Modern Art Oxford presents the elder statesman of counterculture, Stuart Brisley in ‘State Of Denmark’; the title is a reference to Shakespeare’s Hamlet as Marcellus exclaims to Horatio: ‘Something is rotten in the state of Denmark’. This is the artist’s response to British institutions; a challenge to their decline via secrecy, decadence, and irrelevancy. Brisley is considered a seminal British performance artist; known for undergoing works requiring great endurance – the mainstay of the artist’s practise, along with painting, sculpture, and video – is the artist expressing an ‘Acconci-esque’ relationship to his body as a site for artistic expression.
Brisley’s practise spans six decades – including his rigorous performances and the extreme use of his own body – occurring even now in his latter years. This survey of the artist’s work reveals a distinct formalism more reminiscent of minimalism. Brisley responds very directly to the environment; whether actual, socio-cultural, or political; not just with a ‘truth to materials’ but perhaps even a ‘mundanity of materials’. With Brisley everything is context. In the Upper Gallery of Modern Art Oxford the artist presents a prime example of this ‘mundanity of materials’ with the work ‘Hille Fellowship’ 2012, a sculpture of interlocking chair frames forming a perfect circle.
The work is a response to working at the Hille Furniture Factory in Suffolk; where the artist’s attempted in typical Beuysian fashion to create a greater communication between workers and managers through a series of actions. Not quite ‘Energy Plan For The Western Man’; but more like ‘union plan for the working man’.
The sculpture is of a similar nature to Brisley’s work ‘Poly Wheel’ – a tall circular construction of 212 metal stacking chairs, instigated but not created directly by the artist, but instead built by workers during their breaks at the Hille furniture factory, where the artist had been invited to undertake a fellowship in 1970. The factory workers adopted the self-supporting structure as a corporate symbol of unity; yet the process of its creation brought out divisions between shop-floor and management. With this the artist highlights antagonisms of class, and political structures within the factory. This is a recurrent theme that Brisley manifests through image, action, and gruelling performance.
The artist’s formalism is contextualised; the ‘mundanity’ lies in a direct source to action or performance. Author Richard Gott referenced Brisley’s anti-establishment stance; in fact the artist created his own ‘anti-institute’ with ‘The Museum of Ordure’; only existing as a theoretical, fictional entity; founded on scatological imagery.
This imagery Brisley repeats in a series of paintings in Modern Art Oxford’s Piper Gallery, works reflecting other forms of waste material. The paintings have a kind of pseudo-photo-realism reminiscent of Malcolm Morley’s ‘Super-realism’ – Like Morley there is a subtle yet conscious energy to the artist’s use of paint. The works bear a temporal relationship to proceedings occurring around the artist, taken from photographs of Brisley’s performance and installation ‘Next Door (The Missing Subject)’ 2010, created in the days that followed an inconclusive election; as the artist resided in a derelict failed business.
Brisley takes intentional lateral steps; often focusing on the physical results of a socio-political infrastructure that he finds wanting. The waste is reflective of a failed political system. A system teetering on the brink of ruin; in the heaped detritus of a personal devolution – works strangely reminiscent of Delacroix and Géricault. The objects tumble – a failed still-life with political roots.
The multifaceted artist began as a painter in the 60s; but soon moved into a politicised performance via installation – and has maintained the practice of all these mediums for 50 years. Brisley’s aforementioned institution; ‘The Museum Of Ordure’ questions ‘The waste of human resources through various ownership, production, and management regimes’.
Brisley questions the intrinsically worthless nature of the object in society; and paradoxically within the space of the ‘white cube’ itself; this is in fact another reason for the artist’s ‘mundanity of materials’ – only necessity instigates the existence of object, film, or performance, the works are stripped back, and laid bare. The artist’s formalism has a singular and sparse nature that some viewers may find wanting – even the walls of Modern Art Oxford are stripped of paint; the institution left in an intentional state of undress.
Stuart Brisley – State Of Denmark – Modern Art Oxford – until 16 November
Words: Paul Black © Artlyst 2014 Photos Courtesy of Artlyst all rights reserved