Wednesday, 15 February 2012

REVIEW: Brian Griffiths, The Invisible Show

Published: ART REVIEW, 15th February 2012

Contrary to the suggestion of its title, the work in Brian Griffiths’s new exhibition at Vilma Gold is far from undetectable to the human eye.

Filling the white-walled space are five large metal-framed cubes, each structure variably titled Small Invisible, Medium Invisible or Large Invisible (all works, 2012), draped in layered, sewn canvas: Frankenstein tents that reach up towards the relatively low ceiling and bulge across the gallery. Overbearing, they constrict and prescribe the visitor’s movement; and at 2m high, they also prevent the average spectator from seeing over them. Their forms create narrow corridors around the room, forcing the viewer to traverse the works up close. The metal frames are orange with rust, while the pieces of canvas are old and worn: mottled with bruiselike spots, sunbleached patches and faint paint specks.

There is something worryingly abject about their appearance. The cloth tones are fleshlike: pale pinks and a yellowish beige, while the heavy, flaccid folds of cloth at times hang like loose skin. Occasionally deep vermillion stitching scars the fabric like deep, raw wounds; roughly mended patches appear like plasters covering a sore.

This tactile, anthropomorphic quality calls to mind a moment in H.G. Wells’s The Invisible Man (1897), from which the show takes its title: the novel’s protagonist, Griffin, an invisible psychopath, is killed by an angry crowd. Dead, his body once more becomes visible, trampled, wounded and bruised for all to see. In a similar vein, the sculptures’ coarsely woven material evokes the bandages Griffin (Griffiths?) uses to hide his transparency.

Seen in another light, the damp and worn marks upon the canvas surfaces hint at a past of utility at odds with the sterile rooms of the gallery. These tents seem displaced, evocative of refugee camps and abandoned houses. Their presence is sinister. What is it, the viewer is forced to ask, that these large canvas cubes cover? Is it something too horrible for us to see?

Yet these large structures are also potentially exciting and playful, suggesting childhood dens made from sheets and a kitchen table. The smell of the thick canvas is nostalgic of wet camping holidays or intrepid sea journeys, experienced or imagined. The narrow corridors constrict, but also incite curiosity and adventure.

I found myself instinctively kneeling on the floor and peering eagerly between folds to get a glimpse inside. When I succeeded, I found an unexpected warm orange glow, the gallery spotlights penetrating the canvas cube structures. These initially ominous objects in the end offer a place of refuge, each tent a void and surface to be filled with fabrications and illusions.

The sculptures of The Invisible Show differ from what one might expect of Griffiths’s work. They are far more minimal and abstract than Griffiths’s previous work. His gigantic plaster panda head installed on a Gloucester Road Underground platform in London as part of the 2007 Life Is a Laugh installation, for example, or his early cardboard control-room installations, reminiscent of the slipshod aesthetic of the old Thunder Birds sets, or Beneath the Stride of Giants (2004), Griffiths’s large ship-like sculpture composed of bits of junk furniture.

Yet the underlying thread of play juxtaposed with trepidation present in all the above remains. These seemingly plain, slightly grotesque tents open up and take the visitor to a world of endless imaginative possibility, both of horror and delight.

Brian Griffiths: The Invisible Show is at Vilma Gold, London to 19 February

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