The Shape We’re In

This review of The Shape We’re In at the Zabludowitz Collections 176 Project Space was published in the online magazine this is tommorow, April 2011

Samantha Donnely, Supplexe Plaza (2011)

‘The Shape We’re In’ is the Zabludowicz collection’s itinerant curatorial project in three parts. Initiated on the 29 of January, with a set of three installations in disused Camden shop fronts, the exhibition’s second incarnation travelled to the 33rd floor of a New York Skyscraper. At Zabludowicz’s 176 project space in London, ‘The Shape We’re In’ goes through its final and largest process of installation. Featuring work by eighteen established and emerging artists using sculpture or installation as their mediums of choice, the display at 176 illustrates the project’s stated intention to showcase new and innovative works produced in both fields.

While the exhibition’s New York programme was presented with a lean towards the participatory (including a new interactive commission by Ethan Brackenridge and Sean Dack), Camden’s installations operated on the level of the unexpected art encounter, with pieces by Tracey Emin, Dan Attoe and Jack Strange co-opting the everyday locus of abandoned shop windows. At 176 the focus is on commissioning young artists to produce and realise ambitious installation projects. This patronage of burgeoning artistic talent is a crucial part of the Zablodowicz Collection’s modus operandi; it’s also what makes this exhibition such a risky affair. Offering young artists the space and finance to produce large-scale works could reveal flaws in an underdeveloped practice: as the saying goes ‘if you give them enough rope…’ On the other hand this type of support can lead to the production of exciting new works, offering artists a chance to move their practice beyond the plateau of limited means.

A work balancing delicately between these two poles is recent Royal Academy graduate Racheal Champion’s Carrying Capacity, 2011. Inside a room accessible through a door to the right of 176’s main hall, Champion has transformed the space into a tiled and pebbled conservatory of sorts. To enter, an area covered with stones must be walked over. It’s a sensation similar to ambling up a well-maintained country drive. Beyond this stony square metre, a hard bathroom-like tile of blue squares covers the floor, curving up and over parts of the walls either side. Here and there small, fragile looking green plants are hung. A statement about ecology seems to be emerging, but what is being articulated is a little difficult to pin down. Is this a kind of dystopic greenhouse of the future; a plant nursery more like a disinfected empty swimming pool than a hothouse teeming with organic life?  Photographs of more plants, covered by clear plastic panels, are stuck to the walls, or placed on a small ledge – low enough to sit on – protruding from the left hand wall. There’s a distinct sense that Carrying Capacity registers the ‘strong spirit of socio-political critique’ mentioned in the exhibitions press release, but while the work is grand in scope and accomplished in detail, the critique it’s offering is less concrete.

In the large black-box theatre space of 176 three impressive installations by Peggy Franck, George Young, and Samantha Donelly, vie for the viewers attention. Produced during a month long residency, each installation covers a corner of the room. Donnelly’s fragmented scenery of imitation marble floor, pearl necklaces and various ephemera make use of the space’s height by draping material from the ceiling. Both Franck’s glass panels lent against concrete in Reading and being read to, 2011, and Young’s drawings and loose canvas material in Call to Order, 2011, also make a convincing claim on the space. These artists seem undaunted by the prospect of taming 176’s vast studio, but the separation of each of their works into demarcated zones seems a missed opportunity to collaborate. You can’t help wondering what would have emerged if they’d given up their allocated spaces, pitching in to create a more integrated transformation. As a slight addendum to this triumvirate an extension of Franck’s work is installed in a small fire escape in the far corner of the room. How an uncomfortable moment made things move into a pleasant direction, 2007, offers a break from the consideration of scale, allowing a more intimate engagement with materiality and form. On top of a wooden table a sheet of orange Perspex hangs over, almost melting into the space below. Between the table legs a large sheet of paper, delicately folded into fan-like ridges provides a counterpoint to the form above. Placed in this closer vicinity the work operates unhindered by the vastness of a space it must struggle to fill.

Jack Strange is another young artist well represented here. At 176, Strange has four works on display including Special Effects, 2009, a piece shown in three different iterations. As part of the Camden high street installations, Strange smeared his own blood across a shop window. Here a single large pane in 176’s lobby is covered and on the second floor, accompanied in a room by two other works, six medium size window panels are soiled. It is an effect similar to the frosting technique used by shop owners to obscure the contents of an empty unit. Strange’s method seems to be to apply the blood (1 pint of his own) in circular motions coiling out from the centre. Like butter applied to a pan before baking, the blood is distributed in thick swirling streaks. Installed alongside Lecture on Life Inside A Human Cell, 2010, and You Do The Math, 2010, – both pieces deal with examining what the body produces (keratin generation and cell metamorphoses) – perhaps Special Effects could be looked at as another examination of the body as a regenerative organic system, and why not use its excess material to produce works.

That ‘The Shape We’re In’ throws up more questions about current states of practice than it answers is perhaps indicative of the times, but this open ended encounter with new art objects is also a crucial part of discovering the work of new artists. It is the possibility of discovering fresh voices, and the Zabludowicz Collection’s unswerving commitment to presenting the developing practice of young artists, that makes ‘The Shape We’re In’ such a compelling display.

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