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Condo | An exhibition by Henrik Eiben at Bartha Contemporary, London 13 Oct 2015 to 19 Dec 2015

A review by John Stephens

©Copyright Patrick Morrissey and Clive Hancock  All rights reserved.

One might be forgiven for assuming that the focal work that gives this exhibition its title, Condo, has its roots in systems art, with its allusions to a constructivist aesthetic, and its apparent repeated use of an angular configuration of shapes which, in their grid-like arrangement, leave similar voids between them. Two works in the show share this characteristic, while others use a similar, strong diagonal/ angular arrangement.

The gallery describes the works as wall based relief works, and on first viewing they appear to be somewhat cool and clearly-defined geometric abstract compositions.  After closer and prolonged consideration, however, they offer something more than that.

Condo, 2015, Lacquer and magnets on mdf, polystyrol and steel 220 x 176 x 2 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Bartha Contemporary

Installation shot, courtesy of Bartha Contemporary

Condo is made up of immaculately lacquered rectangles of MDF, polystyrol and steel, which give the piece a subtle relief quality, with nuanced variations in the thickness of the materials. Each of these rectangles has had a section cut out of it, with a chevron cut, and has then been arranged within a vertical/horizontal grid. The effect of this is that the voids left by the removal of the cut-outs play a significant role in determining the overall visual impression of the piece, counter to its vertical/horizontal structure.  As one might expect, the use of diagonals moving in different directions gives the work a certain dynamic, a tactic much used by the Constructivists in the early part of the 20th century.  This quality is steadied by the rectangular edges of the component pieces held in this vertical/horizontal grid.  Once the angular structure becomes apparent, the piece slowly unfolds. The edges of some of the component sections, when viewed laterally, reveal applied coloured pigment, employed without any apparent logic: sparsely and intermittently in soft pastel shades, such as pink, pale blue and ochre, the total effect adding a little playfulness to the whole.  

The shadows cast on the wall by the subtle hanging of the component shapes vary in softness and hardness. This effect is emphasised by the juxtaposition between the edges of the cut sections and the applied colour, as well as by the variations in the physical hang of the works in proximity to the wall itself.

Examining the diagonals in greater detail invites one to look for a system, but it is elusive; there is a sudden awareness of being drawn into an energy that comes from something else, something quite intuitive. The diagonals have been arranged without any system - they are random, placed simply by the artist’s aesthetic judgement, a serendipitous procedure - an idea that I will come back to.

Malvoh, 2015, Laquer and magnets on MDF, Polystyrol, copper and steel 125 x 100 x 1 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Bartha Contemporary

Malvoh is similarly conceived, but rather than being white, its cut sections have an applied matt dun colour. For me this works less well; the spaces between the sections perhaps leave too much of a void to sustain an overall coherence.  The somewhat muddy colour, except for a curiously placed pink triangle at the bottom left, militates against the poetics of the play of light or colour that I enjoyed with Condo.

Even Flow, 2015 Lacquer, wood, leather and steel  48 x 59 x 9 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Bartha Contemporary

There is a particular quality to the facture of the pieces in this show as a whole.  All are made with a very high level of craftsmanship, and this is particularly evident in Even Flow and Lamar. They are both very beautiful works, and exploit the intrinsic mechanical properties of the materials from which they are made, which again, is enhanced by the play of light.

Even Flow consists of three white angular solids arranged with suede leather billowing in the spaces between them, the leather providing a grey, softly-textured foil that plays subtly against the harder, angular components.  Light rakes across the surfaces in different ways;  the cut edges of the leather, for example, suggest a gentle arabesque against the harder, linear presence of the solids. The diagonal arrangement suggests a muted syncopation rather than the more jerky movements evident in Condo.  

Lamar, 2015, Aluminium. 200 x 160 x 14 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Bartha Contemporary

There is a similar visual intelligence apparent in the beautifully-crafted Lamar. This work consists of three angled units, each made of two aluminium sections arranged in close proximity to each other. Again, the void spaces play a role in creating negative ‘solids’ in which the soft shadows cast on the wall counter the way in which light plays on the angled surfaces of brushed aluminium. They are made so that they initially appear as irregular quadrilaterals, but then it becomes apparent that each of them has  two sections, flanged and bolted together in such a way that they are held away from the wall, seeming to float in front of it.

Their angular structure provides a discontinuous surface that the light bounces off with varying nuances of metallic grey.  Both Lamar and Even Flow offer a visually complex poetry, with very economical means in terms of their craftsmanship and use of materials. Both pieces demonstrate Eiben’s intuitive ability to allow the play of light and materiality to be the focus for the works.

Installation shot, courtesy of Bartha Contemporary

In the rear part of the gallery there is a series of framed watercolours.  They are very sparingly executed, their one-touch gestures of fluid colour appearing at odds with the rather more deliberately arranged manufactured pieces in the rest of the exhibition. The paintings are made in a language of dragged linear elements of intense colour, broader sweeps and washes of more subdued colour made with different brush types.  In the context of the wall pieces they appear to be quite enigmatic.

Blue Valentine, 2015 Watercolour and wool on paper Framed 70 x 59 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Bartha Contemporary

Adopting a notational style, they are not very obviously about colour. There is very little in the way of colour orchestration, and one concludes that they are possibly about a faster way of creating the dynamic that one finds in the wall series.  It was while looking at these works that the idea of Eiben’s intuitive or serendipitous thinking occurred to me; a thought reinforced by my looking at the newsprint catalogue of watercolour ideas that was freely available in the gallery, and by looking later online at some of his previous work.

While this is a small and intimate show of a limited number of works, it does seem to suggest the breadth of artistic inventiveness of which Eiben seems to be capable, and which at first glance is not immediately apparent in the wall pieces in this exhibition. I came away thinking that rather than the show having much to do with systems art, which at first occurred to me, it is more to do with a playful experimentation with materials and light, which through the facture of the pieces, and their careful internal structure, is given a kind of sternness; the combination of sternness and playfulness is beguiling.