MAKING MATTERS

 

Rachel Jones

 

how little it takes

to organise a space. To make us move to left or right, to stop us walking in a straight line and force us to turn, go round in circles, inscribe an ellipse with our feet. Or make us draw close and hunker down, draw a circle with our eyes as we trace the relations from one object to the next, or lean in to see ourselves, in pieces, looking back. The works by Karla Black and Claire Barclay sit alongside one another in the gallery and make us, for a time, part of the space they shape and inhabit. Depending on the time we take to move through and around this space, we are taken up into relations with the work that are tangential and fleeting or that capture and re-situate us, catching us up somewhere between movement and stillness.

This temporary stilling is evoked in the title of Barclay's composition of objects and materials that sits against the gallery wall. A simple metal frame supports a shelf partially silvered with mirroring paint on which are set several small steel cubes and two highly polished brass discs. Nestled amongst them is a folded piece of straw, while another ear of corn protrudes from two stacked cubes, bent neatly downwards in an inverted 'v', as if to direct our attention from one small collection of objects to another, as well as down through the shelf to a second group of discs and straw placed on the floor below.

On the shorter, right hand side of the frame, the metal is encased by an envelope of soft black fabric from which two more envelopes are strung: sombre flags quietly invoking anonymous rituals. In contrast with the bright and burnished metal, their soft opaqueness incites the desire to touch so that they lead us down not only by the eye, but the imagined movement of the hand. From the last envelope, a small arc of tightly-woven straw tied off with black ribbon continues the downward movement, almost touching the single ear of corn that lies across the square of black fabric placed like a simple altar on the floor. Here another two brass discs sit, poised and burnished. Behind them, a glass leans against the wall, again partly covered in mirroring paint, leading the eye back up to the left hand side of the metal frame, whose length it overlaps without actually touching.

The work thus forms an open circle, structured by a play of echoes and repeated elements. The attentive viewer too is implicated in this open whole, through partial reflections in silvered surfaces, making them part of a work that they can no longer dominate or totalise as if from outside. Instead of operating as an external point from which the different elements might be gathered together and unified, the viewer is gathered into the work, which organises its own space. Both inside and outside, the viewer-participant is drawn into the circle of the work: stilled by the tactile beauty of the objects it houses, and set in motion by the relations between the different elements of the composition. Thus one stands, and crouches, and stands again, leaning in to see the lips of fleshy pink that line the edge of the black envelopes.

This sensuous edging hints at the possibility of a more intimate or even invasive participation. The tactility of 'Stillstill' is echoed and reinforced by Black's 'Pleaser', whose cellophane curtain runs through the gallery space parallel to the wall against which Barclay's work stands. The curtain is taped to the ceiling and hangs down to just over a metre above the floor. Its flimsy transparency is simultaneously disfigured and made visible by a multitude of creases in its surface which reflect the light. As material traces of the way the cellophane has been folded or crushed in the past, these creases emphasise its fragile malleability. The bottom edge of the cellophane has been painted along one side, in a warm yolky yellow shot through in places with white, like a border on a shower curtain. Into this strip of colour are folded pockets of viscous substance, which could be soap or cream, paint, or dye powder.

On encountering this work, we are easily made children again: drawn in by the cheerful spring-like colour and tempted to push our fingers into the cling-filmed pouches of unknown matter to see how much they ooze and give beneath our touch. Like 'Stillstill', 'Pleaser' binds sight and touch together in a close and carnal viewing. Despite its apparent flimsiness, Black's work speaks of its own materiality as insistently as Barclay's carefully crafted objects and burnished brass. The rough taping to the ceiling, the visible join between the two sheets of cellophane that compose the curtain, the occasional bristle stuck in the patchy paint-work: these seemingly makeshift elements remind us of the process of making, not so much as the result of artistic intention and control, and more as a playful improvisation that takes place between the artist and the materials with which she works.

a material intelligence

is expressed in these works. Not just the artist's intelligence about her materials, but equally, the intelligence of matter. Both are essential to a process of making in which artist and materials are co-participants. While the artist might contribute her knowledge of physical properties and cultural history together with an experienced sensitivity to the limits and potential of the materials with which she works, the materials themselves delimit the forms they can take and shape the relations into which they enter.

This co-participatory intelligence is evidenced in the craft techniques that are central to Barclay's work and that foreground the specificity of the materials used as well as the processes required to work them. Thus in 'Stillstill', the simple line of the single ear of corn not only serves to emphasise, by way of contrast, the sculpted strength and more substantial presence of the curving plait of straw, but makes us aware of the pressure the maker must have exerted to bind the strands together so precisely, and of the tension they now embody in their tightly interwoven form.

One of the striking things about Barclay's use of craft is that hand-crafted objects such as the plaited straw are as clearly sculpted as any artwork, while pieces produced by a more mediated technological process such as the machined brass are as clearly 'made' as the pieces produced by hand. Moreover, while the brass discs reflect the light with an intensity only made possible by the machinic processes that burnished them, this reminder of technological intervention takes the form of an apparently unmediated sensation of light, colour and warmth. In this way, Barclay's work undoes any straightforward opposition between the natural and the technological as well as between art and craft, the handmade and the machined.

