BY Rose Jennings in Reviews | 20 AUG 91
Featured in
Issue 2

Liquid Engineering

Matthew Hale and Kate Smith at City Racing, London

BY Rose Jennings in Reviews | 20 AUG 91

A popular standby plotline in colour supplement journalism could be entitled My Day Out. Here the journalist travels off to places and situations assumed not to be familiar to the chattering classes: a nightclub in Romford/Toxteth/Belfast, an Asian wedding, an assembly line - subsequently filing a dialogue-heavy, 'colourful' report. Why are these so irritating? Hacks defend themselves by pointing out the dialogue is verbatim; if people chose to implicate themselves, that's their business. Yet they remain irritating and essentially snobbish, these skittish, nerveless sallies into unfamiliar territory: no risk taken, no question of that assumption that We Travel, They Stay Put. So the world is various, you want to say. So what? And do writers do this any better than artists or merely differently?

With these thoughts in mind I went to see an exhibition at City Racing in South London. The gallery was set up years ago by five artists - John Burgess, Keith Coventry, Matthew Hale, PauI Noble and Peter Owen, and since then this former betting shop has housed some of the most interesting shows in London. Kate Smith and Matthew James Hale have known each other since meeting on the Goldsmiths MA course. They both left in 1986; Smith now divides her time between London and Newcastle, where she teaches, while Hale, who worked for a time at Artscribe, works primarily as a painter.

The colours are bleeding, coalescing, volatile, seductive. Hale's works took the forms of liquids arranged in rows in stoppered testtubes, backlit to further brighten their already vivid hues. For 'Liquid Engineering' the tubes contained henna shampoo topped up with clean engine oil, a few wisps of dirty oil staining the gold. Like a seascape, Bloo was a line of graduated, deepening blues, actually those liquids that turn your toilet blue: more and different combinations of shampoos, cleaners, unguents and emollients in works with titles like Comfort and Deep Fresh. Smith's piece was titled Who Could Have Guessed There'd Be So Much Diversity? On the floor lay a closed display case containing what looked like dry flies on blue watered taffeta, on top stood an open glass container holding odd feathered earrings in garish colours, like those bargain bins of cheap unsold lines you find by the till on jewellery counters, Up on the wall, in another display case, hung what looked like an angler's hat in the same blue material, edged with brightly coloured fishing lures.

At first glance you saw little connection between these two sets of work; where Hale's colours seemed to bleed and seep, Smith's had a brittle, sparkling clarity. While the first appeared to expand, the second seemed to recede. With rather more attention, however the final effect was something like one of those two-tiered conversations where one person starts a sentence and another finishes. Looking closely, Smith's flies had earring hooks attached and the 'hat', viewed from another angle, resembled a mount for precious necklaces, while Hale's pieces could be read as well by analogy to the laboratory as to the art gallery.

The marriage of nature and artifice has had a long, tangled but fertile genealogy, through Andrew Marvell's pastorals to Bollard's crystal worlds. And didn't the Futurists plan to dye the mucky waters of Venice Lagoon, and don't we feel sneakily disappointed that they didn't do so? Hale: 'There's a curious opposition between what these liquids really are - a quite carefully designed and manufactured liquid of some sort - and the name, with all their natural evocations. The whole thing works in a circle: you've taken something natural out of the earth, made something quite particular and unusual from it, then attached a name to try and make it sound natural again.' The sense of culture as a continuum, to be entered or exited from any point, is relevant to Hale's practice. While working at Artscribe he made a series of paintings using the four silkscreen inks used for colour magazine printing. Taking the final film of art images to be reproduced in the magazine, he magnified a small area of these images to the point where the image became indecipherable. This detail would then be reproduced from a projection, but in a clearly handmade manner. So he was proceeding through genesis, reproduction and back again to an 'original' artwork. Somewhere along the line a curious inversion takes place, whereby the art is made for the glossy magazine, rather than vice versa.

Why do we call one thing precious, another mundane? Contemporary art, Smith suggests, makes much of framings and mirrors, of challenging one's assumptions, but rarely holds up a mirror to itself. For Smith, however, all activities - from angling to shopping to going to private views - are as interesting and as coded as others. Her title - Who Could Have Guessed There'd Be So Much Diversity? comes paraphrased from an essay by Eugene Goossen, who curated 'The Art Of The Real' at the Tate in 1969. 'The result of the new art' he wrote, 'is a democratic ordering of similar parts brought together into a totality... What is surprising is the variety that such sculpture and painting have been able to provide, given considerations and limitations that we once might have thought would lead only to empty repetition and boredom.'

The quotation might work as a manifesto. In this, as elsewhere, the interesting tension in Smith's work is between the form - discrete rather than overtly expressive, cool, contained and the subliminal connections between disparate areas, like display, both in art and life. And social control, gender, class... But above all, within these parameters, is a liberating sense that finally everything's still to play for, if you look hard and long enough. 'I'm trying to deal with the things that tend to get skirted over, the things you register almost in passing. People say class is a dead issue, but I don't think that's true. There's too much emphasis given to this idea that all we're left with is a choice between products. This seems to me grossly over-simplified. You may be able to choose between products, but every choice you make is according to a larger order, within a hierarchy of different sets. Mix things between the sets and things don't look quite that simply.

But angling, for heaven's sake? Thinking about the genesis of the City Racing sculptures, Smith remembers a previous work where she arranged photos of pigeons' eyes in the formation of the Red Arrows flying team. 'My father used to breed pigeons, and I've got one of his books. Pigeon breeders believe that simply by looking at the eyes of the bird, the colours and striations, they can tell whether they'll breed well, whether they'll be able to race long or short distances. The book has all these numbered photographs of pigeon's eyes. It's almost as if what they've taken is a scientific explanation - very Darwinian, if you like - and tried to relate it to a mass audience. It starts off 'Nature has decreed that in all forms of animal life there be leaders...' Similarly, she explains, a certain amount of snobbery is attached to different angling methods, with dry fly fishing generally regarded as superior to using the more brighter coloured lures. And thus we're back to display - in the gallery, in the department store ('precious' things in locked up cases, cheaper lurid things in open bins), in social situations... 'The tactic is that thing where you look at something and it becomes something else. That's the difficult thing, finding that edge where things neither fuse nor stay completely separate, but sort of... wobble. I'm not saying that people's choices aren't rooted, but that they manage to find strategies to deal with that.'