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The Wallace Collection in London, established in 1897, is a relatively unsung collection of 15th- to 19th-century European art and furniture in Hertford House. It preserves its appearance from its period use: a gallery stuffed with exceptional Old Masters through to French Romantic paintings, an impressive armory display, and various public and private rooms dripping in Rococo opulence — all of which make it hardly the hottest spot for art lovers of the cutting-edge variety. It’s unsurprising, then, that amid more standard “historical” exhibitions, it has embarked on contemporary shows to varying degrees of success, with the disastrous display of Damien Hirst’s paintings in 2009 an unfortunate blot on everyone’s memory. The institution’s latest stab at contemporary relevance comes in the form of British artist Tom Ellis’s site-specific commission The Middle, which presents a rigorously intellectual response to the permanent collection. The resulting exhibition is theoretically sound but less than visually grabbing.
Ellis’s practice makes him a natural choice for the commission: He is known for reimagining Old Masters in enlarged, wobbily rendered scale with cheeky, drawn-on spectacles or splashes through the eyes, as well as craftsmanship of furniture and functional sculptures. It’s immediately clear that his focus here is on the functionality of objects and furniture, combined with ideas of public versus private displays, and how, historically, this has evolved from 1897 to the white-cube galleries of today. As such, the Front State Room of the collection is emptied, with a large framework set within it upon which Ellis’s paintings can be moved around. These are different-hued versions of “The Shoemaker” by 17th-century painter David Teniers II, an artist whose work is also represented elsewhere in the Wallace Collection. This movable “scenery” obviously evokes the theater and the idea of how, like in today’s curated galleries, inhabitants of Hertford House could manipulate their surroundings for dramatic impact. As Ellis remarks, “a painting above a sofa is a very different proposition than a painting isolated on a gallery wall.”
Similarly, for the sculptures, Ellis draws on his skills as a craftsman to highlight the manual expertise and handmade elements behind the gilded, highly wrought decorative furniture in the permanent collection, which was once the height of fashion. The frames on which his paintings hang are left rough, semi-painted and unfinished, deliberately evoking “backstage” physical support. His sculptures, which he calls “furniture-hybrids,” also “deconstruct” functioning objects into composite parts, likewise exposing their structural support: A card table–like piece is turned askew and twisted out of its original shape, interplaying with exposed metal girders, not unlike Anthony Caro’s work.
Emphasizing the point is an additional room downstairs in which the walls are white cube–ified and populated by duplicates of the same objects — the enlarged paintings and furniture-hybrids — reiterating how informative context can be in changing artworks’ functionality and modes of presentation.
So far, so theoretical. For though Ellis’s point is well made and actually a very welcome study in art-historical presentation and purpose, my main issue is the resulting clinical feel of the exhibit. The Wallace Collection is defined by its richness, both in style and content (its famed gallery contains exceptional Bouchers, Fragonard, a ton of Canaletto, Van Dycks, Frans Hals… I could go on). It is curious, then, that Ellis chose to duplicate “The Shoemaker,” a painting not actually in the collection, in deliberately subdued, homogenized hues. Given also the excessive visual impact the period furniture commands, the hybrid-sculptures, though deliberately abstracted, lack dynamic impact: put simply, they are plain, so much so that there was one piece I didn’t realize was actually an invigilator’s chair. Apparently they are kinetic working sculptures, though with the best will in the world the average viewer would never know. In terms of deconstructing period furniture to examine functionality and display, to my mind, the adjacent room detailing methods of restoration and containing pieces in varying stages of finish actually achieves this aim far more effectively.
If this is an immersive display, as the Wallace states, it is no more immersive than walking into a normal gallery. I have no issue with the point being made, which is sound and well argued, but the exhibit’s detached intellectualizing of the Wallace’s contents and history unfortunately leaves the soul unstirred. This commission is the result of four years’ work in response to the Wallace’s collections, so it pains me to say that more could have been done with it.
The Middle continues at Hertford House (Manchester Square, Marylebone, London) through November 27.