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E=MC2

“Contradiction provides the dialectic that makes it possible to see”
Jeremy Gilbert Rolfe, ‘Appreciating Ryman’, Arts Magazine, 1975

The elegant and deceptively simple poetry of Einstein’s equation E=mc2 seemed an appropriate key to this exhibition. As a title it suggests that at some perceptual level, contradiction — matter and its inverse, absence and presence, visible and invisible — are at the core of the mysteries that each of these artists consider.

Fred Sandback’s work, more clearly than any other artwork I know, speaks to the complexity of simultaneous presence and absence. The dis-equilibrium that these ethereal drawings evoke in us remind me most recently, at an experiential level at least, of Richard Serra’s monumental Torqued Ellipses. How odd that Sandback’s whispering haikus are capable of matching the visceral jolt of tonnes of corten steel.

Viewers’ tentative circumnavigation of Sandback’s delicate sculptures speaks not so much of a fear of entanglement in the delicate thread, but exposes their intuition of some real but indiscernible presence in the implied plane, as palpable as that of glass. As viewers we become almost hyper-aware of our position vis-à-vis the sculptures. Everything slows as we adjust to this newly attuned sense of our extremities, our edge, our own spatial implications.

Two resolutely black Günter Umberg paintings were installed at either end of the gallery — works of such manifestly material presence, that dematerialise in front of your eyes. Layer upon layer of dense pigment held together with the gentlest of binders. In contrast to Innes’s humid pigments, Umberg’s works share a very particular paint quality, their dryness and density, their absorbency and containment – complete and self-sustaining.

Henry Staten, the American philosopher wrote of Umberg’s work “Densely compressed materiality. These pictures strive towards the centre. Their molecules are compacted by attracting one another. It seems inevitable that these pictures are small as if they have contracted so as to unify mass and strength…” To comprehend Umberg’s ‘dark matter’ requires patience as we adjust to recalibrated perceptions of light, colour and body.

Though they may appear to occupy polar positions, my sense was that Sandback and Umberg end up inclose conversation. Sandback’s ‘immaterial materiality’ and Umberg’s ‘material immateriality’. Between them, Callum Innes’s paintings chart the mutability and transience of matter in suspension. That moment when light and dark are in contest — Innes draws this nexus moment out and in so doing our registration of time. He allows us inside that instant. The conundrum of whether darkness proceeds light or vice versa is played out in Callum’s sensitive un-painting: form suggested as much by the removal of pigment as by its addition.

So between the apparent polarities of the Sandback sculptures and the Umberg paintings, Innes’s Agitated Vertical reached out to both. As one moved about the gallery the vertical threads of the Sandback would insinuate themselves into the vibrating vertical line in the centre of Innes’s painting, momentarily ‘completing’ it. Fleeting as this completion was, it immediately made one question whether in Innes’s painting, the removed area was the form amidst the black flanking space or perhaps it was the reverse that the removed area was a slender rent in the black mass? Sitting in relative isolation on the gallery’s east wall was the Untitled Shellac painting. Though it didn’t participate in the complex formal contradictions of absence and presence that the balance of the artworks engaged in, it nonetheless was critical to the exhibition’s make-up. As in Vija Celmin’s Night Sky or Desert images, one is presented with a vista that is both immense and intimate — galactic and microscopic. If Umberg’s molecules have gathered and compressed to unify mass, Innes’s puts us inside the micro-moment when E does indeed equal mc2.

The poignancy of this collaboration rested largely on the clarity of the positions they take as artists. Their exploration of shared territory offers us such a compelling visible mystery.

– Andrew Jensen

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