BY Izi Glover in Reviews | 10 OCT 01
Featured in
Issue 62

Alex Hartley

BY Izi Glover in Reviews | 10 OCT 01

Possessed with the allure of shimmering mirages, several works in this show entice you across the gallery floor, their glazed interiors housing black and white photographs that indeterminately float before your eyes. Two wall based works and one free standing piece are installed sparsely in the vast upper space of the gallery, and just as a vision on a hot horizon augurs a welcoming environment, so these works proffer views of idealized spaces. Yet, like mirages, their appearance evaporates upon closer encounter frustrating your advances, and forcing you to confront your expectations. Tucked away by the stairwell an anomalous floor-based work creates illusions with mirrors.

The mirage effect is achieved by impressive craftsmanship. The wall works both present a blurred photograph that has been cut into several parts, with each fragment allotted a satin etched glass vitrine. In both pieces empty gallery spaces are suggested by the pristine and aloof interiors pictured. Untitled (four part division) (2001) presents a pillared space that suggests generic refurbishment of a light industrial space with smooth white walls containing a vast floor area. In fact, this work appropriates an image of Leo Castelli’s iconic New York space, and expands upon Hartley’s practice of selecting photographs of seminal gallery spaces from art magazines, and digitally removing the specific art works on display within. This manipulation ponders upon the sanctity of the art world’s reified spaces, and by extension, the value that they confer upon the disappeared artworks.

Hartley’s new device of framing them in a fractured fashion emphasises the enigmatic quality of these sanctums. The dispersal of the fragmented image is precisely engineered, and the intervening spaces minutely measured. This accuracy, combined with the sleek manufacture of the vitrines, is of an advanced mechanised order. They impart the exactitude of an architect’s computer aided drawing, their tantalising dispersal suggesting an exploded elevation view. This separation of the image compounds the dissolution of the subject matter: the works’ construction and its deliberate obfuscation lends a fluid inflection, the elusive nature of these images rendering their content as mercurial as a dream lost upon waking. An extra element of visual piquancy is introduced by the vitrines’ architecture. The cases are perpendicular and at right angles to the wall, but their frontages are set at an oblique angle from the wall. These slanted surfaces perpetuate the paradoxical nature of viewing the work. Thus the works operate on two levels, at once contemplating the high precepts of Modernist architecture and impassive Minimalist interiors, and meditating upon the vagaries of memory and the frailty of sight.

An idealism of a different order informs the dominant work of the show. From the late 40s to the early 60s a philanthropically funded program of architecture on the west coast of America presented new possibilities for the domestic environment: indeed some of these buildings have subsequently attained iconic status. Prime sites were assigned to architects such as Richard Neutra and Pierre Koenig for the construction of Case Study houses. Angled arrestingly across the gallery space Case Study (2000) spans nearly nine metres, and imparts the innovative optimism of that architectural moment whilst dwelling upon the patent impossibility for most of us of attaining that mode of living. Triangular in plan, the work rears up over three metres, and is surmounted by a Fifties-style extending overhang. Rosy American cedar frames the aqueous hue of the satin etched glass façade, whose black-framed panels front a billboard sized black and white photograph. The scale of this view is virtually life size, and presents a tempting vision of Spartan, yet somewhat opulent, Modernism. Beyond rigorous lines of boxy sofas and a free-standing fireplace stands a floor to ceiling window that runs the width of the interior, and that in turn frames an empty, and glowing, expanse of sky. In fact this image is a digital synthesis of archetypal Case Study elements such as the open plan living space, expansive windows, and floating staircase.

However the wandering viewer is disarmed by an alternate view of the interior presented by the shortest side of Case Study, and then abruptly confronted by the back of the piece, for the rear wall is skimmed with bare pink plaster, thus brazenly reiterating the contrived construction of this re-presentation. It is as if you stepped behind the scenes in that fundamental Californian realm of fantasy, the movie studio lot. Like the canniest of directors, Hartley presents the vision, whilst simultaneously provoking us with the fact of its representation.