If one had to guess at an art work that Steve Bishop and Dan Shaw-Town both revere, it might be Marcel Duchamp’s With Hidden Noise (1916). This ball of twine sandwiched between two brass plates rattles when lifted; while making it, Duchamp asked collector Walter Arensberg to place a mystery object inside, then screwed the art work shut, stowing within it something enigmatic even to himself. From the outside, though, With Hidden Noise can be sized up; we know exactly what it’s made of. In this sparse, six-work show, Bishop and Shaw-Town conformed to this alloying of candidness and secrecy, not so much updating it as repurposing it for a moment when holding back something of yourself might almost be a political act.
Bishop makes shallow Perspex boxes, pours in some liquid mercury, stuffs in a T-shirt printed with a photograph taken in his studio, and then adds more mercury before enclosing the whole in a boxy wood frame and attaching it to the wall. The result, two examples being on show here, is an unstable para-painting: the quicksilver catches in folds of dusty pinks, washed-out orange and grey-blue, pressing flat against the plastic and creating a chance-driven composition of rivulets and undulating waves: shake it up and it recomposes anew. All strictly materialist, except of course you won’t know what the image is – even if you interrogate the gallerist sufficiently to know that there is a photograph involved.
If a faint, refined echo of Richard Serra’s experiments with throwing molten lead rebounds through Bishop’s art, then post-minimalism’s metal guru is even more strongly evoked by Shaw-Town’s procedural works, which make Serra’s titanic aesthetic near weightless. (Or which, less generously, pick up where the older artist’s drawings leave off.) Known for covering sheets of paper with dense fields of graphite, mixing illusory heaviness with actual flimsiness – one was on show – Shaw-Town here also presented two low welded tables neatly topped with graphite-covered paper, each crowned by a folded sheet of rubber that has been sprayed with enamel and sanded to create a rough, minimal, painterly but austere surface. We can only see the top of this; there’s a fair bit concertinaed away that we can’t access.
The suppressing here is symbolic and ludic: the artists know it, and surely know that we know it too. Because, really, who cares what Shaw-Town isn’t sharing with us – it’s not like the visible areas of his work are that interesting – and it’s hard to feel achingly curious about what Bishop’s T-shirts would look like unravelled. (For the record, one of them apparently features a photograph of a tray of Listerine mouthwash, though which flavour remains unknown.) So this isn’t about a specific refusal so much as the concept of it, I think, and what that might stand for today. Notably, the press release for this show – which delivers precisely zero information about its contents – is a transcript of a scatty chatroom exchange between the artists. If that particular interface epitomizes an online culture of continuous interaction that frequently adds up to nothing, what might art’s role be within that context? Where, and how, might it make meaning, make stands?
There was another work by Bishop here: a white javelin with a silver tip and blue twine grip stands on end next to a wedge-shaped silver shelf, upon which sits a white cup with the IBM logo picked out in blue. Silver, white and a particular shade of blue bounce between the art work’s components, the colour-coding temporarily suggesting that the whole possesses a larger integrity and purpose. It doesn’t (and again, we’re seemingly expected to realize it). But it does implicitly tie an embodiment of vacancy to a technologized world. One might lean dangerously heavily on all this and see Bishop and Shaw-Town as fretful moralists, as unnerved by the contemporary, web-enabled culture of transparency – bear in mind the former’s use of plastic screens, the latter’s interest in insubstantiality – as is Jaron Lanier in his anti-Web 2.0 polemic You Are Not a Gadget (2010). Maybe, though, there’s less to it and Bishop and Shaw-Town are simply both reacting against an art culture that demands its denizens give of themselves in pursuit of market responsiveness, reacting by performing instead a theatrical withdrawal. The irony – that such a move might be attention-snaring in its own crotchety way – surely isn’t lost on them.