In his seminal re-evaluation of the ‘ideal space’ of the modernist gallery, Inside the White Cube (1986), Brian O’Doherty examined the extent to which the gallery might render artwork ‘isolated from everything that would detract from its own evaluation of itself’. The group exhibition ‘On the Immense and the Numberless’ at David Risley Gallery in Copenhagen offers up a series of hypothetical escape routes from the gallery confines, through hatches, doors, curtains, mirrors, portals and windows.
According to the refreshingly unpolished press release, written by Risley, which has the tone of a love letter to art, the show revolves around the gallerist’s 20-year personal ‘obsession’ with how ‘the space of art’ relates to ‘this metaphorical place where art exists’. Risley cites the illusionary spaces of early Italian Renaissance paintings as inspiration, but plays his hand carefully to avoid stifling the contemporary works he has selected by hitching them too forcibly to his underlying narrative.
Formal echoes abound but still allow room for the individual works to manoeuvre. Karl Troels Sandegård’s Downward Spiral (2012), two stacked black buckets containing a swirling vortex of steam, sit evocatively before Jenny Källman’s black and white photograph of dripping condensation on a window pane (Window Cleaner, 2015). Valérie Collart’s Black Hole (2015) is a trapezoidal form that is suspended just off the floor. Its shape is echoed in the blank white planes superimposed on the photographs in John Stezaker’s series of collages, ‘Tabula Rasa’ (2009–14). Ugo Rondinone’s series of ‘Windows’ (2015) offer similar illusionary portals to an imaginary outside.
Beyond this visual mirroring, the show creates a series of conversations between various corners, floors and walls of the gallery. Alex da Corte has arranged a sumptuously detailed Persian rug in orange tones on the floor of one room (A Giant’s Good Day in Hell, 2016). Upon it stand five glasses of what looks to be orange juice (made of resin), one of which is overturned. Da Corte has cut out a rectangular ‘hatch’ in the rug, which is propped open with a stainless-steel orange squeezer to reveal a ‘void’ in the floor underneath (represented by a square of black velvet). This motif reappears in Graham Gussin’s black painted triangle at the top corner of the wall, a nod to Kazimir Malevich. Nearby hangs Michael Simpson’s Unnamed (Confessional) (2015), a large-scale painting dominated by the dark silhouette of a church confessional partially concealed by a white curtain. The work’s title indicates this might be a refuge in which to psychologically bare all, though Simpson has a twinkle in his eye: something about the hyper-sensual black gives the impression that what goes on behind the curtain might entail a revelation that is more than metaphorical.
The virtual portals or escape hatches that the show seems to offer present a series of thresholds or possibilities rather than resolutions. Graham Dolphin’s Door (Self Portrait as a 19 year old) (2012), a replica of the photo-covered door of his teenage bedroom, hints at access to his past, though denies us any real passage beyond it. Oliver Payne’s Untitled (Portal Paintings) (2016) – mirrors painted with rings of orange and blue flames in reference to the video game Portal – reflect fragments of the gallery space. In one, we see a glimpse of Simpson’s confessional; in the other, a rather banal profile of the gallery staircase. These portals, as it turns out, don’t get you very far. Ultimately, they function as a nod to Leon Battista Alberti’s aspirational vision of painting as a ‘window on the world’. Telltale marks of that dream, these works are no less powerful for it.