LONDON — How to convey the presence of absence? Or, more difficult, how to understand the feeling of having been erased? Such riddles are paramount to the Courtauld Gallery’s new student-curated exhibition There Not There, which joins together 12 contemporary artists who riff on the concept of “negative space” through a variety of spectacular visions.
Surprisingly, not all masters students in curatorial programs get to mount an art exhibition. But at the Courtauld Institute of Art (where I recently completed my own master’s degree in art history) the school’s gallery has offered MA Curating students the chance to populate one of its top-floor galleries while the building prepares for an ambitious multi-million dollar renovation in the coming months.
For the first time in the institution’s history, these young curators have collaborated together on an exhibition, drawing upon the Courtauld Gallery’s own collection and that of the Arts Council Collections. With unfettered access to these two impressive treasure troves, the curators have assembled a show that includes artists like Jasper Johns, Wolfgang Tillmans, Rachel Whiteread, Richard Long, and Andy Goldsworthy.
More interesting, though, is the handful of lesser-known artists in the exhibition. A particular standout is Karl Ohiri, a British-Nigerian artist who here showcases a variety of vandalized polaroids from his mother’s collections, called, “How to Mend a Broken Heart” (2013). Shortly after his parents’ divorce, Ohiri’s mother reportedly started to blot out the father’s image from family photos after escaping her abusive marriage. Looking carefully, you can still see some punctures in the images from a stabbing pen. Elsewhere, his mother has written above the father, “MONKEY” and “FALSE.” The viewer is left to wonder if these captions represent the despondency of a failed marriage or internalized racism, the likes of which only emerge from the deepest wells of rage.
Nearby, three selections from Peruvian-born artist Armando Andrade Tudela’s “Billboard” series (2003) stand as eery reminders of capitalism’s encroachment on the iconic Peruvian landscape. Still, there is also something very beautiful about these vacant signs. Created with what appear to be recycled materials, each billboard has an aesthetic uniformity, ebbing from one shade of green or red to another. The third billboard looks very little like a billboard at all — instead fashioning an outline of what appears to be a two-story house with simple beams.
There is a pervasive interest in documentary photography in the exhibition — a clear effort to make the rather ambiguous theme of absence more politically relevant to the viewer. For instance, Paul Seawright’s faux crime photography snapshots in his “Sectarian Murder” series (1988–91) juxtapose bright, colorful photography of Belfast with captions narrating the brutal acts of violence that once took place there. The disappearance of human life barely registers in the idyllic seascapes and playgrounds of Northern Ireland, making the ghostly presence of death all the more threatening.
Juxtaposed with such political work, I would argue that the bigger names in this exhibition fall short by comparison. Nearby is an early photograph by the conceptual artist Richard Long, called “A Line Made by Walking”(1967), which somewhat suits the aesthetic of Seawright’s work, but lacks the political impact to allow it to compete. (Naturally, Long’s work comes from a completely different artistic mode than Seawright’s, but what’s a wondering eye to do but compare?). The curators also placed four large Jasper Johns prints, “The Seasons” (1987), on the opposite side of the room. While the urge to show such an important artist is understandable, his work doesn’t jive well with his neighbors. You will have undoubtedly seen better Johns pieces before; these works merely check the boxes of absence, showcasing a clock here and a silhouette there. The historical relevance of Johns in the context of the other outstanding works in the show, however, is lacking.
Considering the exhibition’s political bent, it seems like a major oversight that only three out of 12 artists exhibited are women. Rachel Whiteread’s “Untitled (Blue)” (2008) is a solid inclusion. The artist, known for her ghostly forms of everyday objects, has a trio of spectral skyscrapers, balanced upon a bronze pedestal that’s painted and shaped to look like styrofoam. Nearby is Christine Hatt’s “There Not There” (1991), an ultra-minimalist work made with wax crayon and graphite that juxtaposes a white rectangle with a black rectangle. For viewers, this abstract lesson teaches the Manichaean ideal — good versus evil, light versus dark. Here, the curators want to expose the show’s inherently paradoxical thesis: sometimes absence is a presence in itself.
One wonders about the politics behind putting on such a show within such a prestigious gallery, and how the curators had to negotiate amongst themselves and the faculty. Johns not withstanding, there is a clear effort by the young curators to turn a broad, paradoxical idea of absence/presence into something politically relevant.
There Not There continues at the Courtauld Gallery (Somerset House, The Strand, London) through July 15.