Touch Don't Touch

Exhibition review Tangibility Claire Barclay, John R Neeson, Stephen Bush & Jan Nelson Plimsoll Gallery and Powder Magazine, Hobart 10 - 31 May 1996

In this exhibition of three installations the curator Paul Zika playfully explores the notion of tangibility. Zika has brought together artists whose work at first appears to be both familiar, readily understood and tangible. However the work becomes more ambiguous, and the meaning more elusive the longer one considers it.

In her installation Claire Barclay uses tangible objects created from disconcertingly familiar materials and things. Three hoops sheathed in white fur are at first self evident, until gradually associations between the childhood toys and animal skin become apparent. A pair of translucent, blue-veined pig's ears smelling faintly of rancid lard hang by their silver earrings in the middle of an otherwise pristine white wall. The evocative associations elicit a frisson of recognition which is less cognitive than corporeal, provoked through the object's presence and sensations such as smell and touch. Enticing the viewer to brush against the tousled black feathers and thick down, a 13m black boa is slung diagonally through the space. Operating at a more intimate scale two balls slung in a tightly stitched crochet bag hang from a nail on the wall.

These seductive sculptural objects are sparsely placed in the gallery space; a corrupted minimalism. Seemingly utilitarian shelves and rows of wooden pegs, carefully crafted, seamlessly meld with features of the gallery such as the nondescript concrete columns, the grey carpeted floor, and the white walls. Disrupting distinctions, crimson crayon or lipstick is smeared on the wall behind a wooden bed base, several elastic bands hang from a row of pegs flaunting their subverted utilitarian function and a snakeskin dyed pink, taped to a column, is echoed by a long pink crotchet sock unravelling on the floor.

Stephen Bush and Jan Nelson in their installation titled South Face play with notions of reproduction, repetition and reality. While the work alludes to the tangible, it exploits the viewer's expectation of reality and offers only illusion and deceptions.

A large image of a spectacular mountain range, painted directly onto the gallery walls in ochre red, alludes to the existence of a tangible landscape. However, far from offering us a depiction of a real vista it soon becomes evident that the landscape is not only a copy of an image reproduced in a mountaineering handbook, but the image has been constructed from amalgamating the copied image and its mirrored reflection. Leaning against this image, plaster multiples simulating birch logs, sit on ladder-like shelving. While tangible they inevitably disappoint. Like fake logs in electric heaters they never transcend their nature as simulacra.

Bush and Nelson explore repetition and reproduction of both tangible things and ideas. In one element of the installation titled Conversation between Freud and Darwin, four non-functional plaster pots which parody Wedgwood ceramics, are embossed with the profiles of Freud and Darwin. Of this work Jonathan Holmes writes in the catalogue essay that "the ideas that are 'contained' in their theories have, like everything else in this era of mechanical reproduction, become infinitely reproducible."(1)

A photograph depicting a ready-made installation found in a shopping centre has been included in South Face. It depicts a tawdry stuffed Barbar the 'elephant,' who supposedly brought civilisation back to his kingdom, entrapped on a polystyrene hill amid shoppers and advertising logos. In Bush and Nelson's installation the relationship between the tangible and real is questioned and found to be ambiguous.

John R. Neeson chose the interior of the colonial Powder Magazine, located in the Hobart Domain for his site specific installation titled Sixth Location. In his paintings Neeson intensely scrutinises and realistically depicts tangible aspects of the site. These images are then installed in the very site that they reflect.

In these detailed images the textured surfaces of the site are explored. Flaking olive green paint, irregularities in the wooden boards and dusty white bricks are revealed. The bevelled edge of the wooden panelling creates a strong horizontal line high on the walls. Neeson exploits and incorporates this formal element into his work, emphasising the spatial relationship of the images to each other and the site. On this edge Neeson balances and depicts two circular mirrors, a reflective sphere, and a folded white cloth - iconographic objects which refer to earlier 'relocations.' In the carefully painted reflections of the mirrored surfaces both tangible details of the site such as the austere grace of the arched brick vaults, and ephemeral aspects like the changing quality of light falling on the walls are revealed. Creating a convincing illusion, the architectural space in which the artist and subsequently the viewer physically operate is represented. While Neeson does not depict himself in the reflections, the intensity of the images alludes to the presence of the artist and his interaction within the space over a period of time.

Neeson installed these images, (which playfully incorporate a realistic rendering of an illusionary frame), within the site replacing the same segment of the wall that they represent. While perplexing the vision of the viewer, these images intensify both the experience of the physical site, and the more intangible qualities of interacting within the space.


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