One of the perennial criticisms levelled at the white cube gallery is its dissociative relationship with the ‘real world’. By minimizing any unnecessary detail, removing distractions and presenting a blank environment, the gallery isolates the artwork from the very source it came from. While this often gives the viewer a purer appreciation of works, it can also have the effect of distorting or diminishing the artwork’s original intention. Mark Houghton’s practice subtly reintroduces the real world to this rarefied environment via the back door, declaring that ‘Nothing can exist in isolation’.
The back door Houghton uses to effect this reintroduction is the vast messiness of unsorted memories and associations carried around in the viewer’s head. As the practitioner, Houghton’s part of the deal is to create a resonant object or configuration of objects; as the viewer we are asked to bring to his work our own personal encyclopaedic records that might give it meaning or significance. Of course, this relationship forms the basis of reading of any and all artworks that offer an interpretation of the world; but the unnerving experience of meeting Houghton’s work seems somehow closer to reading an instruction manual in a foreign language, but with lovely diagrams.
Houghton’s practice is a prime example of that which confounds any attempt at a conscious, logical reading. It requires a lateral shift in thinking to be appreciated, which is often kick-started by a ‘key’ element in the work. The series ‘Where are we now’ (2008-ongoing) shows fragments of domestic interiors, just enough to get a sense of the room we are only partly being shown. A large part of the image has been cut away along a rather theatrical or comical zigzag edge. The remaining periphery now becomes significant, and is supported by a suitably theatrical coloured wooden framework structure. Even though we are presented with just a fragment, it is apparent that the images are the sort of bland showroom interiors found in shopping catalogues or Sunday supplements. It is up to us how we complete this fragment: do we fill in the gaps? Do we make associations with rooms we once occupied ourselves? One thing is clear: Houghton has not provided a whole in composite parts. Finally, the merest shadow or disturbed bedlinen betrays the presence of a figure just outside the cut edge, and we find ourselves one step closer to Houghton’s understanding of our world.
‘Junkyard Brancussi’ (2008) also uses the language of bland or tacky interiors, this time appropriating a sculptural element: the shelf. The object is familiar but its journey to its current state is not quite identifiable – is it a spice rack reworked into a spire motif? Or more simply an up-ended bookshelf? The decorative scalloped edging and dark varnish is reminiscent of overly ornamented sitting rooms in guest houses or pensioners’ homes – but all of these readings make no sense of the abstract trapezoidal base made of sheet brass. The closest association is that of the kitsch chimney breasts of the 1970s, but while these were covered with panel-beaten dents, Houghton’s base has a flat reflective surface – perhaps in an attempt not to draw attention to itself (like a plinth), but failing. As with much of Houghton’s work the piece’s refusal to offer any definitive reading is like a half-welcomed liberation for both the work and viewer, an encounter from which we may come away from feeling none the wiser, while actually being anything but.
Chris Brown, March 2009