Birmingham

David Batchelor

Ikon Gallery

The title of David Batchelor’s first major solo show at a public institution, “Shiny-Dirty,” neatly encapsulated the beat-up brilliance of his trademark stacks of reconditioned light boxes and fleets of low-slung, four-wheeled monochromes. Expanding on this title, the artist’s description of his work in a catalogue interview as “dirty readymades for shiny monochromes” signaled a conscious engagement with two of twentieth-century art’s most signif- icant forms. Batchelor’s work is informed, though by no means governed by, his writings on the theory and cultural history of color. “Chromophobia I–IV,” 2000, for example, a series of photographs of a roughed-up toy panda in a garish clown costume languishing on a sidewalk, was made the same year as the artist’s justly celebrated book, whose title it borrows. Yet his work’s consistent emphasis on accident and experiment, its embrace of the casual and the contingent, effectively distances it from the dictates of programmatic critical inquiry.

The first work the viewer encountered was also the most imposing. Brick Lane Remix, 2003, was an array of salvaged steel shelving units, bearing an assortment of light boxes and rectangular acrylic sheets of various hues, that oozed yards of cabling from the back. It had something of the brute swagger of a spruced-up inner-city doorman as one skirted around it in order to proceed into the gallery’s other rooms. The resolutely urban nature and prove- nance of Batchelor’s art was underscored by the works’ titles. “I Love King’s Cross and King’s Cross Loves Me,” for instance, is an ongoing series (begun in 1997) of painted acrylic sheets on secondhand dollies. Despite its knowing nod to Joseph Beuys, the title suggests an affectionate, if not celebratory, attitude to place (and a notoriously seedy place at that), rather than one intended as provocative or ironic. This particular body of work was represented only indirectly, by the second of the show’s large installations—a gathering of wooden dollies, each underlit by a different-colored fluorescent light—whose title, Spectrum of Hackney Road, 2002– 2003, flaunted its East End credentials.

While classic Minimalism long ago shook off the dust and grime of the city and retired either to the museum or to the country, Batchelor’s work seems intent on reminding it of its roots as well as messing with its patrimony. Leaned insouciantly against the gallery walls, his “Idiot Sticks,” 2003, pay cheeky homage to two notable predecessors, Dan Flavin and André Cadere. Thin columns made up of assorted plastic bottles, illuminated from within by a single fluorescent tube, they crossbreed the bare Minimalism of Flavin’s early store-bought neon fittings with the mischievous flânerie of Cadere’s beaded, multicolored Barres de Bois (Wood Poles). They are also, however, first cousins to the Psychedelic Soul Sticks, 2001—bamboo canes and other unspecified objects wrapped with colored thread—of Jim Lambie, with whom Batchelor starred in a spectacular double-act in Tate Britain’s Duveen galleries as part of last year’s second Tate Triennial show, “Days Like These.” “Found Monochromes of London,” 1997–2003, is a succession of carefully ordered photographs of white rectangles, ranging from grubby flyposted sheets to empty billboards, each framed by the distressed, anonymous particularity of its deep-city surroundings. Casually charting seven years of intermittent dérives, the “Found Monochromes” might be extended indefinitely, highlighting Batchelor’s characteristically agglutinative and open-ended attitude toward formal composition.

Caoimhín Mac Giolla Léith