It’s hard to know quite what to make of the sculptures of Paloma Varga Weisz, partly because there’s something about them that is knowingly not quite made. Bruised and scratched by fingertips and nails, her ceramic figures are un-smoothed, not fully formed. Caught between the opposing processes of emergence and petrification, they are slippery beneath their sheen of glassy glaze, an awkward combination of earthy hue and hyper-lustre.
By the entrance of Sadie Coles, a curled bud of leaves parted its ceramic lips to reveal a sleeping face. A hesitant emergence, Face in a Leaf (2011) resembles a folkloric Green Man and, like that pagan symbol of rebirth and spring growth, murmurs of transition and metamorphosis, the rituals of becoming and unbecoming that were the exhibition’s silent refrain. As the show progressed, it became clear that Varga Weisz is as much concerned with interment, sinking back into the earth from whence ye came, as with emergence. The inverse processes close a circle, an arch-transition that informs a sculptural practice concerned equally with genesis and degeneration in a quixotic attempt to fix the impermanence of (the human) form.
Further on, a pair of death mask-like faces stared blindly from the gallery walls. Father, Young and Father, Old (both 2011) are tributes to the passage of time. Intimate in spite of their enlarged, looming scale, these filial memorials are somehow anti-monumental, anti-elegiac. The creases and grooves that line their venerable countenances are antithetical to the smooth permanence of alabaster, the imprecision of recollection ill-suited to its hard lines. It would only take a strong wind to return the parched, furrowed brow of Father, Old to ashes and dust. The pair were joined by a further Father (2010) figure, whose blank face, glazed a washy charcoal, lay swaddled in a thick fold of clay on the floor nearby.
Fittingly, the exhibition built downwards. The pinnacle was a lone life-sized figure, laid out as though on a mortuary slab, in the gallery’s basement. It is difficult to know whether Mother (2011) is dead or just sleeping, an uneasy thought that recalls the anxious bedtimes of childhood. On the walls, smoke-like plumes of black paint envelope and suffocate the wallpaper’s cutesy bunny motif. Is she next in line at the crematorium or being burnt alive in the nursery?
Something about these Mother and Father figures is deeply disturbing. Varga Weisz’s attention to minute details – his heavy eyelids, her wrinkled knuckles – evinces an affection for material and subject matter that is unsettled by the perverse sensation of looking too closely on the dead, and of being looked on by them. Perhaps because the mingled compulsion to stare and to look away is best articulated from the viewpoint of a child, these works have a naïve quality. As an aesthetic strategy, the attempt to recapture childish fascination can prove tricky; in some cases, such as the tragicomically deformed Monster (2010), it jars uncomfortably. Elsewhere, however, the serenely luminous painted Father, Young brilliantly evokes the gilded edges of childhood recollection.
Such was the affective charge of these final rooms that the preceding works seemed diminished by them. Lying in state, Mother commanded the basement with an impervious placidity that made the exhibition upstairs seem slight. The small, untitled watercolours (2010–11) with which the show opened had an incongruously giddy feel: facing away from the main spaces, these colourful, flippant works had their backs turned literally and thematically to the rest of the exhibition.
Varga Weisz is undoubtedly at her best when her childlike imagination remains rooted in the fidgety twilight – the night-time realm of fears and shadows of which Lemony Snickett and Tim Burton are elsewhere masters – without straying into the nostalgic or twee. Unfortunately, there were moments here when it seemed to have run away with her.