Something in the Water
Magali Reus is part of a group of young, London-based artists exploring sleek surfaces and abject bodies
Magali Reus is part of a group of young, London-based artists exploring sleek surfaces and abject bodies
‘Take one with the packaging,’ Magali Reus says, as she hands me a copy of Surfer, the magazine-sized artist book she produced in 2011. ‘That’s the best bit.’ A glossy blue sea ripples under transparent shrink-wrap. In a way, the young, London-based Dutch artist is right: this outer skin completes the piece, makes the book an object. Inside, spread after spread of Hawaii-blue waves threaten to submerge tiny human figures balanced precariously on their shark-nosed surfboards. You’ve seen pictures like these before – in movies, travel guides, magazines. But, probably because Reus has pulled them from the web, the images in Surfer are a little pixelated in places – the white clouds as waves crest, the trails of foam as boards descend. The seeming smoothness is a little rough around the edges. Open the centrefold and right there, neatly creased in the gutter, is the Photoshopped form of a flattened cigarette giving a perfectly rectilinear middle finger to the stereotype of the all-natural, über-healthy surfer. Flip a couple of pages on, and a crashing swell is marked by an overlapping trio of coffee-mug stains that suggest stimulation of a more mundane kind.
The surfer in the image is only a blemish on the surface of the liquid wall, speeding towards the magazine’s gutter, on the brink of being swallowed by it. This inversion of the conventional figure/ground hierarchy links the publication to the artist’s 2009 exhibition at La Salle de bains in Lyon, out of which the project grew, and its titular film, Background (2009), in which a group of men in combat fatigues perform a set of choreographed exercises in a dusty quarry. The surfer (reckless, intuitive, nature-loving) and the soldier (clean-cut, disciplined, controlled) represent two opposing tendencies that are in constant tension in Reus’s work. Her films as well as her sculptures demonstrate an aesthetic sensibility that could be classified as restrained, precise or cool.
Earlier this year, her show at The Approach, London, ‘In Lukes and Dregs’, featured groups of what looked like doorless fridge and freezer units (the ‘Lukes’ of the title, 2013–14) standing between satellite constellations of stacked aluminium cooking pots (the accompanying ‘Dregs’, 2013–14). All of these objects were of a domestic, from-the-catalogue scale, but were made individually according to Reus’s specifications or, in the case of the aluminium ‘Dregs’, hand hammered by the artist. The fridges were crisp-edged, powder-coated or lacquered steel forms in a hospital-ward palette of Arctic whites, turquoises and blues. Look closer, and their shiny interiors were littered with debris: rusty knives, take-away cartons in powdered aluminium foil, gelatinous resin slicks. The pans were filled with the rubberized remains of charred pizzas, moulds of toilet seats were slipped between the tall fridges, and the whole show was installed on a dark brown platform raised slightly from the gallery floor, which didn’t quite reach the room’s edge, leaving a kind of gutter all the way around. The ‘Lukes’, without doors, remain lukewarm, unable to chill. There is something quite grotesque in this idea: I imagine mould blooming across the inside of the fridges, congealed curries, the film on cold cups of tea, the sickliness of warm white wine. There is the suggestion of festering, of putrescence just below the shiny surfaces. The grubbiness of everyday life is never far away.
By naming her objects – abbreviating ‘lukewarm’ to the anthropomorphic ‘Luke’ – Reus suggests that a kind of social dynamic plays out between the cuboid units, with some clustered in familial groupings and others pushed out alone towards the edge of the raised flooring. Similarly, her solo exhibition last year at Galerie Fons Welters, Amsterdam, included fold-down chairs based on stadium seating that were mounted to the walls in rows of two and three, or occasionally alone. Like the fridges without doors, despite their mass-manufactured appearance, these works (collectively titled ‘Parking’, 2013–ongoing) are not quite functional: the seats are too narrow and mounted too low; the joints are not load-bearing. Some of the chairs (Parking [Window] and Parking [Fiji], both 2013) were draped with protective sheets of clear, glossy PVC, as if in individual packaging. Preserved behind PVC, they have the deferred functionality of ‘best’ china, kept pristine by being left untouched.
If, as their human scale and social groupings suggest, the ‘Parking’ seats and the ‘Lukes’ are proxies for bodies, they are failing bodies. A new work in the ‘Parking’ series (Parking [Slip], 2013), included in the recent group show ‘Geographies of Contamination’ at David Roberts Art Foundation, London, expresses this eloquently. A length of powder-coated steel tubing, perforated along its length like an adjustable crutch, it lies, flat and pathetic, across a single off-white chair. It speaks of doctors’ waiting rooms, of breaking, of neediness and of all the indignities implied by the word ‘limp’. In contrast, real bodies, when they do appear in Reus’s work, in films such as Highly Liquid (2013), are chiselled, blemishless and perfectly formed, like the marble busts of classical statuary. They are also all male. Highly Liquid shows a male body under a shower, fragmented by high-definition close-ups in which the flesh functions as a landscape-like backdrop for the water droplets that cascade off it. The body glistens as though laminated. Reus flattens the living body into a shiny surface, kept at a distance, kept for best: grotesqueness is contained because the material body is sublimated.
