BY Isobel Harbison in Reviews | 01 JAN 12
Featured in
Issue 144

Nicholas Hatfull

BY Isobel Harbison in Reviews | 01 JAN 12

Nicholas Hatfull Stomachs in November, 2011, Framed acrylic on cork

Beguiled by graphic design, and its task of economically translating personal experience, Nicholas Hatfull forcefully repurposes it. In the London-based artist’s solo exhibition ‘Il Bagno’, symbols from such diverse origins as the Michelin Guide to Japan, The New Yorker’s distinctive calendar and details from Federico Fellini’s dream drawings came together in an intriguing ensemble. Read like clues, these symbols elicited stories of adventurous foreign dining, diary dates and evening jackets,as they were reconfigured across five wall-mounted reliefs and a floor-based assemblage, which were set within a suitably enigmatic interior.

Run by artists Katharina Stoever and Barbara Wolff, Peles Empire is a peripatetic project space and virtual castle, which simulates room-by-room the interiors of Peles, a real-life late-19th-century Romanian palace – itself an architectural miscellany. Bespoke wallpaper – made of blown-up, photocopied photographs – clads the walls of this project, which began in a Frankfurt apartment and is now, several iterations later, holed up in a live/work studio in Stoke Newington. This modest setting flatly recreates the original Peles’s excessive interior as a deadpan mise-en-scène for a series of exhibitions that tease and prod the culture and capital of image consolidation and distribution. Here, over black and white images of Peles’s grandiose Asian-themed hallway, in which priceless antiques sit uncomfortably beside crappy derivatives, Hatfull’s colourful, revolving medleys hinted at a gentleman’s intriguing, if irresolvable, foreign affair.

Fork (all works 2011) is one of three sizeable wall-mounted screen-prints on corkboard. Its large black outline is derived from a key in the Michelin Guide, which is printed in full below: a knife and fork on a clock-face indicates late dining; grapes mark the availability of wine; a jug and saucer denote saki; a coin means cash only; a stricken shoe states that only stockinged feet may enter. At the bottom left of the corkboard, Fellini’s drawing of a dinner jacket, shirt and tie is printed, but with the head, hands and bottom-half missing. An uneven red line, cropped from a New Yorker calendar grid, is there too, and soy sauce is spilled across the surface. Foreignness, and graphic attempts to abridge it, seems a common concern, though these foreign components do not settle together. Instead, the emphasis appears to be on continually reshuffling these symbols, which have been printed, laid or spilt on blank everyday materials. And the effects are absorbing. By constant re-association, Hatfull relieves these varied designs of their original business and with them spins for us these dynamic and enigmatic visual narratives.

Goings On, Bagno and Puddles was the only floor-based work. Two hardboard sheets are printed with almost identical symbols in dark blue: a brimming toilet bowl (again, borrowed from Fellini), the calendar grid, the Michelin key and, in one corner, an illustration of an ancient Roman bust. The hardboard sheets lie side-by-side and top-to-toe, so that the aspect of the work, like the scale and meaning of its components, is overtly upturned. On top of the printed surface, woodcut letters in New Yorker font are scattered, as are the uneven lines that usually divide them, here placed in parallel lines. The outline of a puddle is contained in a woodcut too, all wooden pieces painted in bold primary colours. The assemblage is so outwardly referential it’s dizzying, yet the uniformity of their colours and the similitude of their easy graphic style gives the works a canny coherence.

A cryptic accompanying text penned by the artist appears more like an index of literary, musical and artistic inspirations than a typical press release. Curt, suggestive phrases and tacked-on footnotes resemble the compositions, suggestive rather than explanatory. Giorgio de Chirico’s sculpture Mysterious Baths (1968) is name-checked, tracing the exhibition’s title and tying together recurrent images of Roman heads and unruly pluming evident in the original. Here, in Peles Empire’s most peculiar interior, history’s many surrealist dreamscapes are capriciously updated into a thoroughly modern odyssey, as Hatfull nimbly steers his works through the ubiquity of graphic symbolism towards something quite new and adventurously undetermined.

Isobel Harbison is an art critic based in London. Her book, Performing Image, will be published by the MIT Press later this year.