Have you ever almost fallen over with the unexpected weight of an item that you assumed to be light, or experienced the shock of eating an olive when you were expecting a raisin? There is something unsettling, even uncanny, about discovering that something has entirely different properties to those you had ascribed to it. The six sculptors in the new group exhibition, I Had the Landscape in My Arms, collectively conjure this momentary confusion. All share a playful fascination with the tactility of their materials, as hard stone and delicate ceramic are morphed into suggestive, softer forms. Here at Josh Lilley gallery, all is not as it seems. Gravel fizzes in water––sharp little particles given the lightness of bubbles––while venetian blinds appear to drip with shiny blue resin.
The title of the exhibition is taken from a quote by American abstract expressionist painter Helen Frankenthaler, ““I had the landscape in my arms as I painted it”, evoking the tactile impulse to embrace the immaterial. To hold or cradle in one’s arms is to comfort, to offer compassion through the simplest and most immediate of gestures. A hug is entirely human. American artist Annabeth Rosen echoes the embrace most directly, with curvaceous ceramics that appear as if bound together with wire. Knotted and bulbous forms in purple and white are squeezed into a single whole, invitingly malleable and yet cold to the touch.
British sculptor Holly Hendry takes a different approach, focusing on the body itself even as she breaks it down to the subtlest suggestions of its parts. Ears and feet coloured pale peach and lime nestle alongside internal organs; made from plaster, jesmonite, marble, aluminium, ash and stainless steel, Hendry makes surprising pairings of soft and hard with the various limbs and organs. The work, made this year, is titled Just Offal. A similar contrast is playfully taken up to great effect by Nevine Mahmoud (the cover artist for Elephant’s new Spring 2018 issue), whose Wet Curve sculpture carved from orange calcite vividly evokes a just-cut slice of peach. Moisture droplets made of glass ooze across its surface, juicy and tender. It would certainly not be advisable to take a bite, but it is oh-so tempting.
“To hold or cradle in one’s arms is to comfort, to offer compassion through the simplest and most immediate of gestures. A hug is entirely human.”
All of the works in the show invite engagement, creating a push and pull tension between the almost-childish impulse to touch and the––at times––very real danger of doing so. On first look they are good enough to touch or taste, an illusion that requires closer inspection to dissolve. Austrian artist Sarah Pichlkostner’s work combines gravel and cut glass, and yet I wish I could run my fingers through it. While alluringly tactile, there is an edge to these sculptures that cannot be ignored.
Many look as if they are paused in motion, suspended in space and frozen under my gaze. Kathleen Ryan’s bowling balls are raised above the ground, linked together in a multicoloured chain, their lumbering weight momentarily lifted. There is something sinister about them, as if I am suddenly privy to a violation of nature. Upstairs, blue resin trickles of water form droplets that will never fall in Anne Libby’s Retroreflector.
It is to these artists’ testament––and that of the gallery––that the all-female representation of the show is not once mentioned throughout. These women share much more than just their gender, and their collective concern with the uncanny properties of materials makes an exhibition that confounds expectation and insists upon a double-take.