Art Monthly September 2012.
Michael Samuels, This Was Tomorrow, Spacex, Exeter UK, July 28th -September 15
Dominating the main gallery at Spacex is what appears to be a rather unlikely monument to 1960’s British living rooms. Reaching from one end of the space to the other, the tall, slender construction , comprising fragments of modernist furniture held together with G-clamps and ratchet straps , dramatically bisects the gallery. This is Tragedy of the Commons, 2012, Michael Samuels’ most ambitious work to date and the centrepiece of ‘This Was Tomorrow’, his first solo show in a UK public gallery. Yet despite its imposing scale, the work exudes a curious air of familiarity. Perhaps it’s the fragments of teak drawers and classic cupboard designs; or maybe it is the numerous hi-fi speakers or the Anglepoise lamps, which are hard not to read anthropomorphically. Above all, though, it’s homely quality can be credited to the human scale and the domestic , ergonomic design of the works constituent parts.
Continuing Samuels’ quirky investigations into the formal, material and spatial qualities of sculpture, the works in this show all utilise G-Plan furniture. Launched in the mid 1950’s by Donald Gomme, the aspirational G-Plan brand revolutionised British furniture , combining contemporary Scandinavian-style design with modern marketing techniques. Samuels’s approach to this now retro product line is to cut up, skilfully splice and reconfigure its cabinets, tables and sideboards to create complex, fragmented sculptures that embrace a visual unpredictability while revealing an intuitive inner logic.
The word bricolage is often bandied about in discussions of Samuels’ work and it could be argued that the artist has claimed the mantle of Kurt Schwitters. Yet Samuels’ modus operandi is not as close to Levi-Strauss’s conception of the bricoleur as some have supposed. In his 1962 book the Savage Mind, Levi-Strauss observes that bricoleurs approach tasks by reviewing the resources they have immediately to hand. He stressed that the bricoleur operates within a closed universe and that the ‘rules of his game are always to make do with whatever is at hand’. While Samuels may have previously made with whatever came to hand, his recent works comprise carefully selected elements deliberately sought out in secondhand furniture shops or on eBay. Thus it is perhaps more accurate to consider Samuels as an assemblage artist, one who, in the words of William Seitz, is concerned with ‘the fitting together of parts and pieces’.
Despite Samuels’ careful selection of materials, his method of construction is, by all accounts, decidedly ad hoc. Working without plans or sketches, the impulsive manner in which his assemblages are created imbues them with a performative energy, as evidenced by the three floor-standing sculptures in the mezzanine gallery. These precarious-looking pieces appear as if on the edge of collapse, almost as if Samuels had deserted them moments before completion. Metabolist, 2011, for instance, is a large, complex cluster of interlocking boxes and drawers balancing perilously on an occasional table. Nearby is Metronome, 2012, which appears to be modelled after an artist’s easel. A large, empty frame inlayed with blue LEDs balances on top of another occasional table while smaller frames, inlayed with different coloured Perspex, lie gathered underneath, providing some welcome equilibrium for the awkwardly top-heavy sculpture. The sense of temporality in these dexterous works is heightened by the artist’s consistent use of G-clamps, which suggest that current configurations may be subject to change at a moment’s notice. Samuels’s subtle use of coloured Perspex and blue light breaks up the monotonous shades of teak that dominate each work, revealing the artist to be an astute colourist as well as a brilliant formalist.
Seitz’s 1961 exhibition ‘Art of Assemblage’ at the Museum of Modern Art in New York captured a certain spirit of art-making peculiar to the late 1950s and early 60s. Yet that spirit was soon displaced by new developments in art and the world ‘assemblage’ was itself jettisoned in favour of terms such as environment, performance and Conceptual Art. Samuels’s wall-based works, Die Fraktale 14 and Die Fraktale 15, both 2010, appear to hark back to that historical moment while also evoking the work of artists such as Moholy-Nagy, Tatlin and Schwitters. Indeed, in these dynamic assemblages which talk as much about painting as they do sculpture, constructivist influences are overt. With their retro aesthetic, these and other works in this hugely enjoyable exhibition seem to function as meditations on the passing of time, the nature of aspiration and even the status of the art object itself. Despite a constant push towards abstraction, objects such as drawers, table legs and other familiar fragments of utilitarian design are a constant reminder that abstraction is only ever possible in relation to representation
DAVID TRIGG is a writer and critic based in Bristol