View of “Cornelia Parker,” 2013. From left: Oil Stain (Bethlehem), 2012–13; Spilt Milk (Jerusalem),   2012–13.

View of “Cornelia Parker,” 2013. From left: Oil Stain (Bethlehem), 2012–13; Spilt Milk (Jerusalem), 2012–13.

Cornelia Parker

View of “Cornelia Parker,” 2013. From left: Oil Stain (Bethlehem), 2012–13; Spilt Milk (Jerusalem),   2012–13.

Despite its ostensibly humble, idiosyncratic materials and elegant post-Minimalist aesthetic, Cornelia Parker’s work is often infused with a frisson of danger, the aura of celebrity, or the lure of the spectacle. All three are manifest in The Maybe, her 1995 collaboration with Tilda Swinton, in which the actress lies, apparently asleep, inside a glass vitrine. Reprised intermittently at the Museum of Modern Art in New York over the course of this year, the work has drawn criticism for pandering to our culture’s obsession with celebrity, albeit in acceptably highbrow form. And indeed, there is something troubling about Parker’s visually seductive practice, which offers vicarious encounters with violence, fame, and illicit substances, all rendered palatably abstract. The intriguing provenance of her materials—including silverware flattened by a steamroller (Thirty Pieces of Silver, 1988–89); a Feather from Freud’s Pillow (From His Couch), 1998; a Hat Burnt by a Meteorite, 2000; and cocaine seized by Revenue & Customs (Exhaled Cocaine [Lima], 2008)—often overpowers the work itself, leaving little room for ambiguity or interpretation.

Parker’s most recent show marked a return to the less sensationalistic, more quotidian concerns of her early practice. During the mid-1980s, she made a series of works featuring lead reproductions of mass-produced souvenirs of famous monuments, arranged to form miniature metropolises that colonized architectural and urban spaces. At Frith Street, she showed three sculptures made by pouring liquid cold-cure rubber into cracks in the sidewalk and then casting these interstitial spaces in bronze. As brittle and ashen as charred timber, the resultant grids were displayed raised a few inches from the ground on stainless-steel rods, each a ragged network of shadows. These are not just any old cracks—Black Path (Bunhill Fields), 2013, for example, was cast at the London cemetery where William Blake is buried. But unlike that of many of Parker’s objects, the particularity of these works seems less important than their material ubiquity and connotative richness. Charged with childhood superstition and ludic possibility, cracks in the pavement engender associations that exceed any specific place or single historical figure. Parker’s grids stand metonymically for entire cities while simultaneously highlighting the stains and fissures of the gallery floors over which they hover. They also stage an encounter between drawing and sculpture latent in her earlier work, which includes objects hung from the ceiling by sinuous wires, or three-dimensional entities drawn into linear form (such as the “Bullet Drawings,” 2007–, ten of which were shown at Frith Street).

Prison Wall Abstract (A Man Escaped), 2012–13, is a set of twelve photographs of strokes of paint filler on the wall of Pentonville Prison. In these found abstractions worthy of Aaron Siskind, an anonymous workman’s unexpectedly lyrical gestures were captured by Parker’s camera before their obliteration by a final coat of paint. The fact that they were discovered on the wall of a prison lends another layer of reference to these fugitive marks, which serve literally and metaphorically to shore up an embattled institution. (As Parker notes, a murderer escaped later that day by scaling the prison’s walls.)

Formally related to, yet contextually distant from, London’s urban patinas are a number of works Parker made during a recent trip to Jerusalem. Spilt Milk (Jerusalem) and Oil Stain (Bethlehem), both 2012–13, are photographs of substances spilled on the streets of the Holy City, while Cloud Burst (Jerusalem), 2012, captures rusting paint on a bomb-disposal vessel that the artist encountered in the courtyard of the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre. Elsewhere in Parker’s practice, found objects are conceptually or physically transformed through knowledge of their illustrious owners or spectacular acts of violence. In the Jerusalem series, it is the geopolitical context that conditions our reading of these stained, flooded, and tarnished surfaces, imbuing everyday accidents with a more profound sense of precariousness.

Anna Lovatt