Review: Matt Calderwood / David Jablonowski

While I was in the UK in April, I visited some shows in the North of England. The physical and conceptual overlaps between these two exhibitions prompted an Art Papers extended review. The May/June issue of Art Papers focuses on space as context.


Matt Calderwood / David Jablonowski
BALTIC 39, Newcastle-Upon-Tyne / BALTIC, Gateshead, UK

The BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art (BALTIC) is a prominent, well-funded museum with international reach that has been host to both the British Art Show 6 and Turner Prize 2011 exhibitions. Visually dominating the formerly depressed south bank of the River Tyne in Gateshead, BALTIC is a celebrated regeneration project and major tourist attraction. In 2012, the institution opened BALTIC 39, a mixed-use space across the river on Newcastle-upon-Tyne’s hip, central High Bridge. A collaborative venture with nearby Northumbria University, BALTIC 39 incorporates classrooms, city council subsidized artist studios, a sponsored professorship (held by British conceptual artist Christine Borland), and a BALTIC-programmed, top-floor project space. The proximity and practices of the two BALTIC galleries both support and challenge each other.

BALTIC 39’s position within a merged educational and professional setting distinguishes it from local college galleries such as Newcastle University’s Hatton Gallery and low-rent studio-cum-exhibition venues such as the Biscuit Factory in Tyneside’s post-industrial Ouseburn Valley. Its combined energy fosters the best characteristics of a scholarly and more business-like environment, and as a meeting place of curatorial experimentation. In practice the BALTIC 39 project space has so far worked in two ways: as a supplementary gallery for BALTIC’s larger scale exhibitions and as a site for process-based works that aspire to the type of open-ended investigation that the context calls for.

Paper Over the Cracks [BALTIC 39; March 15–June 23, 2013] is the third exhibition to explore this emblematic vein and the first UK solo show for Northern Ireland-based artist Matt Calderwood (b. 1975), known for his performances, video, and sculpture works. Calderwood’s previous installations have included precariously balanced—yet controlled, static—structures. Paper Over the Cracks explores the implications of this formula’s breakdown by using similarly composed systems of objects. Six modular, isometrical sculptures made of untreated steel and rubber occupy the gallery’s screening room and the building’s exposed rooftop terrace. Throughout the exhibition we see Calderwood’s reconfigurations of his Exposure Sculptures (2013): their flypaper-covered blocks sag and rust outdoors, and then are changed indoors as he peels back the paper to reveal the structure’s eroded surfaces.

Because of its physical proximity to BALTIC and the precedent set by the deliberate conversation between the two galleries for Jim Shaw’s simultaneous exhibitions [The Rinse Cycle at BALTIC November 9, 2012–February 17, 2013; You think you own your stuff but your stuff owns you at BALTIC39 November 9, 2012–February 17 2013], Paper Over the Cracks and Tools and Orientations [BALTIC; February 1–June 2, 2013] by German artist David Jablonowski (b. 1982), who shares Calderwood’s physical and conceptual concern with systems and their transformation, concurrently enter into dialogue with one another. Calderwood and Jablonowski each present cohesive installations of sculptural, wall-based, and video works; thinking about them in parallel kindles a connection in the critical readings of both exhibitions.

The wall-based works in both exhibitions demand attention in their spatial and conceptual framing of each show. At BALTIC 39, Calderwood’s show features bold, monochromatic images on paper—printed using some of the exhibited modular blocks as rubber stamps—that depict orderly systems of linear shapes. Indexical (like photographs), they are ghosts of the sculptures’ smooth surfaces, which eventually erode during the exhibition and transition like the careful geometric compositions that Calderwood has rearranged from individually spaced objects into disorderly heaps in the gallery. In Jablonowski’s Volume (2012) three massive Styrofoam blocks that look like scaled-up biblical stones—or contemporary flat screen tablets—are arranged into a spiral path that leads around the exhibition. Along the perimeter of the BALTIC gallery there are fairly flat, wall-mounted assemblages of historically disparate communication materials and accessories: clay, wood, photographic film, printing plates, and acetate iPad screen protectors. Like Calderwood, Jablonowski has taken apart and reorganized the basic elements of a system, abstracting the works and giving them new meaning and perspective in situ.

BALTIC and BALTIC 39 provide different didactic materials for these exhibitions. There are no physical wall labels offering a description of Paper Over the Cracks; instead BALTIC 39’s website supplies a video in which the artist, filmed in his studio, talks informally about his work. In contrast, BALTIC’s Tools and Operations is equipped with wall labels, vinyl introductory text, and an informed gallery assistant, which help orient the viewer quite differently in each gallery. These differences extricate somewhat divergent readings of the two exhibitions. The overwhelming amount of information provided alongside Jablonowski’s show suggests that knowledge is key to appreciating his work. The artist’s choice to combine fragile, beautifully composed materials that elicit a sensual response yet deny inexpert interpretation suggests that his work engages in a power play: Without the right sort of knowledge, the seductive artwork remains mute and inaccessible. In contrast, Calderwood’s ostensibly destructive processes, his continual, hands-on redevelopment of the work feels intimate despite there being very little didactic material provided by the gallery. Calderwood’s interventions reveal a sense of productiveness in taking apart and manipulating something that has been painstakingly constructed. In staging a studio-like space—focused on process and therefore free from the fixed, textual descriptions (titles, dates) that accompany finished work—BALTIC 39 creates a more forgiving environment for thinking about the work on display.

Indeed, the critical exchanges in difference to the BALTIC and BALTIC 39 spaces lends to the institution’s position as a powerful regeneration project with aims to democratize contemporary art and might itself be an innovator in the subject of contemporary art museum and project spaces uniting under the same institution.