An imposing fake bronze statue from the action film Tomb Raider (2001) overshadowed the dozen sculptures and props in MOT’s front room – the sound stage for The Prop Makers’ (Mark Beasley and Russell Oxley) co-directed group exhibition built on film references. In the second room four acrylic paintings by Beasley and Oxley formed a kind of film-set backdrop to the show. An untitled and undated concrete and wood sculpture by Sarah Lucas, several works (also untitled and undated) by Colin Lowe and a maquette of Steve Jones’ (guitarist from the Sex Pistols) fantasy bedroom, alongside an all-white American flag and plaster bust by film industry set designers, were some of the dormant props. Everything sat waiting for use in films not yet realized.
The title of the show knowingly mal-igned the artists in it, a criticism of power plays where artwork becomes a tool for curatorial agendas. The Prop Makers nuanced Robert Smithson’s 1972 argument on cultural confinement – fitting artists into fraudulent categories. ‘Prop’ is Oxley and Beasley’s deliberately sardonic sham of a category here. No division was made between the types of work; everything was left untitled and anonymous, confounding comparisons between real prop makers and artists, and linking them only by their context here as props.
On the shelving unit Lowe’s stuffed cat, with its expression caught in a hiss and ponytails splaying from its body, immediately stood out. But stunt Coca-Cola bottles (for smashing over actors’ heads) blended in with three issues of The Daily Doubt (2005), Lowe’s fabricated tabloid. His newspapers are the type of prop a camera would pan over too quickly for an audience to read, but here you were allowed a perverse amount of time to examine them. Photographs of nuclear power stations juxtaposed with the headline ‘No Humans Needed Anymore – Official’, present seemingly disjointed situations under the deceptive guise of media spinning, both banal and absurd.
Nathanael West’s 1939 novel The Day of the Locust, narrated by disillusioned scene artist Tod Hackett, describes Hollywood movie lots as the ‘final dumping ground’ of dreams, revealing the bitter disappointment of characters on the fringe of the entertainment industry. West sets a disenchanted precedent for Oxley: in 15 years in the film industry as a scene painter the latter has made reproductions of over 400 Old Master paintings. His practice (and his day job) is firmly grounded in painting. The work made with Beasley demonstrates for the first time the merging of Oxley’s two careers into single paintings. In supersaturated acrylic – a luminescent paint that looks better on film – with the horizon at the industry standard height of one and a half metres, they use the visual conventions of scenic design. Large areas of the images are left faded out and unfinished – the camera wouldn’t be able to pick up subtle nuances if these ever were installed in a film set. The paintings are disconcerting for their manipulations of industry techniques, twisting once typical scenes into subtle variations on constructed milieux.
The backdrops were familiar scenes rendered slightly askew. On the far wall a barren grey landscape scattered with debris recalled science fiction scenes; to its right was a street rendered in the manner of a video game design. The perspective and architecture of the street scene are superficially benign, contrasting the building in foreground, painted in a clashing purple and green pattern, with a large bloodshot eyeball disrupting an otherwise intentionally bland scene. On the wall opposite, a Paris boulevard suggests the barricades of May 1968, police blockades replaced by macabre balloon animals. The fourth painting depicts a Dan Graham pavilion, where double reflective glass and shifting natural light distort the viewer’s perception. Repainted as a set, Graham’s distortion is impotent, a reverse trompe l’oeil. Beasley and Oxley’s scenarios remain ambiguous architectural spaces that don’t commit to a specific type but similarly never entirely abandon their clichés.
Beasley designed a poster for ‘The Prop Makers’ and dated it 15.10.86, the date of a Wolverhampton gig by The Smiths, a recording of which played in the background as the show’s soundtrack. The poster was a matrix of links – autobiographical and musical – generating from the incidental fact that Beasley’s mother lived next door to the guitarist of the influential 1970s’ metal band Judas Priest. As in the poster, the careful manipulation of backdrops, props and artistic cameos in exhibition developed complex connections between specific references and incidents in different fields – art, entertainment, video games and architecture – linked, like a film, by the fragility of illusion.