Nobody Spoke – Art and Language at Lisson Gallery

Filed in Reviews by on December 3, 2014

Nobody Spoke: Art and Language

Lisson Gallery

Until 17 January 2015


Art & Language is a collective, originally hailing from Coventry in the late 1960’s. Their goal was, and still is, to challenge the way we view conceptual art. Originally a group of four professors of Art Theory, the group expanded over the decades, and brought more internationally renowned names such as Joseph Kosuth into the fold. Their work has assumed various forms, ranging from text, performance and painting to song writing and large installations, even combining these together. The focus remains, after working for forty years, to challenge the ways in which we view conceptual art and the position of the artist. It was this anniversary that the Lisson Gallery was marking.

After some confusion, and realising that the automated kicking legs decked with hosiery were not part of Art and Language’s exhibition, I ventured a little bit further down Bell Street to find the other Lisson Gallery Space. The first room played host to four large paintings, all the same size, with each displaying a similar type of content. Bold, colourful daubs of paint were layered upon each other, in one painting yellows mixed with fleshy skin tones and earthy colours. These organic marks sat amongst an altogether more considered array of thick, straight patterned lines, that created a sense that I was looking at a blueprint of a floor plan.

Each painting had its own colour scheme and its own, slightly varied, arrangement of these thicker lines, creating enclosed spaces in some areas, and others where the brush marks could flow unperturbed, following a route as set out by where these boundaries had been placed. It was difficult to know what these paintings were. They were not obviously representational of anything, nor were they particularly pleasing to the eye. In respect of this, it was as though these canvasses were presenting themselves as a marker of judgement perhaps for the way information can be built up, or even, obscured.

As the paintings perhaps looked to critique their own form, further down into the main gallery sat 17 chairs. All were covered in black and white imagery, similar to the black and white ink drawings I confronted just after. The chairs could possibly have been a vehicle to show this imagery, not just an object, but layered up with other media. The chairs themselves sat between speakers and a microphone, the set up from the opening night performance. At once these chairs are objects, a means to show paintings and part of a performance. Multi-faceted. And yet, right then, they projected a sense of solitude and emptiness, which I guess is only right when you are confronted with a row of unfilled chairs. As though the expectation turns to you, the viewer, it suddenly feels that you are responsible for the vacant seats before you.

Even the A4 ink drawings project a sense of unknowing. Two are painted mostly black, save for the words, ‘Sculpture’ and ‘Painting’. There are detailed drawings of what I think is a pile of rubber bands, another a portrait of Putin. There are people (possibly) at a private view, holding champagne but their faces have been pixellated. There are references to philosophers that I can’t purport to understand fully, and another with a map of the world divided into a special coded grid. Even when, aesthetically, you can grasp what is being represented and referred to, it doesn’t mean you really understand what they are trying to say, or indeed, if there are any connections that can be gauged. But then, I think what we are being told here is that it isn’t important. Whether they are merely illustrations of an artist’s day-to-day or if there is something more meaningful behind it, maybe we are being brought into a different way of looking at art, without needing to find reason for what has been done or presented.

The final room in the exhibition, and I think most definitely my favourite, holds a number of vitrines, grid like in their presentation. Atop metal legs, inside each of the glass cases lies one single document, that describes the faces of well known politicians and powerful figures in the most extraordinary detail, an A4 document that covers everything from the manner of their hairline to the colour of the shadow of their jowls. Amongst others: Rupert Murdoch, Hillary Clinton and Jacob Zuma. Art and Language have taken away the power that is invested in their image; they have destroyed the image by vividly describing the image itself. Again, these documents are displayed as though revered objects, but our reverence is not for the image, but for the words.

Although I wasn’t aware of the work of Art and Language coming into this exhibition, I can see exactly how they have succeeded in bringing the relationship between the viewer and the work under scrutiny. It was a challenging show. I like to understand what it is I am seeing. I think I do try and impart some kind of knowledge of a particular time or individual upon a work to render more of a comprehensive reading. This show has been set up to contest this very approach to art, we are being told that you don’t have to always input any specific context onto a work you are viewing. Indeed, we can’t. There are no names, no attributions to individuals, only to the collective. In light of this, I think this is quite an important show to see, if only to test yourself on how to react in an environment where you are given no hints or clues, indeed, ‘Nobody Spoke’.

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Ann-Marie Rayney

About the Author ()

Ann-Marie Rayney is a printmaker based in London. Recently graduated from Goldsmiths with a Fine Art and Art History degree, she will most likely be found exploring London's cultural offerings or covered in ink at Sonsoles Print Studio in Peckham. To see some of her work, have a sneaky peak at her website here.

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