Saturday, 23 April 2016

Scissors, paper & glue!

Teachers on a limited materials budget throughout the land rejoice as the variety of things you can do with a sheet of cardboard and bottle of PVA is demonstrated with staggering, inventive aplomb in Michael Beutler's 'Pump House' on show now at Spike Island!

Michael Beutler 'Haus Beutler' (2014/16) Mixed media.
Industrial alongside low budget materials such as paper, string, sticky-tape, cloth, timber and yes, copious amounts of PVA glue are used by Beutler and his team to create large-scale, ambitious and immersive spaces. For his first solo exhibition in a gallery in the UK the German born artist tailors his work to fit the former Tea Factory space that is now Spike Island; here cardboard is rolled, scrunched, wrapped and overlapped to create walls, panels, lights and free-standing architectural forms or prototypes. The resulting work is temporary and bordering between the precarious and surprisingly robust as the limits to how these common-place materials can be recycled and manipulated is inventively explored. Its professional amateurism let loose, in what is the first of what I anticipate to be many more oxymoron’s used to describe what Beutler has achieved in bringing Pump House to Bristol's Spike Island. 

 'Tea Factory' (2016) Card, dye, rope, metal pipes, pulleys.
Cardboard painted tubes in one area of the gallery, titled ‘Tea Factory’ are one example of how play and low-tech experimentation with paper to create structure and form can become vastly transformed when the boundaries of scale and volume are pushed; the throw-away nature of these materials now becomes more sculptural, more weighty and architectural. Are they arches, bridges or Christmas crackers, I'm contentedly uncertain...Walls within ‘Haus Beutler’ (2014/16) become abstract, patch-work quilt like collages, blurring the distinction between abstract surface and structure. All of it is a form of serious or extreme play. I.e. If you could take a humble rag rug or toilet-roll archway/bridge and make another one on a grand scale then it adopts a new sense of purposefulness, celebration of the material properties the materials contain. For example cloth is malleable, can be stained, stretched, scrunched, compacted; it has a tension to it, all of which are properties that in Pump House are adopted into large scale building techniques (the cloth becomes bricks for building).  
It is always refreshing to see art that is fun and walking in and around Pump House feels like being a participant more than a spectator to the work; watching other people inhabit these unusual paper-lined walls feels like being in the art work. As previously alluded to I also like the contradiction of everything in the spaces looking very hand-made and unpolished yet being aware through watching the video pieces (dotted throughout the installation) that it has actually taken a huge amount of team work/effort to create all the stuff in it. It’s a testament to making and the construction and attributes that come with a creative process.
'Haus Beutler' (2014/16) Mixed media. (detail)
I promised myself I wouldn’t write about comparing the work to Phyllida Barlow here; I will not compare Michael Beutler to Phyllida Barlow. I will not compare Michael Beutler to Phyllida Barlow. I will not compare Michael Beutler to Phyllida Barlow....But, I think it is almost impossible not to see similarities between the two artist’s works!!! I’m sorry. Originality being only undetected plagiarism aside, both artists use low-grade materials to create abstract, often unstable looking forms that can be walked in or around by their audience. I think the crucial differences between the two being that Barlow is more of a painter and Beutler is much more context and process driven; the materials often coming from off the site they are built in and thus transformed back into their original environments in an altered state; the central piece in the exhibition alluding to Spike Island’s original use as a tea factory also echoed in the use of tea-bag bricks throughout. The processes of how the components in his installations are made is also often more ingenious than the result and within Pump House a variety of Heath Robinson style contraptions which have been designed to mass-produce walls of wavy, shiney corrugated card are displayed alongside the resulting constructions themselves (and believe me they are quite wacky, but they do the job they were designed for!). I think Beutler wants the audience to know how it’s made and part of the creative challenge is him devising these contraptions made from bits of wood and sticky-tape that enable him to quickly produce larger volumes of surfaces and components to build with.
Humour aside, I was in no way demeaning this exhibition when I called it ‘professional amateurism’ because that is exactly what it is, taking low-tech, low material and transforming it into something new, arguably extraordinary,  which retains the look of a DIY mentality. On a smaller scale these things could be classed as amateur but the installation here is so complex in its variety and volume that it must take a team of organising, planning and professionalism in order to pull it off. It reminds me also of Spartacus Chetwynd, a Turner Prize nominee whose work also sought to challenge the definition of ‘amateur’ within art and critique it as a pure, unpretentious form of creativity rather than as a negative; the perceived ‘lack of skill’ in a work of art is a kind of skill in itself. Beutler’s installation shares some of those ideas I think and possibly may make people consider how we define ‘skill’ and what expectations that creates in terms of how we perceive skill and production within art.
Michael Beutler’s ‘Pump House’ is on at Spike Island Bristol until June 19th 2016

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