BY Neal Brown in Reviews | 09 SEP 98
Featured in
Issue 42

Peter Shelton

BY Neal Brown in Reviews | 09 SEP 98

blackelephanthouse (1997-1998) comprises two works from a series of four, all made with differing materials, but whose form remains constant. The artist has stated that all stages of the project are to be considered works in their own right. The original piece, or 'plug' as Shelton calls it, was made in California, from which a positive 'pattern' was fabricated by a Hollywood special-effects company. From this, a negative mould, the 'shell', has been made, which will eventually be used to produce the final element, or 'nut'. The works in this show are the 'pattern' and the 'shell': the second and third works.

Each piece is a huge ovoid about ten feet high and 20 feet long. They are eyeless creatures, like torsos with fatty folds, undulating musculature, ambiguous residual nipples, primitive legs and apertures for mouth and anus. They have something in common with the aborted-foetus look of contemporary car design, as well as the characteristics of a hugely enlarged, fluid-bearing internal organ, or a grub. Beluga whale with hippopotamus or porcine tendencies would come closer than elephant.

The 'pattern' is made in grids of two-inch balsa-wood pieces, cemented with car body filler and then sanded. The grid lines of these are at variance with the form's contours. Evidence of construction remains visible - blue and pinkish body filler remains on the surface, as do numbers written in felt-tip pen, used to identify the various sections. The numbers are slightly over-artificial and strained, like the affected mark-making in a Euan Euglow painting. Otherwise the surface of the piece is warm and various.

The negative 'shell', as seen from outside, is made from greeny-grey fibreglass, in untidily ragged sections within a black-steel armature held together with conspicuous nuts and bolts. The construction is crude, and much of the sensuousness of form is lost, unsurprisingly. The fibreglass sections have square 'windows' of slightly less opacity, whose function seems purely decorative - it is possible to view the interior of the piece only by sticking one's head inside its lower orifices.

Shelton has emphasised the importance of the conceptual process in making blackelephanthouse. These claims are predicated on the simultaneity of status, and determining of conceptual values, given to the relationship of the four pieces. Although these issues are not without interest, especially in terms of enclosure and disclosure, it all seems a little less plausible, or at least less important, than he would have us believe. This is exacerbated by the mysterious absence of the final piece, which will be cast in black cement. With these conceptual claims, the artist seems to be clawing forth an increased intellectual dignity, and although this is understandable (especially in such a pretentious market as the fine art one), his conflations of biology, scale and the body are already inherently interesting enough in their own right. By seeking a highest common denominator, Shelton compromises some of his principal strengths: his generous, warm, good humour, and the accessibility of his work, both of which, of course, are generally unfashionable.

That one of these works was made for Shelton by a Hollywood special-effects company provides a possible clue to their better understanding. With the current boom in creative celluloid aliens, it may be more appropriate to consider the artist's work within the more dominant context of the movies, in which his aliens hold their own pretty well.

Much of Shelton's work is about finding a sense of strangeness in the familiar, the familiar being principally ourselves, and our referents. The two behemoths in Halifax are isomorphs: biological forms that differ in composition or ancestry but have similar shape or meaning. But although they are isomorphs from another planet, they are just like us - only more so. They are reproducing couch potatoes, fat tubes with a hole at each end to metabolise food.

Neal Brown is an artist and writer based in London, UK.