Sunday, 22 February 2015

The Day My Mother Touched Robert Ryman

Manchester’s Whitworth Gallery (UK) has been extended, buffed and recently reopened to a fanfare of audience-attracting publicity. And, to be fair, prior to its temporary closure for redevelopment, it’s had a decent run of shows.

The history of a city’s moments of significant application to this thing called ‘art’ is not however built on firework displays at the launch of gallery extensions but on an investment in an art practice which needles, resonates or questions its own function.

The splendidly hermetic exercise that is the gallery / project space / event ‘facilitator’ (delete as appropriate) ‘titledateduration’ continues its determination to head in the opposite direction of government funded institutions and promote work which refuses to be easily comprehensible. 

Currently on display at ‘titledateduration’ is Stefan Sulzer‘s film and book combination ‘The Day My Mother Touched Robert Ryman’. The touching in question being fingertips on a white canvas rather than Mr Ryman himself.

Sulzer recounts the possibly fictional story of a woman’s encounter with Robert Ryman’s work followed by the woman’s homeward bound reflection on the encounter, intercut with a secondary author-narrators speculations about Ryman’s work. Narrated through the text in a book and as a voiceover on a short film it builds its own complicated layering of surfaces remembered, surfaces implied and the digital ghosts of surfaces experienced.

In the digital projection a static camera has recorded the landscape moving past a train’s rain blotched window, twitchy sliding layers of visual information. The camera’s lens doesn’t appear too clean. There are gaps in the houses, cars and trees of the world passing by outside exposing a misty haze blurred horizon line of mountains. 

Impressively vast expanses of water suggest a wavering coastline but are probably the muted grey-green mass of the Hudson River, as referenced in the accompanying book and DVD’s documentary-style voice over.

The suspicion remains that the text has been edited from the film’s accompanying monologue. Alternatively the soundtrack could be an expanded version of the written piece. Or possibly neither. The voice transcribing writing into speech may be doing just that. 

What is certain is the eccentric spacing in the layout of the printed sentences: blank pages alternating with isolated sentences sandwiched between short paragraphs - basically a lot of white paper infected with language.

Ryman is understood to be an artist who operates a balancing act between the idea-based blankness of Conceptual Art and old school abstract monochrome painting by the simple act of painting white paintings; paintings with no reference point outside the fact of paint on a flat surface.  

In actual fact, Ryman plays with scale, the different material supports of the paintings and the variety of ways that a square can be attached to a wall. The seductive material complexity of Ryman’s practice is usually overlooked.

Central to the practice is an emphasis on the fact that displaying blankness isn’t a simple reductive repetition of sameness, it’s a battle with the impossibility of a blankness which can only be represented or re-presented by difference.

In Sulzer's work the various material supports of white paper, filmed glass, ill-defined horizon lines and the mental interiors of fictive narrations seem to suggest the impossibility of a pure visual experience of staged near blankness. 

The one thing required is the experience-event of a Ryman painting to wipe the slate clean and silence all this muttering. Which may be Sulzer’s point. Or maybe not. 

It really doesn’t matter. 

Any exhibition / show / presentation which leaves a visitor wrong-footed in such an insidious and polite way is an automatic success.