To misquote Ecclesiastes, ‘The sun also rises, the sun goes down […] All art is meaningless and a striving after wind.’ Vanessa Billy’s Suns Neither Rise Nor Set (2008) comprises two convex glass discs that looked over her small exhibition ‘Flexible Values’, creating a new horizon on which these twin celestial bodies were halted. Glow (2008) was simply a layer of yellow pastel dusted over a section of the gallery’s white windowsill, but it radiated with the light of these new suns and bathed the show with subdued rays.
The spirit of Arte Povera has lately been reinvigorated, and Billy’s transient, mute poetry displayed, with its simple materials, an affinity with the earlier movement but also a further sense of dramatic irony. The two-part Fluids (2008) was a diminutive fountain-like entrance to what seemed to be a faded carnival; a thin stream of clear plastic arched between two steel green bases, set askew from its accompanying poster, which showed a spectrum of blue, purple and pink merged and diffused like colours refracted underwater. The sand from Dry Stamina (2008) was spread underneath, a wedge of sand that filled the step between the gallery’s two levels but had dispersed with time. At the rear the dozen red plastic misshapen arches of Support Brackets (2008) acted like a two-dimensional theatrical backdrop to a distant flock of seagulls. ‘Flexible Values’ set the spirit of Arte Povera loose in the faded grandiosity and elusive romanticism of a desolate seaside town, as though the artist’s collection of objects were the shorthand sketches of an abandoned proposal for Robert Smithson to design a Butlins holiday resort.
Similar in tone to the work of the Mexican artist Gabriel Kuri, each of Billy’s works casually maintains a discrete presence with a self-conscious sense of weight. As though they were theatrical props, Billy is fully aware of their temporary metaphorical value, setting us the task of casting about for connections before they are flung into the bin or washed into the sea. Hints of transformation began to emerge from the balance of materials used that suggested traditional methods of industrial conversion: sand and glass, paper and wood. In Supporters (2007), a low plywood plinth held up a sanded piece of cedar that resembled a smooth, sea-worn pebble, the wood’s age rings transformed into geological stripes. Billy quietly proposes a new elemental ecology in the weathered progression that flowed from the larger stone of Supporters to the smaller particles of Dry Stamina and on to the melted sand of Suns Neither Rise …. A similar metamorphosis took place in Four Times Weathered (2007), two square concrete blocks topped by a slight pyramid, each face holding a small, bunched-up tissue. The withered tissues seemed to bear marks of the pastels used in Fluids, ritually laid like seashells set out to dry, taking on evocative shapes in their cast-off abstraction; one of them even resembled a seahorse.
Billy set the gallery as a frontier for an encounter that shapes our environment, like the seafront. And like holiday resorts, galleries gather around this frontier, imbued with idealism and decorated with promises of escape. ‘Flexible Values’ set out a new stall along this coast, the ‘land’ of the exhibition shaped and transformed by a visual erosion, the artist’s deftly curated negative spaces between the works evoking an invisible sea of meanings in which the artist is happy to let us swim. But don’t expect a lifesaver: Billy’s seafront shares an escapism that can only lead back to ourselves. She readily acknowledges the futility of this striving after wind and revels in its physical sensations, letting explicit answers dance elusively on the constantly receding horizon.