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LONDON LETTER
by Ben Street
 
Drawing -- what it is and what it means -- links four very different shows of contemporary art that opened in London this September. First is the Berlin-based Portuguese artist Jorge Queiroz, who fills Thomas Dane Gallery in St James with five large and 40 smaller works on paper in gouache, pencil, ink and oil stick that nudge abstraction towards figuration in a way reminiscent of drawings by Roberto Matta and Arshile Gorky.

Queiroz reuses various motifs in his apparently disparate works: round-edged squares, old-timey tuxedoed characters and blobby pyramids recur. A suite of sepia ink sketches unfolds in a series of mutations from an apparently spontaneous web of dotted lines and scribbles. Like Trenton Doyle Hancock or Tal R, Queiroz sets up absurd organizing systems for his works, limiting a series of drawings to the number of sheets in a pad, for instance, or confining his palette to the acid hues of a children’s coloring set.

Details that hint at recognizable form -- oystery squelches and spiky foliage -- spin off into wild abstractions of line, eluding definition. In an untitled greenish-brown gouache, a naïve pencil drawing of an embracing couple in evening dress morphs at its edges into odd doodles in both graphite and paint, while a wobbly black sketch of a 3D box -- a rendering of room with figures? -- obscures the couple’s faces. Echoed in other works around the room, these motifs hint at collective meaning, though one just beyond the grasp of linguistic translation, like a half-remembered dream.

In the intimate space of Timothy Taylor Gallery at 21 Dering Street, the British artist Ewan Gibbs presents 13 familiar if monochromatic images of New York City. Drained of color and detail, Gibbs’ drawings are made from photographs he takes himself, translated into vertical half-inch-long pencil lines that thicken almost imperceptibly when the image so requires. Step back a few feet and the picture comes into faint Photorealist focus.

What distinguishes Gibbs’ work from the contemporary obsession with banality is his interest in linguistic as well as visual slippage. His postcard New York views -- the double bows of the Brooklyn Bridge, a yellow cab whizzing through Times Square, the twinkling lights of nocturnal Manhattan -- are hardwired into the collective consciousness as a kind of visual shorthand, like establishing shots in wisecracking sitcoms.

Gibbs defers the image’s claim to meaning, however, through the fog of his meticulous layers of repetitive stripes, and then delays its resolution once again by obliging the viewer to stand back, a literal displacement. At the same time, Gibbs pursues an insistent visual elegance, not unlike Eva Hesse’s delicate explorations of the rich simplicity of ink on lined paper, an approach that nags at a buried sense of beauty within the visual cliché, just out of reach.

The Brooklyn-based digital photographer Anthony Goicolea, who is celebrated for his theatrical photographic tableaux in which he poses for every part, has slipped into a darker and more melancholy mode with his latest show, his first at the London headquarters of the tony Haunch of Venison gallery. No longer is the artist’s own visage the subject of multiple portraits based on his own psychology. Instead, we have black-and-white images of Goicolea’s Cuban ancestors, known and unknown, displayed in bottles, pasted to canvas or photographed posted on trees and telephone poles.

For this new series, which fills all three floors of the gallery, Goicolea mimics with drawing the usual process of photographic development. He begins with the negative, making a drawing on glass or layers of Mylar, then converts it to a positive image, and finally displays the result, sometimes photographing the drawing posted on telephone poles in New York, where he now lives, or on trees in the South, where he was raised.

Like Gibbs, Goicolea allows the practice of transcription to draw a series of veils over our relation to the image. The original pictures of his Cuban relatives -- apparently studio shots dating from the ‘50s -- are themselves stiffly posed representations, blank and emotionless.

In other works, the artist alters photographs of Cuba taken during his first visit there in May this year. To photos of vacant architectural spaces like outdoor pools and underpasses, he makes carefully painted additions, images of spines and hip bones in white acrylic paint, or a rendering of an elaborate pool on a photo of a concrete building site. Goicolea lets the act of mark-making perform the same function as his searching mind, delving into collective memory, retrieving and erasing at the same time.

Surrealism’s fixation on the spontaneous mark finds a chemical analogy in Roger Hiorns’ latest project for Artangel, which is titled Seizure. On a quiet street off the tangle of roundabouts and subways in Elephant and Castle in south London, Hiorns has performed a transformation all the more ravishing for its prosaic setting. The artist -- known for coating things like car engines and cathedral models in bright blue chemical crystals -- has now transformed the interior of a low-rise, soon-to-be-demolished ‘60s apartment into a deep blue cavern, sparkling with thousands of ultramarine crystals that crunch underfoot and cluster around the light fixtures, like sci-fi ivy.

Seizure is an appropriate title for what is a chemical hijacking of architectural space: Hiorns pumped copper sulphate solution into the rooms of the flat, and after a few weeks the mixture crystallized in a sort of chemical version of surrealist automatism. In addition to being a rather baroquely scientific treatment of the exhibition space as art object -- a version, perhaps, of Marcel Duchamp’s coal-sack installation or Yves Klein’s void -- Seizure is a dramatic disembodiment of architectural familiarity.

Waddling through the rooms in the rubber boots provided by the artist, the viewer becomes something like an undersea diver trawling a long-buried wreck, with the color and texture of walls and floor evoking the sea bed, and meets evidence of the recent past with the same weird sense of collapsing time. Seeing the bathtub and light switches bristling with crystals, for instance, is a startling displacement that is at once unsettling and strangely reassuring, like seeing a teacup in a shipwreck.


BEN STREET is a teacher, lecturer and critic living in London.