Birmingham

Ruth Claxton

Ikon Gallery

Ruth Claxton’s installation Lands End, 2008, sneaks up on you. Initially it doesn’t look like an installation at all but like a group of discrete (though closely related) sculptures, some freestanding, others wall-mounted. The site-specific work was disposed across three of Ikon’s rooms, the first so densely installed that you could enter it just partway, the second moderately so, and the third fairly sparsely. Likewise, the floor-based elements themselves went, as the rooms progressed, from being nearly as high as the ceiling to being, in the last room, relatively low (around coffee-table height). Only at the end did one understand that the exhibition was actually to be considered a single work, one that appeared to shrink as it grew thinner.

The materials comprising this loopy sculptural landscape are few and simple: steel hoops, painted gray, sometimes supported by vertical struts, likewise painted gray. Most of the metal circles were empty—they merely framed views of what was behind them—but some held mirrored or colored glass disks (in off-primary hues like carmine, mustard, and navy). To complicate things further, certain disks had a different color on each side, so that, for example, one saw a blue disk, but only yellow reflected in the mirror positioned below it. A few of the disks, in turn, bore small objects, mostly pseudo-rococo figurines of people, animals, and birds, whose heads were invariably covered by other materials, like beads, buttons, tiny bells, artificial flowers, and sparkly bracelets. Claxton’s use of figurines recalls Rachel Harrison’s incorporation of ready-made figurative elements into otherwise nonrepresentational agglomerations, while her masterful handling of the rhythms produced by multiplying small units is comparable to that of Sarah Sze. But her work is neither as funky and brutal as Harrison’s nor as delicate and airy as Sze’s. It is plainer and more clearly structured and yet finally more bewildering than the work typical of either of those sculptors.

As simple as the materials and underlying structure of Lands End may be, its fundamental subject is even simpler: the perennial problem of sculpture and base, which Minimalism was supposed to have finally dissolved. Having at fi rst appeared to be the main body of Claxton’s sculpture, the framework of hoops and disks became, when one noticed the figurines, a concatenation of tables and pedestals; it then became clear that the figurines themselves, topped as they were with various baubles and gaudy assemblages, served as pedestals as well. A strange reversal of perspective was at play: The most imposing elements in the work turned out to be mere supports for what, in another context, would have been only bits of secondary detail.

The title, Lands End, makes use of a literary device established by James Joyce when, for his final work, he borrowed the name, but not the punctuation, of an old music-hall ballad so that a phrase implying possession (“Finnegan’s Wake”) became a sentence consisting of a plural noun and verb (“Finnegans Wake”). Land’s End in Wales is the westernmost point in the southern mainland of Britain, but “Lands End” is a blunt statement of a possibly pessimistic sort: Shit happens, lands end. And yet this expansive, dizzyingly energetic work seems beguilingly endless.

Barry Schwabsky