Review: Members’ Show (Outpost, Norwich) Art Monthly #363, February 2013

A sense of resourcefulness pervaded Ruth Ewan’s strong selection for the annual Outpost Members’ Show, from the formal economy of the readymade to work which circled source and resource at a political level. Moving image featured heavily,  and both Stella Ouzounidou and Scott Massey addressed the market and the flow of capital via performative video works. Where Ouzounidou’s When Players Get Played, 2012, was frustrated by a reluctance to further examine the sense of determinism it located, Massey’s One Thousand Four Hundred and Ninety Two Fifty Two, 2011, was rewarding, conflating high and low strategies to erode definitions of transaction, customer and value by requesting of a bank teller that the artist should be allowed to clear his overdraft simply by speaking the sum owed. Perverse and pedantic, Massey’s dogged insistence plays to the insecurity of the institution: that the game it oversees works only with an acceptance of abstract parameters such as value and property. Here, humour is, as elsewhere in this exhibition, a strategy by which power may be
unravelled — or at least troubled.

Tom Smith’s xoFyrutneCht02, 2011, reverses in title and form the ubiquitous 20th Century Fox ‘plinth’ motif which prefaces many feature films, travelling around and behind the seemingly solid Art Deco edifice to reveal a sham construction not unlike a film set itself. Smith neatly repurposes the form of the device to reference both the fiction of the material it peddles and the vacuity, or at least the malleability of much of that fiction by the market that orders it.

This was certainly a message borne out in the ‘performative lecture’ delivered by Smith in a double-handed event with Laura Wilson. Clothed innocuously in blokey pub-discussion vestments, what began as a nerd’s thesis about Star Wars and Star Trek chapters, ‘reboots’ and re-edits became a treatise on the idea of the version itself and the forces – again, those of the market – behind it. Although it traded at some points in hyperbole and felt as though it had not fully excavated its subject, Smith’s talk was effective and managed to create a useful reciprocal relationship with his video piece. (Oliver Laric’s Versions series, 2010- visits the same territory and is impeccably well-researched, yet there is a strength to the conversational tone of Smith’s work which could be developed further to its benefit.)

The status of both talks as performance was somewhat tenuous and, in any case, Wilson’s lecture about bricks was, although earnest, an altogether more perfunctory affair. Where an economy of means prevailed, though, and proved such endeavour a means by which to transcend the material, was in the objets trouvés of Simon Liddiment’s Cultural Worker, 2011, and Andy Parker’s Renz, 2004, and Execration, 2011.

Printed on thin stock and pasted, not entirely carefully, onto the gallery wall, Liddiment’s minimal poster-collage of a beer bottle’s labels and top wrests a remarkably rich dialogue around resource and resources from so hermetic a source. Referencing commerce and the commercial (and by association product and productivity) in both form – endlessly reproducible, instrumental, throwaway – and content, playing with the facility of commodification and troubling the unique status of the art object, it summons a wry humour from its transformation to a figurative form.

Though by contrast a one-off, Parker’s drypoint etching of a vandalised train window, Renz, works with a similarly mute source, distilling a graphic purity from the author’s angular abrasions. With its letters reversed and blackened, a meaningless graffiti tag becomes inscrutable, alien, totemic even: the apocryphal word of an unknown prophet. And in an ouroboric turn, the surface of the paper is striated with embossed, inkless veins, an index of the glass cracking under the pressure of the printing process, the copy consuming the original and assuming its place. Part of a wider series, the windows and mirrors summon a sense of fragile permanence from a collection of unremarkable instances, a palimpsest of all those who have made marks.

Both Parker and Liddiment’s works manage to estrange the objects they find, displacing and altering meaning, and this emerged as a theme common to much in the exhibition, whether in the explicitly performative strategies of Massey, who explodes contingent concepts, or Candice Jacobs, whose playful yet rather quotidian audio piece Thank-You, 2008, edits out context to procure a stream of thanks. Will Cruickshank’s chimera broom-cum-whistle, Whistle, and Mark Essen’s Heritage Rave, both 2012, which recuperated the smiley face of rave culture for a homey, cottage-ceramics industry, both trade in a sense of awkwardness and the out-of-place. Likewise, Johann Arens’s seductive found and mediated pinboards in Core Learning, 2012, de-contextualised and then re-contextualised the educational ephemera they framed alongside faded voids reminiscent of Sara MacKillop’s sun-bleached paper pieces or Ciara Phillips’s bulletin boards. The portentous, dislocated, but consciously edited scraps of information the boards offer also propose a puzzle of sorts, around provenance and authorship, certainly, but also around meaning, in much the same way as a cut-up or a treated text.

The exhibition’s sculptural and performative core benefitted from the contrast offered by Terence McCormack’s restrained yet confident series (A.T.C) Amateur Theatre in England & Wales, 2012, which despite mining territory already thoroughly worked, managed to weave a course between the more lurid, slapstick studies of Englishness of Martin Parr and the lyrical street photography of Tony Ray-Jones to acknowledge the ‘eccentricity’ that Parr et al celebrate without being ossified by it. Similarly, though it courted the formal survey it resisted exhuming untouched the typology-as-typology of the Bechers and the Düsseldorf School. The series unpicks some of the contradictions of the society it investigates, linking the unassuming vernacular forms of its subjects, the ‘little theatres’, and their members to a larger concern haunted, whether intended or inferred, by the taint of David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ on the voluntary and the amateur. Indeed, it is this in turn which implicates Outpost itself as an actor, too, on any stage which circles ideas of resource and labour: a bravura testament to collective labour in the face of scarcity. It is a commitment that the breadth of Ewan’s show serves only to amplify.