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The Saatchi Gallery and Coldharbour London: Heavyweight Light Sculpture

June 28, 2011

Broadly speaking, the acquisition history of the collector Charles Saatchi reveals a penchant for artworks in which shock value registers above aesthetic consideration. Jake and Dinos Chapman’s Zygotic Acceleration, Biogenetic, De-sublimated Libidinal Model (1995) immediately springs to mind as an example of a particularly vulgar artwork – though not its title! – as does Tracey Emin’s I’ve Got It All (2000). Not all deliberately shocking art is substandard however; Marcus Harvey’s glowering portrait Myra (1995), also bought by Saatchi, has a conceptual level that surpasses its immediate crassness: the marks that make up the child killer’s face are applied using a plaster casts of an infant’s hand. Generally I consider most artwork of this ilk poorly-conceived. With new artists especially, it seems as if their all consuming desire to attract the attention of the infamous Saatchi obstructs considered aesthetic judgement – Myra is one of the few exceptions. It was, admittedly, with a distinct feeling of trepidation that I made my way to the Saatchi Gallery’s latest exhibition of contemporary sculpture.

The Shape of Things to Come is comprised mostly of underwhelming sculpture though somewhat unexpectedly, the shock factor, for so long a staple ingredient of ‘Saatchi art’, is largely absent from the exhibition. There are notable exceptions but even these attempts lack a provocative edge so accustomed have we become to their forebears: The Healers (2008) by David Altmejd rehashes elements of sexual depravity that characterise the Chapman Brothers’ oeuvre, the fissures he renders in his coarse, figurative plasterwork only emphasising the lack of substance in his art.

The Healers, 2008

Where intentional provocation recedes one would expect aesthetic consideration to return, but instead an uninspiring sense of the mundane permeates most aspects of this exhibition. Works by Rebecca Warren, Matthew Brannon and Oscar Tuazon are particularly lacklustre, however Berlinde De Bruyckere’s K36 (2003) offers one of the more intriguing exhibits incorporating beauty and provocation in equal measure. Taking the hide of a horse as a sculptural shell, its glossy coat alluring, enticing, it is only when you come within touching distance that you are impacted by the enormity of its disfiguration. Eyeless and deliberately malformed, this once proud creature becomes an abject entity that borders on formal abstraction.

K36 (The Black Horse), 2003

There are few artworks in this exhibition that appeal on a primarily aesthetic level; the most visually stimulating pieces however, incorporate artificial light. David Batchelor’s Brick Lane Remix I (2003) is a sculptural installation of recovered light boxes transformed to project vibrant colours and, my personal favourite, Anselm Reyle’s Untitled (2006) constitutes a seemingly chaotic assembly of found neon tubes. Both artworks belie their material origins as vestiges of modern life, their discarded light sources rejuvenated into sculptural works that recall twentieth-century modernism: Batchelor’s contribution revives the pure, effervescent colour palette of Fauvism with nuanced, Modrian-esque structural rigidity, whilst Reyle’s piece evokes the vigour of Abstract Expressionism in three-dimensional stasis.

Brick Lane Remix I, 2003

Untitled, 2006

The appreciation and manipulation of light has been integral to artistic representation throughout history and particularly in painting, yet its use in contemporary sculpture reflects, in all its glorious hues, the cultural ubiquity of artificial light: firmly rooted in the now as the small, flickering sign in the kebab shop window, the car lights on the motorway, the brash advertising of Piccadilly Circus. Its prominence has seen it utilized increasingly in artistic practice, fascinating examples of which can be found in the inaugural exhibition of contemporary sculpture at Coldharbour London.

A gem of an exhibition, Illumination brings together the work of emerging and established artists in a celebration of the sensory and the surreal. Unlike the light works in The Shape of Things to Come that comprise of glaring, structured neon, the sculptural installations of Illumination explore the meditative qualities of light, focusing less on physicality and more on experience. The exhibition opens with In My End is My Beginning (2011), an elegant triptych of light boxes by Kirsty Macleod that possess a cosmic, spiritually-evocative undertone enhanced by compositional parallels with Hindu motifs.

In My End is My Beginning, 2011

This otherworldly trope is continued in the work of Lawrence Lek whose sculpture Twins (2011) looms impressively from the rear of the gallery. Formally organic yet immediately alien, its wood and steel frame casts an intense, complex shadow on the wall behind as light plays off its undulating surface. Its surreal qualities are magnified by the accompanying Twins Photograph (2011) that recalls the simple horizons of Salvador Dalí’s dreamscapes. A video of Twins can be accessed by clicking here.

Twins Photograph, 2011

Disco Volante, 2010

The most mesmeric work, however, is an installation by Adam Barker-Mill. Disco Volante (2010) exists in a private, purpose-built room wherein a continual cycle of pulsing, luminescent and pastel-coloured light washes over you. In a very short time all sense of physical surroundings is lost as your eyes lose focus and colour seeps into your very being. It is a joyous demonstration of the emotive power of light and colour that elevates mood and manipulates orientation.

As a means of artistic expression artificial light is capable of extraordinary aestheticism rendering bold physicality as well as the subtly sensual. Indeed, if the light-incorporating works of these two exhibitions are anything to go by then, superior to the other uninspiring sculptures in the Saatchi collection, in artificial light we have an exemplary modern medium for a technologically-aware age.

The exhibition Illumination runs at Coldharbour London until July 13, 2011.
And The Shape of Things to Come runs at the Saatchi Gallery until October 16, 2011.

Both exhibitions are free.

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