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Plastic Show

Almine Rech Gallery, Grosvenor Hill, London

February 09 - March 25, 2017

Review by Neil Zakiewicz

View of the exhibition ‘Plastic Show' at Almine Rech Gallery, London. Courtesy of Almine Rech Gallery. Photo by Melissa Castro Duarte

This small survey of work emerging from California, mainly done in the 1970s, felt to me, on a cold, dreary winter afternoon, like a restorative light therapy session for seasonal affective disorder (SAD). It is wonderfully incongruous that this work ,by five members of the Light and Space movement (the ethereal west coast cousin of New York's more earthy and quotidian minimalists), has landed in central London, seemingly from another universe. It is not the first time that work by these artists has been seen here - there was an installation by Robert Irwin at the Tate Gallery as far back as 1970 - but appearances are few and far between.

The starting premise of the exhibition is that all the works by Mary Corse, Robert Irwin, Craig Kauffman, John McCracken and DeWain Valentine are made in forms of pigmented plastic, be they acrylic, polyester resin or fibreglass. The exhibition was organised by Valentine who, as a former course leader of plastics technology at University of California, was a pioneer of the use of plastics as an artistic medium, and in this sense the exhibition is a celebration of that formative experimentation. Knowing this historical context is important, yet the works seem incredibly prescient and uncanny, not least in their visual resemblance to the latest computer product design and retail interiors. Might Corse's Untitled (White Light Series) 1966, for instance, with its semi-transparent white lustre, actually be a prototype iMac? I am led to suspect that the proximity of these artists to Silicon Valley cannot be a bizarre coincidence.

Despite a close association with the Land Art artists, whose particular response to the big open spaces of the USA was to install work in the landscape, the works here cannot be imagined anywhere other than in a hermetic white cube. These quintessentially white cube artworks demand a finely balanced relation to the space, and ambient lighting. Anything else in their vicinity is a contaminant. This sets up a fascinating tension, where any imperfections, be they internal or external to the work, actually become the main focus of interest. McCracken, in an interview for Art Monthly, said: “I do not try to get flaws in my work, but I accept them if they are not distracting. The thing really is the idea, or it is the non-physical image that is the idea, or that conveys the idea” [Art Monthly, March 1997, issue 204]. His Five Paintings III (1974), a wall-mounted rectangle constructed from wood and fibreglass and coated with a glossy black resin is, on close inspection, speckled with minute bubbles and particulates that create a starry impression of depth. The reductiveness of McCracken's obsessive polishing actually accentuates the imperfections in the work, rather than eliminating them. There is an absurd irony to this.

Mary Corse Untitled (White Light Series), 1966. Wood, plexiglass, fluorescent tubes. 182,9 x 168,9 x 26,7 cm. Courtesy of Almine Rech Gallery. Photo: Melissa Castro Duarte

While plastic is the superficial theme, the overall sense that unifies the work is actually that of polish. The work has popularly been described as the ‘finish fetish aesthetic’ and it is the extraordinary level of surface smoothness on what are actually hand-crafted objects that sets these works apart from those by artists whose use of plastic is less refined (such as Bruce Nauman's roughly cast pieces in polyurethane). The aim of the artists was to achieve a disappearance of the object in relation to light and architecture, the main exemplar of this being Robert Irwin. Irwin's Prism (1971) is a clear acrylic angular column which stands in the centre of the gallery and is a few inches short of the high ceiling. Reflecting and refracting the other works in the space, the piece has a quiet impact on the surroundings, like a gravitational pull. The usual question that is asked of sculpture: “which is its best side?” is completely irrelevant here. Instead, the viewer must navigate the object through multiple viewpoints, simultaneously observing the environment.

View of the exhibition ‘Plastic Show' at Almine Rech Gallery, London. Courtesy of Almine Rech Gallery. Photo by Melissa Castro Duarte

That Irwin, at the time he made Prism, banned photography of his work (he later agreed for his work to be documented by an approved photographer) explains his determination to emphasise the viewer's contingent role as an active participant. Yet this moratorium seems strange, at a time when galleries and museums have relaxed their rules around visitors' use of digital cameras to take 'selfies' with artworks (most galleries are as savvy about PR as any other institution). Visitors to this exhibition will be seduced by the visual effects of light passing through and reflecting from surfaces, and the bright colours. They might want to capture the experience on their iPhones, yet it will be like trying to capture a phantasmagoria. No photograph can replace actively putting your head into the bowl of Valentine's Concave Circle, Purple (1968-2016), to experience its crystal ball-like effects. This flip between the sensual and ungraspable aspects of these artworks is coquettish, like our modern seduction by touch-screens.

View of the exhibition ‘Plastic Show' at Almine Rech Gallery, London. Courtesy of Almine Rech Gallery. Photo by Melissa Castro Duarte

All the works are monotone or clear acrylic, which might suggest that these artists are disinterested in colour, or negate colour in favour of surface, yet there is nothing dull about the colours in this exhibition.  For example, Craig Kauffman's piece in the exhibition Macopa (2007) is a vacuum-formed bulbous shape on the wall which has been back-painted in a perversely fleshy colour. McCracken's Dark Matter (1990) is a lavender shelf-like object fixed to the wall with a wedge cut out, which seems to articulate how one colour can change radically when seen under different conditions of light and viewpoint. All the works are coloured purposefully in mystical violets, sky-blues, immutable blacks. The artists communicate a sense of infinity and sacredness (perhaps the ‘idea’ that McCracken says he wants to convey?) combined with the flaws, ambient distractions, and pop/sci-fi associations that persistently tug us back into the here and now.

Neil Zakiewicz, March 2017

View of the exhibition ‘Plastic Show' at Almine Rech Gallery, London. Courtesy of Almine Rech Gallery. Photo by Melissa Castro Duarte