The latter should give us pause if we are tempted to read Barclay's re-appropriation of craft techniques as a straightforward feminist critique of the division between art and craft. Certainly it is the case that this distinction downgraded many of the arts (understood here more in the original Greek sense, as techne or making) that were traditionally performed by women (such as embroidery, weaving, or making corn dollies) by assigning them to the more functional category of 'craft' and denying them the cultural significance of art as a transcendent, metaphysical, and creative practice. Barclay's work displaces this division, while at the same time reminding us of the value of making as that which both underlies and is too often neglected in our hyper-consumerist techno-industrial culture. But her incorporation of materials and processes that belong to the latter (the mirroring paint as well as machined metals) belies the suggestion that the main aim of her work is in any simple way to reclaim the significance of crafts (work with fabric or straw) traditionally aligned with women.

There is a deeper destabilisation of the art/craft distinction at work here. In modern aesthetics, at least in the western tradition influenced by thinkers such as Kant, craft is downgraded insofar as it is functional. Guided by purpose and use, the maker's art is (supposedly) not genuinely creative. However, there is another, more submerged reason why it was so important to separate craft from art. Because of its relation to purpose and use, craft is more obviously dependent on its materials and their limits: if you want to throw a pot, you need clay of a consistency that will hold its form.

Barclay's work reminds us of this, but by so thoroughly undoing the distinction between art and craft, she also reminds us that the creations of artists are no less dependent on and limited by the materials with which they work. More uncomfortably, her work reminds us that far from inarticulate and inert stuff waiting to be informed by artistic intention or inspiration, matter is no less an active participant in the making of a sculpture than the throwing of a pot, as it embodies forms and structures relations. It is the matter of making, as well as the way matter makes, to which Barclay's work draws our attention.

the transformative potential of matter

is harboured by Black's curtain too. The very fragility of the material, its flexible plasticity, allows the pockets of matter to remain fluid and pliable, so that the finished work contains a multiplicity of future possibilities: still becoming(s).

As in some of her previous works, some of the materials Black deploys in 'Pleaser' are drawn from beauty regimes and the domestic rituals of cleaning, inviting a feminist reading of her work as performing a deliberate subversion. Products associated with the objectification of women and their confinement to a domestic sphere of labour are here re-appropriated and turned into a creative site of public expression, showing us that it is just as possible to make art with nail varnish and cif cream as with oils or acrylic (and drawing our attention to the arbitrariness of the divide that determines which of these might more usually be designated 'artist's materials').

Read through this lens, the transparency and flexibility of 'Pleaser' might be seen as mimicking a cultural history in which women have been educated to please others, emptying out the very substance of their being to reflect the desires of men and fulfil the needs of those for whom they care. Yet this alignment of woman with pleasing appearances and passive adaptability is simultaneously undone, for here a female artist pleases herself, playfully using products designed to make her more beautiful to create her own work.

Appealing though it may be, as with Barclay, if we restrict our reading of Black's work to this specific line of feminist interpretation, we limit our ability to see the deeper and more far-reaching transformations that are at work. These are not necessarily at odds with a feminist perspective – indeed, I would suggest that they are in keeping with the kind of thorough-going transformation of our cultural framework that feminism itself demands. Nonetheless, if it is read only as an act of feminist re-appropriation in the sense outlined above, the fact that 'Pleaser' is both so seemingly insubstantial and deliberately fails to disguise the marks of its making might be deemed problematic, for this might be taken to suggest that this work remains merely playful, embracing a whimsical subversiveness rather than engaging in the more 'serious' and 'substantial' work required to give its materials the status of 'great art' (and thus inadvertently reinforcing the way this endorsement has traditionally been withheld from works by women). Yet such a perspective is itself problematic: it misses the fact that it is the insubstantiality of Black's work that is challenging and transformative, insofar as it helps shift the way in which we think about matter itself.

In modern western metaphysics, matter tends to be aligned with substance thought as that which remains permanent through change. Thus, to borrow a famous example from Descartes, if we heat a piece of wax, all of its properties will be transformed: not only because, as it melts, it turns from hard to soft, but because its colour, shape, texture and even its smell will change too. And yet, we can still claim that it is the same piece of wax, so long as we posit 'something' that stays the same throughout this process of change. This 'something' is typically identified with matter, understood as an underlying substrate or substance in ways that reinforce the traditional western view whereby matter is an essentially inert and formless support for more actively generated forms.

In Black's work, by contrast, it is the easily damaged cellophane of the material support which seems flimsy and insubstantial, while the changeable and superficial property of yellowness lends the curtain an opacity that means it appears to be most solid where it is most vibrantly coloured. Equally, the curtain seems most substantial where it holds a thicker but more fluid matter, whose form is not yet permanent or fixed, but characterised by its capacity to shift and move. Black could thus be said to be exploring an aesthetics of the insubstantial, which returns to matter its fluidity along with its supple capacities for change and transformation.

