London

Michael Fullerton

Chisenhale Gallery

Just how many skills is a twenty-first-century artist expected to master? If Michael Fullerton is the measure, then—per his recent exhibition “Columbia”—the contemporary artist must be an expert researcher, writer, draftsman, storyteller, sleuth, technician, and sculptor. He must work with readymades, video, lasers, painting, printing, and wall text. He must be sociopolitically and historically astute—in Fullerton’s case, about Alan Turing, the brilliant computer-technology pioneer who, after helping Britain win the war with his code-cracking genius, was convicted of homosexuality and cruelly subjected to hormone injection treatment, eventually committing suicide. In this show, Turing featured in two portraits: one an enlargement of a newspaper photo (Using Polish Technology, Alan Turing Devised a More Sophisticated Machine to Crack ENIGMA) (all works 2010), the other a more sensitively painted, human-scale oil, Why Your Life Sucks (Alan Turing). The label for the latter, detailing Turing’s personal tragedy, prompted viewers to backtrack to the reproduction of the official portrait and to reread its flat and factual accompanying wall text: It now sounded sinister, deliberately hiding so much behind institutional blandness. So the artist must be a cunning curator, too. And he must paint exquisitely, proving himself able to convincingly copy eighteenth-century historical painting (Loyalist Female [Katie Black] Glasgow, 3rd July 2010) or early-twentieth-century regional figuration (The Bitch Messed with His Head), this last oil a portrait of the alluring Mirren Barford, who (as we learn from the true story narrated in the accompanying label) was engaged to Jock Lewes, cofounder of Britain’s notorious Special Air Service during World World II. He was killed in action before they could marry.

This was the exhibition as pulp novel: intricate and involving, sprawling and sexy, laced with foreign intrigue. Arguably a single work, the show was loosely clustered around the personification of the United States as Columbia—also the C in -CBS._ The television network’s noted eye logo painted on a central gallery wall seemed the likely representation of the show’s absent center, a stylized void that is also an unblinking orb. The camera’s eye, the painter’s gaze, the hunter’s watch (a bird of prey occupies a small video screen), the prying eye of homophobic suspicion: Modes of looking were both object and subject. But the eye cannot always be relied on; visual data can be ambiguous (BASF Magic Gold presents a baffling metallic pigment that appears both gold and green at once) or even absent: A model ring laser gyroscope in the center of the gallery reproduced the automatic orientation device used on submarines and missiles to navigate without visual input. Was the theme of “Columbia,” punning on Robert Smithson, “sight” and “non-sight”? A tangle of innuendo was communicated through clarity and excess: overlong texts, doubles (the twin newsprint images of Columbia Space Shuttle, each revealing less than the other), even triplicates, as in the personified Columbia, here a goth babe on newsprint rotated ninety degrees, casting six seductive eyes upon viewers wherever they might roam.

The whole show was expertly choreographed, down to the green laser beam that rotated around the gallery, causing pangs of paranoia each time it shot past one’s leg. History, gossip, and various open-ended digressions were conveyed through skillfully ventriloquized idioms, ranging from museumspeak to tabloid tell-all, from personal letters to advertising lingo. One left mesmerized, educated, and impressed.

Gilda Williams