Almost exactly a year after his previous solo show at Victoria Miro closed, Tal R’s latest one opened. It coincided with another in Berlin and closely followed an exhibition in New York, each of them arising from a well-defined methodology. Last year, in London, there were fauvism-infused plein-air paintings based on excursions from the artist’s summerhouse in northern Denmark. In Germany and the US, he showed numerous chromatic canvases and drawings of women in constricted spaces. ‘Chimney School of Sculpture’, Tal R’s latest show at Victoria Miro, comprises 14 sculptures that, while motley, variously evoke smokestacks or employ heat processes, plus myriad images of pull blinds, a quintet of quasi-sofas and a trio of big collages. The generous view of this ferment would be that Tal R naturally produces a lot – he has multiple studios, each dedicated to a different medium – and so there’s a close fit between his productivity and the desires of his galleries to exhibit it. The hit-and-miss results of late, however, might leave one with a different impression: of an artist whose market popularity requires the constant invention of frameworks that generate fast, flexible lines of product.
The truth could be somewhere in between, with Tal R designing situations that guarantee results while also allowing for genuine, chance-driven self-surprising. That’s the impression one gets from three rows of sculptures on plinths: if there’s not much to love about them, they do at least show an artist strategizing to be in and out of control at the same time. Some pieces, reminiscent of tangled guts and glossy cephalopods, are glazed ceramics processed through the caprices of Japanese raku firing. Others, like the Franz West-ish, carnation-pink plaster blob The Turbo (2014) and Black Ship (2015), with its monstrous funnel, are both L-shaped, such that one starts to read the chimneys as I-shaped and glimpse inchoate letterforms elsewhere. The dominant tone, though, is the direct-from-the-psyche mix of portent and playfulness that has characterized Tal R’s work since the 1990s. A sense of half-veiled transmission continues upstairs in Blinds (2015). Like a dishevelled cousin of Chris Ofili’s The Upper Room (shown in the same spot in 2002), this is a strip-lit constructed corridor – again L-shaped and pungent with the scent of oil paint – in which thickly worked paintings, prints and textiles in grey, blue and black are hung salon-style on grey-cloth walls.
The Blinds pieces are programmatic in their conceal-and-reveal approach, pointing repeatedly to something – behind the blind – that can’t be had, only guessed at, and which anyway doesn’t exist. So it’s fitting that they additionally resemble projection screens, and also chimneys. That form is glimpsed once more in UFO (2015), one of the sofas wrapped in colourful rag rugs that are installed in the back half of the downstairs space. As the title suggests, though – like Retired Professor and Low Ship (both 2014) – it’s also something else; poised, too, between recliner and sculpture, since these objects aren’t comfortable to sit on.
The furniture, like the two-dimensional works, sculptures and trio of gaudy abstract collages (2013–15), feels like something the artist returned to periodically amid other projects, each of them a pot bubbling on the stove, alternately stirred. One might, accordingly, glimpse an artist in an interesting place, psychologically: willingly – to switch analogies – striding on a studio treadmill, half-distractedly seeking to keep his art dynamic and destabilized for himself and others, and not always succeeding. The raku sculptures, all from this year, are collectively entitled Scholars Palace, invoking Chinese scholars’ rocks and, by association – as Tom Morton puts it in his catalogue essay – the leisurely image of ‘a Confucian scholar looking up from his papers and becoming lost in the mineral intricacies of the jagged mass resting on his desk’. For Tal R in 2015, that might well be wishful thinking.