The history of conceptualising matter as unchangeable and inert substance is inextricably bound up with a history that associates women with the sensible and material realm. To this extent, Black's transformative re-appropriation of the insubstantial could be said to retain a far-reaching, if implicit, feminist dimension. For if woman has historically been aligned with a receptive matter shaped by active (male) forms, and female identity has traditionally been fixed in terms of reproductive function, 'Pleaser' presents us with a matter that is neither fixed nor formless, but full of mobility and a generative potential from which new forms might emerge.

Rather than confronting us with that which destroys or exceeds representational form, Black, like Barclay, seems to bypass the whole question of re/presentation to place the emphasis on the capacity of matter to give form – to spaces and relations as well as new becomings. Rather than challenging the limits of representation in the tradition of the avant-garde, their works are more resistantly non-representational: not so much because they are 'abstract' (another category that seems at odds with their insistent materiality), but because they do not make matter re-present or refer to something else that lies beyond it.

Thus Black's curtain is neither wholly transparent nor wholly opaque. It neither disappears from view to give unmediated access to some deeper meaning that transcends its materiality; nor does it successfully hide anything behind it; nor is it a blank screen which could serve as a perfect and self-effacing support for images of something else. Rather, we both see it for what it is, and see through it. Our attention is drawn to the materiality of the curtain itself at the same time as it shapes the way we see the space around it, drawing our attention to the opening into the gallery behind even as it divides us from it – albeit with the most insubstantial of barriers.

Whereas 'Pleaser' seems transparent but in fact draws our attention back to the tactility of its materials, 'Stillstill' can initially seem strangely closed and overly opaque. The carefully placed objects do not obviously 're-present' anything, either singly or as a composition. They are replete with sensuous suggestiveness but – as with the dark envelope/flags – carry only the most ambiguous of symbolic meanings. Yet we might read this initial resistance as a protective strategy that blocks us from trying to grasp Barclay's work too swiftly, by imposing a more familiar interpretative language on the materials with which she works. Once we stop trying to make them mean something else, and allow the relations between the objects themselves to direct our attention and carry us around the work, the circle becomes open and inviting.

matter is shown to be articulate

in these works; it speaks not of something other than itself, not referentially, but by articulating space and those who pass through it. The space in which the works are situated is treated neither as an unchanging container nor as a mere backdrop for appearances, but is made a visible part of the work at the same time as the viewer-participants are made part of the space. In keeping with this, Black's curtain both echoes the window that runs at right angles to it along the front of the gallery, and reveals the unblemished transparency of this curtain of glass to be an illusion: unlike the creased and untethered cellophane, which one can move around or duck underneath, the window does not really allow passage from one side to another but divides and seals.

'Stillstill' reaches in the other direction, to the house that lies behind the gallery, which is drawn into intimate relation with Barclay's work through a complex set of echoes and resonances. Thus, her brass discs echo a similar set of metal discs with holes punched through them (a work by Richard Pousette Dart) that are placed along the top of a bookshelf, which in turn sits not far from a basket of dried grasses and straw. The ways in which Barclay undoes the distinctions between art, craft and technology so as to foreground the practice of making is echoed in the way that in Kettle's Yard house, sculptures and paintings sit alongside collections of pebbles which are as beautiful, and as carefully placed, as any art work.

Even the circular form of 'Stillstill' seems to repeat the path one takes as one wanders through the house, passing from ground floor entry rooms, through and across the upper galleries, and back down again, traversing a space replete with the results of making. On first encountering either the house or the work, one feels oneself to be a newcomer to a pre-existing set of relations which one needs to learn how to enter into without intrusion. The objects placed around the house quietly resonate with one another, articulating the space between them just as Barclay's objects articulate the space of 'Stillstill'. Such articulations can allow a human participant in, but their rhythms and relations depend more on material resonances than on human intervention.

In this work, then, it is as if Barclay has distilled the essential character of Kettle's Yard house, which stands strikingly apart from the noise and bustle of the surrounding streets, and whose quiet envelopment demands that we set aside the pace of everyday life so as to enter into a fuller and more attentive stillness. It is this attentiveness to articulate matter to which Barclay and Black re-attune us.

Hung like a painting yet forming what the artist has called a 'very thin sculpture', 'Pleaser' does not passively adapt to its surroundings, but – more pleasingly – refuses to behave either like a representational surface or with the immobile weight and substance of sculpted matter. Like 'Stillstill', which can be read as both sculpture and installation, it stands somewhere in-between to show us how space and relations are shaped by a matter that remains flexible and mobile, by material objects as well as by the processes of making. Together, Black and Barclay both remind us that making matters, because matter makes.

 

Rachel Jones is a lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Dundee and author of a forthcoming book on Luce Irigaray's feminist transformation of philosophy.