parking lots, and the materials mimicked include earth, snow, grass, cobblestones, concrete, and anything found on the surface of the earth. They have developed a very impressive illusionistic technique, something like Photorealist painting extended to the third dimension. The work would be more at home hanging next to Franz Gertsch and early Malcolm Morley than with Smithson and Long. And as with most Photorealist painting, the sense of reality on which the work is based is fundamentally determined by photography, leaving the pictorial (or, in this case, pictorial/sculptural) aspect of its realization, at best, interestingly alienated. The picture is an eerily frozen instant, an extract from time (as well as space) that can then be unpacked at leisure, as it were with all the time in the world.

But unlike photographs, and as much as the Boyles hold that ars est celare artem, their topographical reliefs can hardly be seen without thinking of the time and effort that went into them. Claiming to eschew “originality, style, superimposed design, wit, elegance, or significance,” they never stop calling attention to one last modicum of subjectivity, in the form of sustained attention. The artists’ investment of awareness in the world they’ve depicted elicits similar attention to their work as such and in turn to the world they depict—the ground you walk on looks different after spending time with the Boyles’ work—and, yes, to the artists themselves. It’s not their technique, then, that one wants to be more transparent but the nature of their collaboration. There’s something at once sweetly old-fashioned and a bit perverse about turning art into the family business, but it might be the most radical thing the Boyle Family has done.

Barry Schwabsky