Eva Rothschild

South London Gallery

The advance notice was striking: The gallery’s tabloid-style newsletter featured a set of images in which individuals stand against a gallery wall holding snakes. Sometimes fondling the creatures, sometimes wearing them entwined around their arms or necks like exotic jewelry, the human subjects look entirely comfortable with their seductive, intimate, and potentially murderous companions. “Here,” Eva Rothschild seems to be saying with her photographs, “this is what I do.” The snakes are like simple, abstract lines, folding and refolding, moving from one to two to three dimensions. In this regard, they echo forms found throughout her work, and evident again here: the plaited leather that often covers metal armatures, as in Higher Love (all works 2007); sinuous shapes, like that of the twisted, tense loop of Muscles.

Eleven works, primarily sculptures, were on view at South London Gallery, which has only a single room of exhibition space. Yet the show never felt cluttered, perhaps because Rothschild exploited aspects of the space that are often ignored: The installation made use of the floor and walls, center and edges, ceiling and corners. Rothschild’s work derives its force from the disarmingly direct manner in which she addresses simple spatial and material problems. There is nothing particularly new about these problems—How do I get from here to there? How do I get this to stay here and not fall to the ground when I let go? Is color part of an object or on the surface?—but Rothschild’s efforts to resolve them are conducted with a rare sharpness of focus. And her sculpture is often very funny, in the way that cartoons are when they play on the inescapable, painful exigencies of existence. Mr. Messy is a ludicrously energetic and incoherent tangle of armature wire over which sections of red and black plastic sleeving have been threaded. It’s as if all the electrons in an atom had decided to leave their fixed orbits and wander around the nucleus entirely at random. Cactus, though carefully constructed from a variety of materials, looks for all the world like a precarious U-shaped stack of rolls of tape, while the tottering tower of cubic wooden frames that make up Jokes is both lighthearted, as its name implies, and perplexing: At first the cubes look almost stackable, but their outlines are interlinked. Although the rods are primarily painted in black gloss, each cube contains some green on its interior face—except for the top cube, whose exterior is green. This almost insignificant difference is somehow shocking in its willful arbitrariness.

Some of Rothschild’s formal conundrums are solved by a self-debunking illusionism: Higher Love has three interlocking rings, which seem to float in the air, well above the viewer’s head. The end strips of the rings’ braided-leather covering hang down, often as far as the floor, in a way that masks the vertical steel rods and base plates that, in fact, hold the rings aloft. But the work that returns us closest to the images in the newsletter is The Narrow Way, in which thick red, black, and white braided-leather ropes drape languidly around the cross-bracing of a large, black, stretcher-like frame. It rests on the floor and leans against the wall. It’s both provisionally placed and deliberately sited. It’s a space delineator, a gesture trap, an image carrier.

Michael Archer