Bare night is best. Bare earth is best. Bare, bare,
Except for our own houses, huddled low
Beneath the arches and their spangled air,
Beneath the rhapsodies of fire and fire…
– Wallace Stevens, from Evening without Angels
First thoughts are usually infirm, without shape; stutters towards description, let alone prescription or meaning (if they are, or appear to be, bold, with all the heady courage of ignorance, they are all too often as the wind; a loud vacancy). Like the hesitancies navigated as one veers, totters, plunges into affection. Or its idea, its wish. Always a yearning before ever a holding.
So it is, and more so, when the sought cannot be held. Yes, the lover, but not the love. Yes, the artwork, but not the encounter. So, voyagers on the sea of unknowing, a search for anchors. Some words, some definitions; they might be rocks or quaysides. Without sailing, no idea which.
Here’s one: craft – suitably marine of course; and skill, and trade, and the grouping of both; and a fashioning by hand; and… skill in deception and trickery; guile, cunning… unexpected, that last. Let’s keep it in mind.
And here’s another: applied – related to, or put to practical use; from its verb; being relevant, useful, appropriate; referring; coming into contact with; and to devote (oneself, one’s efforts) with diligence…
Care and concern and sleight of hand…
The dig into the etymology of words is the sourcing of the matter by which to make meaning. Words exist because they need to. So it is with art, or anything worth the name. And naming itself is a craft, a vessel, a provisional vehicle which might at any point be overtaken by events, by larger forces or by redundancy.
A name is a gift, yes, a frame granting priority but also a constriction, an inevitable exclusion of so much that the name is not.
In this way language is both tentative product but more a permanent process; the naming inherent in language’s corral of meaning can only ever be temporary. Like a meeting that might be the first or the last, or only one of many. Like a journey in the process of an element through its varied embodiments of being; like space as it operates within time; or time as it blossoms in space, a scent whose flower is always other things.
In light of the digressions above, what is nevertheless most immediately affecting about the artists and installation of Formed thoughts is a quality of precision that generates a form of inevitability; its own. That is to say, the chance encoded in all of the making has determined its own willed outcome.
Think first of the works themselves, here recorded in only the briefest comments (to be expanded in the weeks to come). We enter off the street, Union Street, a sense of conjunction, of purposeful assembly. To do so, we pass the Headquarters of the London Fire Brigade (such juxtapositions matter). Primary energies.
In the milky nave of the entrance(d) gallery, a wall that could be fire-blackened. That could be evidence. That could prove that something happened here… and it is the after-effect. Like standing ash, like the turkey feathers of burnt wood so tightly packed they become a sheer, hanging night. The wall its own sky, its generative darkness. Surface, Tracey Rowledge’s directly rendered solid graphite drawing, is anything but. Its title is a zen provocation – this is gathered depth, presented as a curtain opening only on itself, and everything. Surface offers either the original dark, or the cancelling that comes after all has breathed out finally.
In this way, it has birthed or benefited from the Burn Burn Burn paintings of Glithero, suspended in the adjacent room, framed or looping in perpetual execution. Here, fire runs like a rumour that becomes fact. What’s first, the police or the riot; the riot or the police? The agency of a flame, undoing paint’s hope to mark as an accumulation of surface. Here the hot secret within matter – its red squirrel of energy running – scours into the wood the very opposite of the paint it has trailed to realise itself. Again we are presented with a tension between ‘skin’ and ‘flesh’ that amplifies the debate initiated within Surface.
In the final space, this dialectic collapses completely into the matter itself, which is by now (of) the world. The wrestle here is between clay as earth and clay as earth’s far dream, of its own self-reflexive expression as matter in flux, in the cycle of form and unforming that is the nature of nature. Yes, there is a refrain of Surface, in the issue of which it might make greater claim to, impulse or arrival, but the tone and malleable intent is very different. In Vanitas, Phoebe Cummings’ equally site-shaped installation, unfired clay posits landscapes, organisms, procedures and purposes that are beyond any singular proscribing, stirring clear of title or label into fecund, hybrid embrace of their own unravelling. The matter of clay is its thought, and similarly its process is its product, not as an idea, but again as matter. Just as Glithero’s burnt mandalas chase their own nascent erasure, and Surface’s veneer swallows the light necessary to register it, so Vanitas, startlingly distinct (in its mirrored entropic pride), declares its own disappearance as an active and imminent event in the room.
These words were written when the hours were late, or early (depending on where you were); with Beethoven loud, a peat whisky or two and the metronome breath of the child dream-sleeping in the next room; and all of it too far from the beloved. These the elements and the means of this assembly.
So we edge from first towards formed. We make and are made by making. Rain on the canal, and a single birch, a sapling, waiting, learning to become itself.