Zurich

Marvin Gaye Chetwynd, Salamander, 2017, latex, paper, cardboard, papier-mâché, foam padding, plastic, Dutch metal, metal stand, 64 1/4 x 60 5/8 x 61". Photo: Gregor Staiger.

Marvin Gaye Chetwynd, Salamander, 2017, latex, paper, cardboard, papier-mâché, foam padding, plastic, Dutch metal, metal stand, 64 1/4 x 60 5/8 x 61". Photo: Gregor Staiger.

Marvin Gaye Chetwynd

Gregor Staiger

Marvin Gaye Chetwynd, Salamander, 2017, latex, paper, cardboard, papier-mâché, foam padding, plastic, Dutch metal, metal stand, 64 1/4 x 60 5/8 x 61". Photo: Gregor Staiger.

Even when a performance has not yet taken place, when Marvin Gaye Chetwynd has not conducted some Walpurgisnacht in the gallery, when no one has been chained to a latex double of Jabba the Hutt or done a banshee dance half-naked or otherwise worked themselves up into a transformative, ecstatic frenzy—even when the surfaces are innocent of blood or sperm or body paint—her artworks still reverberate with arcane energy. In “The Stagnant Pool,” in which she converted a single room into a stage set for a potential performance, Chetwynd showed off her ability to animate her work through her powers of suggestion alone.

At the core of Chetwynd’s practice is an understanding of the ritual origins of art. Prior to her enrollment at the Slade School of Fine Art in London, she received a degree in anthropology at University College London, but felt she could never really reconcile herself to the mortifying seriousness of the discipline. At the Slade, she studied sculpture under Phyllida Barlow. Chetwynd’s work, in its exuberance, its improvised, informal quality, and its use of materials at hand, at first sight recalls Barlow’s, but the temperaments of the artists could not be more different. Barlow is deliberate with words, and sometimes almost ponderously inarticulate. Chetwynd, by contrast, is hyperverbal. She uses language to exhort; she thinks out loud, praises and teases, starting her next sentence before she finishes her first. For Chetwynd, who seems to find everything funny, the straight faces of armchair anthropologists revealed they were guilty of not taking ritual seriously. Instead of devoting herself to documenting rituals, she enacts them. Mummers’ plays, pilgrims’ tales, school nativities, propitiatory dances, sacrificial rites, and science fiction all come together to give her works a liberating sense of transgression.

On the back wall of the gallery, functioning as a kind of theater backdrop, was a large reproduction of the famous garden fresco of the Villa of Livia near Rome. Every tree is shown in full flower or heavy with fruit. To any Roman viewer, the verdant tableau presented an artificial image of paradise. The tree trunk at the center of Chetwynd’s version of the image was cropped out, leaving its fruit-laden foliage floating like a fecund cloud. The white floor below it was marked out with black stripes, creating an effect halfway between that of a Renaissance church and that of a Dadaist basketball court. Crossing the floor before the backdrop, you immediately felt sprung by an invisible audience, as if you had wandered onto the stage of a very strange amateur play.

Around the remaining walls of the gallery were fourteen paintings from a series called “Bat Opera,” 2002–, and six “Psychic Collages,” 2017. The bat pictures—portraits, really—have the sort of heavy black frames you would associate with expensive Old Master paintings. The frames underline the objectlike status of the works, their ability to be bought and sold, to migrate. It’s hard to tell if Chetwynd is using them to play the art market or to mock it.

At the center of the exhibition, occupying the most prominent space, was the five-foot-tall sculpture Salamander, 2017, made of latex, papier-mâché, and such. It’s an absurd, polka-dotted, frolicsome-looking thing, all teeth and appetite and ambiguous good cheer. The amphibian did not play the role of a classical work of sculpture so much as it behaved like an avatar in a Paleolithic computer game, a proxy for the visitor. It stood at the center of the room, gawping into the dioramas—themselves poised on clawed feet that recall the story of Baba Yaga’s hut, which runs around on chicken legs. Inside every single one of the dioramas, for no obvious reason, was the bald head of Abbé Pierre, the famous French priest and resistance fighter, cropped so that he somewhat resembled Michel Foucault. The entire setup seemed to constantly beseech the viewer not to watch, but to participate. The show’s charge came, perhaps, from the sense that even when Chetwynd’s objects are not leftovers from some small riot, they might still ignite one, as props that could flip a village panto into a dark Dionysian bacchanal.

Adam Jasper