In another age, Jordan Baseman might have been a narrative painter. Something about his work suggests a wish for encapsulated meaning, rounded off with a suitable phrase, like Love Locked Out or The Awakened Conscience. His titles draw on the familiar and the commonplace: a varnished hen's egg with a rosette of dirty nail parings is called Sticks and Stones. Titled after the pop song, So Happy Together (all works 1994) describes two metal headbands with lacquered pairs of his-and-hers pigs' ears attached, fixed at different heights to make the distinction clear. We Are What We Build is one of the newer pieces, using a child's blue shirt with hair protruding through to make a neat lower case 'e'.
The last title is less a moral manifesto than a private response to a sociological realisation about labelling and the necessity of colluding with roles and expectations. The shirt is blue for a boy, but the buttons are on the side which makes it recognisable as being that of a girl. Baseman is more interested in orthodoxy than it might appear from his choice of materials: alienated parts of animals' bodies, hair, clothing. He cautiously explains his work in terms of sociological accounts of groups and types, of roles and expectations. The encounter with social limits is presented, but not moralised, as an essential good (as it was in most Victorian narrative pictures). We are closer to a social world, and one with somewhat damaged sexual formatting, than to the vaunted freedom of Surrealism - the freedom to combine.
This is all very well. And it is all very well made, with a characteristic rightness of finish and presentation. Each hair of f is for Intimidated, a drooping lower case 'f', is invisibly glued to the wall at the appropriate interval. It waves when the air moves, but explains nothing. These works induce anxiety, but the only thing we have to fear is our own fear, something our minds, filthy or otherwise, have brought to complete the word or the thing. The struggle between repellence and fascination with which Baseman often works is usually won by fascination: the pigs' ears are almost attractive. One thinks 'how did he do it?', rather than 'why?' - but the crux of Baseman's work lies somewhere beyond the question of how it is made, in the unruly stuff of 'why'.
One part of the answer is feminism. Work like Baseman's - in part a self-conscious exploration of masculinity - is not imaginable without feminism. There is a further clue in one of Baseman's methods of making work. He once made paper bags into sculptures by spraying them with layers of paint till they became quite solid. The pigs' ears are like that: so lacquered that you can't be sure where they end and the protective envelope starts. The meaning of these works is similarly uncertain; it does not seem to be a hidden meaning in a socialised, varnished exterior. In any case, is the social surface any less real than the bundle of needs we sense 'underneath' it?
And yet, we trust there is a meaning; and that it is not simply what we say it is. A person wishes to be understood and to understand, and makes objects to do so. Needs are involved. These objects are true fetishes: they have a certain power over us, that we consent to, but they also need us to fear them, or not to misrecognize them. Meaning is part of a negotiation, a relationship, not a free-for-all. Ugliness might, after all, seek permission to be thought nice. Meanwhile hair and nails are parts of the body that are neither fully dead nor fully alive; both make the journey that meaning might make from inside to out. Unfortunately, they cannot speak about the journey they have actually made, before encountering social limits, in the form of scissors, or in this case art. Another piece using a child's shirt is called Closer to the Heart. It wears its heart literally on its sleeve, in the form of long strands of hair coming out from inside. This is the most affecting piece in the exhibition, though it's hard to say why; perhaps, because although more is revealed, it is unclear exactly what is being revealed. The question rebounds everywhere - what does a man want?