‘The minutes went by on tip toe, with their fingers to their lips’. 1
In ‘May’, a solo exhibition at Marlborough Contemporary, artist Laurence Kavanagh sets about elucidating whisper-thin clues amongst discreet scenes of noirish violence.
If Raymond Chandler had cast Philip Marlowe as a belt-and-braces graphic-designer in the 1980s, he might have presided over an equally fastidious plot of careful craft and incident. There’s something of Neville Brody’s 80s magazine and record sleeve innovations in Kavanagh’s oeuvre, a liturgy of adroit, swinging scalpel dissections and old-school cut and pastes, an operating theatre of the cutting mat. You are reminded of those vast, news headline aircraft hangers where diffuse elements of a fragmented fuselage are being brought together and labeled – so many pieces of an unfathomable philosophical jigsaw designed with key pieces missing. As a curtain’s folds coolly implicate the scene beyond it, the immediacy of a thousand startled edges torn from a shattered glass simultaneously hustle for Kavanagh’s spotlight.
Besides a raw sliver of egg-yolk yellow in April (Segue) (2014) the show steps sparingly back and forth between red, black, white and a grainy penumbra of greys. The colours seem utilitarian rather than decorative – laboring to espouse a sharp functionality rather than a whimsical excess of atmosphere and poetry. For all their untainted primary acidity, the ensemble seem to be spot-lit by a shadow.
“Kavanagh sets about elucidating whisper-thin clues amongst discreet scenes of noirish violence”
In May (Drinking glass. Fire) (2013) the bones of a broken glass frame crisp paper flames rising from glassy, cellular ashes that appear to be more an expression of shattered logic than a mere drinking vessel. May (Reverses Nature) (2014) sees a coffee-table earthquake drag the epicenter of ambiguous fault-lines into a domestically scaled tangle of broken mirrors and splintered picture frames.
Throughout the series of sculptures, prints and collages there is an intensive sense of something being labored over. The works’ execution communicates an archivist’s appetite for listing minutiae, aligned to a cubist’s feel for space in the startling sense that we are experiencing every aspect of a moment from every angle simultaneously. Whilst this theme of perception has being broadly combed over from drug literature to cognitive theory, in Kavanagh’s hands it feels like the perambulations of a detective. I suspect many artists have enjoyed the satisfying parallels between art’s directive for greater attentiveness, and a well-written crime-novel’s expression of these qualities manifested in an eloquent sleuth. Art’s magnifying glass on signifiers swapped for a well-constructed clue.
This forensic precision is formally immersive and creates absorbing layers on close inspection. Origami-like twists of paper, sculptural in their subtle dimensionality, are actually composed of small photographs of folded pieces of paper. They map out a gathering sense that you are a witness, but to what? Whilst the exaggerated geometry of these discarded scraps recalls Martin Boyce’s scattered paper leaves and metallic trees, Kavanagh’s coordinates feel less an exploration of the relationship between nature and modernism, than symptoms of a hemorrhaging modernist logic.
May (A…), (2014) is a particularly satisfying combination of Kavanaghs method and perspective. His hard-edged slicing takes on a balletic poise as it opens spaces in the overlapping lineaments of a teetering chair, its card legs lulled towards the papery carcass of a fire that rests on large grainy prints that envelope the piece in white-noise. Both slapstick and clinical, its shows Kavanagh’s distinct feel for materiality and eye for psychological drama.
Kavanagh’s relentless angularity connects to some extent with the geometric style of vorticism, and in its tendency towards abstract spaces the opening up of emotional qualities within a mechanical logic. Indeed there is a strong emotive quality to ‘May’. These film set moments read as plot devices imbued with tensions between invisible characters. How many times have we seen cinematic anger, frustration, or desperation expressed as a glass hurled at a wall, or a crumbling psyche portrayed by a broken mirror? Like a lot of self-consciously postmodern art concerned with the limits of modernist art-sleuthing, Kavanagh tempts you to forage and speculate amongst the broken forms, and his frayed, dripping and irregular undersides and edges further crack the illusion of seamlessness engendered by their top-heavy refinement.
Since the break up of the great modernist continents artists have felt compelled not to disregard anything, and shy of exclusivity to remain poised, adrift of a central narrative or unifying perspective, catching potential as it arises. Again I am reminded of Marlowe – his evenness in the face of clues, ignoring their apparent tendency towards lucidity or collective meaning until they have a collective meaning. In a moment of crystalized, vacuum-packed neutrality we find Marlowe, in repose at his desk:
‘I put the duster away folded with the dust in it, leaned back and just sat, not smoking, not even thinking. I was a blank man. I had no face, no meaning, no personality, hardly a name. I didn’t want to eat. I didn’t even want a drink. I was the page from yesterday’s calendar crumpled at the bottom of the waste basket’. 2
Kavanagh like Chandler has a deft ability to slow time down in relationship to attentiveness, launching in this stillness a moment, a signifier, a clue onto the expectant stage of absence. The measurement of time implied by the exhibition’s title and developed in pieces such as May (Calendar) (2014), unifies the works in ‘May’. Has the glass just shattered or is its form being reconstructed? Are we moving forward or back in time? Time itself seems to be the real ‘McGuffin’ – the object or device that drives the narrative but that has questionable significance in of itself – in Kavanagh’s work. His reference to ‘McGuffins’, together with his tautological repetition of elements, could leave a viewer with a sense that for all his attention to detail we are left grasping at thin air. Yes, the air is definitely thinner in ‘May’, but grasping at this collection of deceptively poker-faced, time-bending objects is wholly immersive. In a show whose hues bring an oddly retrospective quality, Kavanagh brings out the detective in you.
1. Raymond Chandler, Lady in The Lake (Penguin, 2010)
2. Raymond Chandler, The Little Sister (Penguin, 2010)
Laurence Kavanagh, ‘May’ Marlborough Contemporary, London. 7/5 – 20/6/14 http://marlboroughcontemporary.com/exhibitions/may/?type=past http://marlboroughcontemporary.com/artists/laurence-kavanagh/ https://www.facebook.com/ThePageArtReviews