BY Richard Dyer in Reviews | 06 MAR 95
Featured in
Issue 21

David Medalla

BY Richard Dyer in Reviews | 06 MAR 95

In 1980, Robert Motherwell wrote an account of Mondrian's death, in extreme poverty, in New York during 1944. Motherwell, who had been present, narrated Mondrian's delirious cursing of prominent museum officials and critics. This anecdote is part of the inspiration for Mondrian Fan Club, the latest in David Medalla's series of mythic groupings and incarnations of work that stretches back to the early 60s. The full title of the exhibition, 'The Secret History of the Mondrian Fan Club II, Mondrian in London', alludes to Mondrian's visit during the Blitz as a guest of Winifred and Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore and Cecil Stephenson. The series of works suggest Mondrian's possible influence on this group and constitute a multi-media homage: an almost mediumistic attempt to invoke his presence. As part of this, four large geometric paintings, based on the rivers of cities visited by Mondrian, and various photo-collages (one picturing Medalla at Mondrian's graveside) were laser-printed onto canvas and partially overpainted during the course of the exhibition - turning even this most static of mediums into a performance work.

On entering the vast warehouse space one is immediately struck by a subtle freshness to the atmosphere, like the ozone-rich fragrance of the air after a storm. This is an unintentional side-effect of Cloud Gates I-IV (1995), an installation consisting of four of Medalla's signature bubble machines, which cleans the air of the gallery. The transparent perspex 'gateways' are filled with a constant flux of foam which spills from their tops in a hypnotic cascade of constantly changing forms. Like a slow-motion cloudscape, whole histories of sculpture can be read into this three-dimensional Rorschach stain. The relationship between the static elements of the bubble machines - the perspex containers; the power cable carrying the foam-generating charge - and the constantly regenerating, aleatory architecture of the foam itself, is at the heart of a poetic critique of the fundamental nature of sculpture. By positing an interrelated series of opposites - dynamic/static; authored/auto-generated; monumental/ephemeral - Medalla disputes the parameters of what constitutes sculpture. In choosing a medium which self-destructs as it is created, the stability of the work is undermined and the validity of the concepts of solidity and permanence in sculpture are brought into question.

Medalla's first bubble machines were made in the early 60s and have been recreated in various forms and in different locations over the last three decades. Although largely ignored by the British art establishment, until Rasheed Araeen included one in 'The Other Story' at the Hayward Gallery in 1989, the importance of the bubble machines in contemporary art should not be underrated. Hans Haacke wrote to Medalla in 1965, praising the machines, and then went on to make sculpture with similarly ephemeral substances during the 70s: Floating Ice Ring, for example, which consisted of a ring of electrically generated ice in a perspex trough of water. It must also be remembered that the original versions of Medalla's works pre-date contemporary installation by over 30 years.

Medalla is constantly shifting his strategies and media; just when one thinks one has him pinned down as a situationist, a surrealist, or a conceptualist in the mould of Oldenburg - endlessly conceiving fantastic, unrealisable schemes - he changes direction and launches into a new direction. Kinetic Mudras for Piet Mondrian (1995), for example, is a large-scale animated work in multi-coloured neon. A schematic self-portrait performs hand gestures derived from the Kathathali dance mudras of southern India, connoting ideas of duality. Underneath, in pulsing neon, is the legend 'Mondrian Fan Club, Medalla Founder and President NYC c.1994'. As with the Cloudgates, this work utilises an ephemeral medium (neon gas) within a solid structure (glass and perspex) to entrap the transitory moment and fix the ephemeral gesture. With its constantly changing mudras, fluctuating head positions and sheer scale, the piece is a shamanistic icon of an artist who has made no clear distinction between his art and his life. Medalla is an artist for whom the visual is visionary and any material, or mode of expression, is valid.