Coventry, UK

Cullinan + Richards

Mead Gallery, Warwick Arts Centre

Having collaborated between 1998 and 2006 as Artlab, not only as makers of paintings, drawings, sculptures, and installations but as presenters of the work of others, Charlotte Cullinan and Jeanine Richards began operating less anonymously as Cullinan + Richards in 2006. A book they published that year, which marked the transition by featuring both monikers on the cover, was inexplicably dated 1921–2006. Why 1921? A few of the more recent works documented in the book have titles or subtitles citing that year, but the event to which those paintings and sculptures referred remained inscrutable.

Such hermeticism has been a recurrent feature of Cullinan + Richards’s work under both appellations and was fully evident in “Girl Rider,” their recent exhibition at Mead Gallery. Their work construes subject matter not as a topic to be addressed directly but rather as a device that absents itself except to organize the relations among otherwise disparate objects and gestures. This exhibition thus feigned to explicate those earlier references to the year 1921 without really offering any overt clarification of its significance.

The starting point for the show was a vintage photograph taken in Atlantic City, New Jersey (in 1921, of course), showing a “horse diving” stunt in which a young woman rides her mount off a high platform and into a pool of water. From that simple germ of an idea, Cullinan + Richards developed an unruly and multifaceted installation that sprawled across boundaries—between media as well as between spaces. These include the gap between art and commerce, since even the small shop area outside the formal exhibition space was drafted as part of the artists’ territory. Here one saw, along with a poster (designed in collaboration with typographer Jonathan Barnbrook) and other Cullinan + Richards ephemera, a sculpture, Double Singular, 2007, made of two mannequins that have been bound together with tape—a parodic self-portrait of the artist-pair as a comically self-mirroring yet ambivalent partnership.

The work that followed in the first gallery included paintings but also a peculiar hybrid of painting, the readymade, and what Marcel Duchamp called a “reciprocal readymade” (“Use a Rembrandt as an ironing board”): brushy black-and-white paintings on transparent plastic, used as tablecloths over industrial steel tables. The imagery in these works comes not from photographs of the Atlantic City “girl rider” photo but from Russ Meyer’s cult exploitation film Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965). Other paintings may not necessarily be based on the same imagery; it was impossible to tell, since they were hung on freestanding walls erected inside the room, so close to one another that you couldn’t see the paintings hanging between them. Also between two of these walls was a pair of white, breast-shaped fountains with water burbling from their nipples.

The second gallery featured more sculptural work, including a wooden construction that evokes the ramp leading to the platform from which the girl rider made her saut dans le vide. But horizontal painting appeared again, too, as the tops of a variety of found tables have been used as supports for poured paint, while beneath and around them shards of mirrors and other objects were arranged to suggest a sort of geometrical abstraction. The exhibition was lit by “chandeliers” made from large wooden spools and fluorescent tubes.

And that was just the beginning. Belying the sparseness of the installation, there were so many different types of elements here that they can hardly all be mentioned in a brief review, let alone described. Symbolic and allegorical meaning is repeatedly implied in this work but may not amount to more than a fascination with the imagery of female recklessness and daring. But the proof of the work is not in its imagery; it’s in an endlessly inventive and heedless practice of making and transformation that overwhelms all reference.

Barry Schwabsky