'Heavy Weather'

Published in Enclave Review, 2018.

As the artist and theorist Simon O’Sullivan notes in Art Encounters Deleuze and Guattari: Thought Beyond Representation (2007), we have since the 80s experienced a gradual cultural shift that has led to an emphasis on textuality in art discourse. For O’Sullivan, this ‘textual turn’ succeeded in re-defining the objects of art to the extent that the art object became, for all intents and purposes, a sign to be decoded.  

Even while this textualism drifts still further away from the aesthetic commitments of modernism, a sense that the work of art fosters some kind of excess endures: a withdrawn and resilient otherness, an otherness that most textualist positions fail to address, makes itself felt. Drawing on philosophers like Deleuze, a ‘New Materialism’ has emerged to re-position this excess in continental school theory, and the visual arts look on, intrigued. 

A group show aptly titled 'New Materialism' was recently shown in the Bonniers Konsthall in Stockholm. According to the press release, the artists involved attempted to re-negotiate the social status of an array of ‘under-valued’ materials with traditional craft association like textiles, clay and ceramics. Speaking about the show, curator Magnus af Petersens noted that “the distinction between form and content is hard to maintain... [that] content also comes out of the material and is not communicated through it”. This coming out of – and the inverse action of withdrawing back into – articulates the dichotomy of surface and substance central to New Materialist discourse. There is a sense that text must give way to texture in these shows, and 'Heavy Weather' – a recent group show at the Complex, Dublin - was a show very much in tune with this textural turn. 

As an exhibition, Heavy Weather grew out of a reading group initiated by artist Emma McKeagney, which saw the group read particular contemporary New Materialist texts and relate them to their own practices. Artists Danny Kelly, Ann Ensor, Ciara McMahon, Milica Jovanovic, Cliodhna O’Riordan, Emma McKeagney, Adam Darragh Goodman and Louisa Cross all presented work that in typical NM fashion accentuated a material matter-of-factness. Adam Goodman’s tsupu I (2018) – a diptych of drawings obscured to the point of opacity by fogged Perspex – was one of the works more directly illustrative of the philosophical positions at stake, and it paraphrased with an effective taxonomic coldness this central dichotomy of substance and surface. Meanwhile, the far more expressive acrylic panels that made up Milica Jovanovic’s untitled contribution demonstrated this binary optically: they depicted something like a ‘majestic mountain range’ in a way that fluctuated between pictorial topographies and jarring instances of abstraction. As a counterpoint, Ann Ensor’s Transcending Carbon (2018) - an assemblage of steam bent oak, aluminium braces, silicone and carbon - was a timely reminder of NM’s most pressing obstacle: anthropomorphism. An unsteady yet unquestionably human form, it confidently stood apart from the other works, functioning almost like the control in an experiment, enjoying the comfort we take in those art objects that reflect our human projections. 

Having already visited several exhibitions on this particular afternoon, I was more than happy to forgo the usual textualist paradigm and take this texturalist show on its own terms, and works like Emma McKeagney’s The Plastic Human (2018) revelled in this non-textual territory outside of the implicit dictate that would normally see a work ‘decoded’. A limestone rock, nestled in a polymorphic cradle, perched on top of a steel rod and a birch ply box, enjoyed special treatment in an overall modest arrangement. This stone was the source of a series of multiples that ascended an adjacent gallery pillar. The limestone form had been repeated, cloned, in various glazed ceramic skins. I was told the viewer was free to handle these objects, and after taking up the offer, the by now familiar dichotomy of surface and substance played out its most tactile expression. For all the beauty and craft it was their weight, or lack thereof, that came across most emphatically. Attention was drawn to their hollow inner worlds with such an acute matter-of-factness that these ceramic imitations became - despite their shiny surface qualities - knowing testaments to the full, withdrawn depth of their parent stone. 

Overall, despite its philosophical underpinnings and origins, Heavy Weather did also, somehow, reflect a sense of collaborative play. Even when the curation posited particularly brute moments of materiality, an inexplicable sense of lightness persisted. What was clear, however, was how conclusively it demonstrated that an exhibition born out of New Materialism need not be Minimalist. 

The ghostly inner world of these art objects - a world withdrawn and opaque to us - might understandably suggest to artists that a Minimalist aesthetic might best indicate the withdrawn realities of these materials. Minimalism is, after all, an ultimately stripped back aesthetic, and as such would seem the ideal vehicle for framing some posited ‘thing-in-itself’. However, as the proponents of NM would assert, simply redefining the parameters of an object fails to address the all-important gap between surface and substance. Minimalism, when regarded as some default formal principle, would struggle to demonstrate the object’s withdrawn and hidden ‘life’. While modest, Heavy Weather addressed this acutely, and in its more affective moments, it demonstrated with considerable scope the potential open to the ‘object-orientated’ artist beyond a re-posited Minimalism.


'Heavy Weather' installation shot, the Complex. Photograph by Ann Ensor. 

Using Format