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Life as a Veneer

4 May

In retrospect, at a selection of exhibitions in London over the winter a number of works emerged which use veneers and discuss thin surfaces.  At the end of 2012 Henrik Schrat exhibited a series of two dimensional works at IMT Gallery made in the marquetry tradition from tessellated pieces of different woods that form scenes for a comic book, probably with reference to Roy Lichtenstein’s paintings of scenes from comic books such as All-American Men of War, but carried out in a totally different manner.  This pair have similarly transformed the disposable paper comic into something more substantial, created for longevity and monumentalising what some may describe as a trivial entertainment media, yet solid wooden board may have a longer life expectancy than a canvas.  Schrat’s Space Odyssee series (2009) makes a number of references to modernist architecture, with Space Vessel resembling Buckminster Fuller’s Geodesic Dome and Falling Water featuring a Frank Lloyd Wright house, whilst documenting the daily life of a Cyloptic science fiction character like a series of snapshot photographs that could be posted on the character’s social networking profile.

Space Vessel (2009) by Henrik Schrat

Space Vessel (2009) by Henrik Schrat

Helen Marten’s exhibition at Chisenhale Gallery included a row of low works, each with a different wooden finished, which resemble temporary covers placed over open man holes in pavement or trailing cables somewhere lots will be required like a temporary concert site.  Titled Falling very down (low pH chemist) (2012) these were ramped on two opposite sides as if to aid wheelchair access these works appear to invite the viewer to walk on them like Carl Andre‘s floors and leave the patina of their movement on the polished surfaces, yet they then had a collection of objects piled on them, like the personal effects upon a series of individuals’ bodies or a collection of detritus disposed of by a being, including a sock and a Starbucks cup of iced coffee, whilst skewed and edited wrappers invite you to consider what you consume.

Falling very down (low pH chemist) (2012)Helen Marten, Plank Salad, exhibition view, Chisenhale Gallery, 2012. Photo: Andy Keate. Commissioned by Chisenhale Gallery.

Falling very down (low pH chemist) (2012)Helen Marten, Plank Salad, exhibition view, Chisenhale Gallery, 2012. Photo: Andy Keate. Commissioned by Chisenhale Gallery.

Art13 Art Fair commissioned Peter Lemmens, also seen on the Dam Gallery stand there, to create a series of essentially plinths, entitled Proxy (2013), which appeared to be covered in a variety of wood and marble laminates as might be used on kitchen worktops and cupboards; practical elements of modernist architectural design, like the structures depicted in Schrat’s work.  Lemmens invites us to look at that which the contemporary art viewer tends to ignore, yet most continue to walk by regardless.  Indeed these innate objects seem to be typified by private view visitors using them to stand empty glasses on.  These works were juxtaposed in odd combinations, clearly defining the apparent pointlessness of the trompe l’oeil pretence of using patterned laminate, making their seemingly basic materials obvious.  However, in fact only part of each work is a trompe l’oeil, a self-adhesive veneer applied to a solid block of an opposing material, for example a block of marble has one or more surfaces covered in a wood effect plastic, confusing the brain as to what material it really is.

Proxy (2013) by Peter Lemmens

Proxy (2013) by Peter Lemmens

Finally I’d like to include Conall McAteer‘s Crate (2012) where he has created a work from tessellated squares of veneer on MDF.  He has created a physical embodiment of a pixellated digital crate featured in computer game environs in a similar manner to the way Schrat has brought comics into the medium.  Used in games to fill empty space and create obstructions, particularly in scenes where action is to take place by surprise, as well as fitting with archaeological storage settings in games and films alike (such as Tomb Raider and Indiana Jones), this work similarly fills real space, creating a void within of contents unknown, undescribed and open to the viewer’s imagination to fill.  Here the veneer is used to create some real texture (woodgrain) in what would otherwise be without any, minimal digital cubes in the computer game and smooth machine made board in this structure.

Crate (2012) by Conall McAteer

Crate (2012) by Conall McAteer

Perhaps these works are indicative of a society that is increasingly flat, searching for two-dimensional living in a three-dimensional world, particularly with regards to consumer electronics.  But as Edwin A. Abbott suggests in Flatland, if we lived entirely in two dimensions all we would ever see is one edge of the person or object beside us.

On the other hand Marten says that her interest in creating thin works, and probably the use of material also, lies in the contrast between ‘ultimate thinness’, like Abbott suggests, and the physicality of that which you can produce, just as other artists have made works studying the stretcher supports of canvases as far back as Cornelius Gijsbrechts’ The Reverse Side of a Painting (1670).   Furthermore, in relation to her exhibition title, ‘Plank Salad’, and its suggestion to consume a selection of wood, Marten notes that someone dying of hunger still has a vast volume.

Han Y01 (2012) by Sun Yi

Han Y01 (2012) by Sun Yi

In the light of this, Sun Yi’s sculptures, including Han Y01 seen on the Galerie du Monde stand at Art13, also seem to relate to the ideas being looked at although they are carved from solid wood.  These are sculpted to form garments being worn but unpopulated, highlighting and therefore questioning the shells we wrap ourselves in during our daily lives, much as veneer may be used to make cheap fibreboard look more valuable.  Veneers, Formica particularly, may protect a surface but if damaged will be far more noticeable than added patina on a solid surface.  On the other hand though, the layers of plywood could be considered as veneers and yet they bind together to make a stronger board than solid timber.

If we relate Sun Yi’s work to Marten’s ideas, we could interpret it as an illustration of the volume of a deceased person, or that the garments have consumed their wearers, whilst the work also explores how thin a carving can be.  Hence I conclude that the choice and use of medium in these works may collectively reflect upon human desire to better oneself through appearances and the thin line between wealth and poverty.  Does clothing protect us or make us more vulnerable?

Conall McAteer has work in the Catlin Art Prize exhibition at LondonNewcastle Project Space, 28 Redchurch Street, London E2 7DP until 26th May 2013.
Lichtenstein: A Retrospective is at Tate Modern until 27th May 2013.
Henrik Schrat: Report on Probability B was at IMT Gallery from 21st September – 21st October 2012.
Helen Marten: Plank Salad was at Chisenhale Gallery from 23rd November 2012 to 27th January 2013
Art 13 was at Olympia Grand Hall from 1st-3rd March 2013.

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