‘Highly liquid’ could, in fact, be used to describe the asethetic of a whole group of young London-based artists whose work has a particularly glossy sheen that conceals a hinted-at inner messiness. Though their materials and methodologies differ in significant ways, the sagging billows of vacuum-formed plastic that recur in the work of Nicolas Deshayes, for example, or Alice Channer’s serpentine casts of bodiless leggings, share an uneasy viscosity. Artists like Ed Atkins (whose Warm Warm Warm Spring Mouths, 2013, is a lukewarm echo of the interior fecundity of Reus’s fridges) and Helen Marten use super-sleek CGI in their video pieces as a kind of digital shrink-wrap, a smooth veneer for objects and figures that are elsewhere effusively emotional (Atkins’s animated protagonists) or exuberantly material (Marten’s sculptural assemblies, which often share the ‘untouched’ plasticity of her on-screen images). These artists are peers – most of them having graduated from MFA programmes at London art schools around 2008 or ’09 – and many are also friends. They have been in group shows together and in shows that one another have curated; they appear in each other’s work and show with the same galleries. (Work by Channer, Deshayes and Reus will be included in a group show with an appropriately aqueous title, ‘Pool: Art from London’, which opens this month at Kestnergesellschaft, Hanover.)
This high liquidity (taken to a parodic extreme in ‘Hydra’, Adham Faramawy’s recent show at Cell Project Space) is an aesthetic of packaging, one in which sleek surfaces are proxies for skins. Last year, Marten wrote in the pages of this magazine: ‘Paul Cézanne spent a lifetime trying to paint around the skin edge of an apple, but in doing so also catalogued meticulous interest in weight, form and density. His images are unashamedly and knottily visceral.’ These artists are likewise interested in the skin-edge as the fragile boundary of containment – the line that keeps the neat from the messy, the body’s own vacuum-packaging.
Packaging as an accessory to commodity fetishism may seem a particularly Pop concern. Certainly, it has been taken up as such (and with similar ambivalence) by the reflection of consumerism in a number of so-called post-internet practices, mostly concentrated in New York and Berlin. But the emphasis on surface in the work of Reus and others recalls an altogether different tradition – a particular strand of US minimalism that, hailing from the West Coast in the 1960s and incorporating many of the materials and techniques as well as the obsessive attention to surface quality of local surf and hot-rod culture, became known as Finish Fetish. (Interestingly, in the context of Reus’s ‘Lukes’, this was also often known as the ‘Cool School’.) Standing next to Reus’s ‘Lukes’, all right angles and clean geometries, I thought about Larry Bell’s vacuum-coated cubes, themselves a kind of flawless, and therefore impossible, packaging – one without a way in.
‘Finish Fetish’ was partly a disparaging put-down that opposed the visual voluptuousness of the work of LA minimalists – such as Bell, Peter Alexander, Craig Kauffman and John McCracken – to the more austere and supposedly intellectually rigorous objects of their New York counterparts. As wittily played out by the late Nancy Holt and her husband Robert Smithson in their parodic video collaboration East Coast, West Coast (1969), this (often misleading) opposition was constructed around a clichéd set of binaries: cold vs. hot; heavy vs. light; static vs. dynamic; hedonism vs. restraint; intellect vs. sensuality. Minimalism’s ‘specific objects’ were supposed to be stable and steady. The implication was that McCracken’s planks or Bell’s cubes or Kauffman’s diaphanous loops were somehow too sleek, too fluid, too quick – like the hotrods and surfboards from which they were so often said to derive.
They were also, maybe, too sexy. Barbara Rose, writing in the catalogue of ‘A New Aesthetic’, the show she curated in 1967 at the Washington Gallery of Modern Art – along with ‘Primary Structures’ at New York’s Jewish Museum the previous year, one of the cornerstone exhibitions of what would come to be known as minimalism – described Kauffman’s sculptures in terms of ‘a kind of abstract eroticism that is purely visual’. Rose’s show brought together artists working on both seaboards, but her evaluation upholds the East/West binary by implying that the erotic content of the work is of critical value only in so far as it is abstracted – that is, perceived intellectually rather than viscerally. The highly liquid aesthetic of Reus’s work has a similar easy-on-the-eye visual appeal but also an eroticism that comes from a flirtatious suggestion of embodiment, even in works that have been purged of figuration. And perhaps this is where the comparison with first-generation minimalism ends: a package or a skin suggests an inside, even if it remains concealed, but a minimal object, in line with Donald Judd’s dismissal in Specific Objects (1965) of painting and sculpture as mere ‘containers’, should not contain anything at all, should be interior-less.
But, then, we are in London, not Southern California: it’s certainly not luminous, and the kind of water with which we are most familiar is that fended off with an umbrella. It may be that Reus’s slippery-seeming surfaces relate not to the climate, but rather to a particularly contemporary condition of flatness: that of the screen, or liquid crystal display, which evens out indiscriminately, where bodies become surfaces whose imperfections and blemishes can be re-touched, and where streams and surfing are of an entirely different kind.
Magali Reus lives and works in London, UK. She has had recent solo exhibitions at The Approach, London, UK (2014); Galerie Fons Welters, Amsterdam, the Netherlands; and Albert Baronian, Brussels, Belgium (both 2013). Her work was included in the group exhibition ‘Geographies of Contamination’, at David Roberts Art Foundation, London (2014). In June, she will have a solo show at Circuit, Lausanne, Switzerland. Forthcoming group exhibitions include: De Hallen, Haarlem, the Netherlands; Kestnergesellschaft, Hanover, Germany; and Kunstmuseum St. Gallen, Switzerland.