Review of Richard Wentworth exhibition at The Serpentine for The Burlington Magazine in March 1994. Gill Hedley is an independent curator, writer and consultant on contemporary visual arts. exhibition recent sculpture
The first showing of the exhibition of recent sculpture by Richard Wentworth at the Serpentine Gallery, London (it has subsequently been seen at the Arnolfini Gallery, Bristol and moves, in May, to s'Hertogenbosch) was heralded by a small shop-window display at the front of the gallery and the sculpture Meal on the lawn outside. The display had an out-of-season, seaside-town ring to it, containing random, everyday but intriguing little objects, some with French supermarket labels attached to them. Meal, a work first seen at the Gateshead Garden Festival (1990), is composed of large cast-metal plates, platters and trenchers which seem to push their way up from the earth. Rusted, they are the colour of rich soil and evoke a sense of active, rumbling urban archaeology.
The immediate appeal of Wentworth's work is its clarity. He puts together familiar objects and invites us to name the parts, recognising that we share his vocabulary. Tract (From boost to wham) is a characteristic wordplay object. Between the pages of a pocket dictionary Wentworth has interleaved the wrappers of the latest generation of chocolate bars: the contents of a pocket have been ordered and recorded. Weight and measure are also part of Wentworth's re-ordering of the world. In Season, a spray of dud lightbulbs (pearl and clear, with different wattages) spills over the tray of a weighing machine. The amount of lightness is registered at less than a kilo on this scale.
The South Gallery (the most awkward of the Serpentine's spaces) contained Mercalor in which corrugated iron sheets are bent and overlap to recall the orange-peel principle of Mercator's map projections. This method distorted global scale, especially towards the poles. In Wentworth's sculpture a sphere could not be constructed from the parts: it is not the entire world. The sections are punctuated by small representations of shelter and home which appear to be the balance and the point. Overhead, Walking stick was poised well out of reach under the roof, jauntily dangling from a glass shelf like a logo.
For the exhibition, Wentworth created an installation, Drift, expanding and developing ideas from his last exhibition (1989) at the Lisson Gallery. The viewer drifts between low mesh cages on the floor peering into them to see an assortment of unrelated objects. Mirrors and lenses of various sizes may connect but a tiny ladder and a bell are also oddly part of the drift. Some objects are tied to the mesh, others are loose. The viewer tries to sort and order, noting sizes of mirror and lens, looking at reflections like those in Dutch seventeenth-century paintings of interiors. One cage disrupts the order and rests on bricks, the colour of which balances the rich terracotta paint of the mirror backing within the cage.
In a Wentworth exhibition there is always a deal of checking up to do and visitors were examining Drift very closely. Meniscus also requires looking up: the word means crescent-shaped. The sculpture is an impractically tall pair of industrial shelving units, linked by a metal chain. Empty flowerpots are let into their lower shelves and, up high, is a range of wine bottles (all sizes and colours and empty, too). Some of the bottles bulge like giant costume jewellery through holes cut into the top shelf. Load is a similar unit with tightly-layered shelves that just avoid crushing the lightbulbs packed between them.
Balcone is the ultimate riposte to the banality of the executive-desk toy. A metal desk has a row of holes drilled along its back edge into which have been planted a selection of garden implements. Some tools have their handles to the sky, others to the ground. Like the challenge of the sword in the stone, it would be difficult to remove the rake from the desk. Lips and fingertips (for Simon Rodia) appeals, as the title might suggest, to the sense of touch and our need to vocalise a response. No-one wants to touch this piece for fear that it might crash, so the vocal response is usually a giggle of anxiety. The work, also pleasing to the eye, is made up from a range of ordinary, domestic china plates, white, cream, light buff, which slopes elegantly at a steep angle on overlapping glass shelves the length of the gallery at ceiling height. The occasional plate is balanced on a patch of glass like the finger on the front of a G-plan bookcase. The work is played in a minor sublime key, giving a frisson of worry, then of relief, that it all functions so cleverly and, more lastingly, rousing admiration for the witty bravado of the whole juggling feat.
Organised by the Serpentine Gallery, London, the exhibition moves to Het Kruithuis Municipal Museum for Contemporary Art, s-Hertogen-bosch, 22nd May to 3rd July, and the Musee des Beaux-Arts, Calais, between July and September. In association with the Serpentine Gallery, Thames and Hudson have published a book to coincide with the exhibition: text by Marina Warner, with 122 illustrations (48 in col.) of work from 1980 through to the present, £16.95 and £12 at the exhibition. ISBN 0-500-27743-5.