Lucy Skaer

Counter Gallery

Lucy Skaer’s London solo debut was entitled “The Problem in Seven Parts,”’ with the ostensible problem—intimated by the fact that this exhibition of pinned-up drawings came in not seven but nine segments—being this: Skaer appreciates material facts on an individual basis, but sequential logic is anathema to her. The Glasgow-based artist’s contribution to last year’s Beck’s Futures exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Arts here, for example, was a set of giveaway posters that drew attention to fugitive actions she claimed to have performed, such as secreting moth and butterfly pupae in London’s Old Bailey criminal courts and placing a scorpion and a diamond on an Amsterdam pavement. Like those stunts, this show’s productions hint at an obscure civic purpose, albeit one further disguised by their status as art objects.

In The Problem in Seven Parts, Part 1 (all works 2004), a photojournalistic image of a corpse is sketched four times with various stylistic tweaks—inversion; shifts in color, medium, and drawing style—in or around the central form of an empty wineglass, from whose base sprays out a quantity of bones. Made palatable by compositional balance and the lull of repetition, this ménage of alcoholic pleasure, death, and decay sets the show’s tone. In Part 5, an ink drawing of a Nigerian sculpted head explodes into a series of dialectical reversals: Stretching across the tranquil figure’s unfinished brow is a gray, blood-splashed, recumbent corpse, its own head obscured by a tiny, colorful fragment of geometric abstraction—which in turn dissolves in a pool of ruby ink where the left eye should be. In Part 7 (pair), a Rorschach-like ambiguity in twenty-three-carat gold leaf, looking something like a detached human jawbone, hovers above another gory splash that again obscures the head of a nude male cadaver. Skaer’s dead are “victims of war and political unrest,” says the gallery press release; by now, though, her figures seemed less like stiffs than glyphs, the images expressions of a tentative and currently opaque syntax. (And one whose deliberate eccentricities extended into the presentation: Several of the drawings were mounted on a hinged, room-dividing screen, another on an easily overlooked faux chimney breast that she’d built onto one wall.)

Skaer’s avowed interest is in how things gain imagistic status and thereby become mobile, both through our familiarity with them and via other means. Interviewed recently, she spoke of a dead body as a “naturally occurring image—it is the perfect likeness of the living person, and yet . . . fundamentally different.” Such Benjaminian musings now seem insular and routine. But because Skaer has shown herself such a comrade of the copy shop and friend of the freebie hunter, I found myself wondering whether her declarations could cover for a larger, more ambitious project. After all, a radically disjointed social reality in which aspirational media imagery coexists with an atmosphere of paranoia over terrorism calls for a public iconography to reflect it, a functional graphic language like wartime propaganda or heraldry (both of which find echoes in her punchy compositions). Skaer may not be up to such a grand task—and, equally, I might just be fever-dreaming a nonexistent intent—but there’s no doubt that, if transmuted into posters, these irrational yet eloquent designs would suit the jangled streets of Britain right now.

Martin Herbert