SOTTOBOSCO by Paul Carey-Kent

LAURA WHITE / MARK WRIGHT: SOTTOBOSCO

Commissioned by Vivienne Roberts Projects for the exhibition at The Bindery, 53 Hatton Garden, London EC1N 8HN
15 May – 20 June 2024

Mark Wright and Laura White have been partners in life for 25 years, but this is their first two person show together. To what extent are they also partners in art? On the face of it their work is very different, but the show’s title, ‘Sottobosco’ – Italian for ‘undergrowth’ – points to a shared love of nature. It also points to a shared engagement with art history, for ‘Sottobosco’ is a 17th century Dutch genre of painting which applies the still life approach to carefully arranged studies of natural forms, set out on the forest floor. Consistent with those commonalities, both might be described as non-representational nature artists: they evoke aspects of nature, but don’t depict it.

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Sculptor Laura White has worked with ceramics, dough, concrete, rubber and pasta, and has learned new skills as a means of increasing the range of body and hand movements in her muscle memory: she has attended professional courses in taxidermy, shoemaking, butchery, patisserie and chocolatiering as well as the more orthodox glass-blowing and ceramics. Here she brings those experiences to her interactions with silicone and ink. ‘It is important’, she says, ’to be led by my materials and to collaborate with them, rather than imposing myself on them’.

Just so, the Terminal Flare series, as the name suggests, allows silicone rubber to develop towards a conclusion. That is driven by how the material arrives with White: as small sachets of silicone rubber, which she shapes between her finger and her thumb, one at a time at the scale determined by the packet size. She builds those on top of each other, sticking each to the one below, to the point of collapse. White doesn’t then attempt a repair, but reinforces the result, to stabilise the collapsed form. The acceptance of the material extends to colour: this was a consignment of white silicone, so nothing extra is applied.  It’s actually an unusually bouncy material by sculptural standards – one use of silicone rubber is for super-bouncy balls – but few would guess that.  ‘I like it’, says White, ‘that people don’t really know what they’re looking at’.

The Terminal Flares turn out to be low-lying accretions, more fungal than arboreal, perhaps, whereas Pollute Volute: Adaptive 2 maximises the upward coiling to reach the height of a small tree, encoding the stretch of White’s fully extended body as well as her coil-making hands. It was supported in the making by tying rope around it: that was removed at the last stage, leaving its impressions as textural evidence.

If those are ‘action sculptures’, then Disobedient Bodies: Wall piece No 4 might look like a set of paintings. White doesn’t see it that way: rather, it’s another result of materials being put into play with sculptural intent. White drops ink onto plasticised paper, which doesn’t absorb it but causes it to spread as it will. She tips the paper to influence the flow to some extent, and adds alcohol: that spreads, too, and dilutes some of the colour – again, unpredictably. ‘It’s frustrating to be out of control’, says White, ‘but that’s what makes it exciting!’ The results pick up on our instinct for reading figures, animals and vegetation into abstract shapes. White’s main act of deliberation is in how the results are presented. There are eight works here, each cut in two, each half then paired with half of a different work. That introduces two new dynamics: how the newly-paired couples relate to each other, and how the former couples call to each other across the whole installation.

Perhaps we can read that as evoking social interactions. That would be to place the human – correctly, after all – as part of the natural, not in control of a separate natural world. And, like the silicone works, what we see emerges rather like such natural process as how a tree grows and adapts to its conditions. That can be somewhat baroque, and White embraces that – she loves, for example, the folds in Bernini’s drapery. Her work can also be related to craft making, environmental issues and sustainability. Primarily, though, White gives a voice to process and materiality as her subject, not just as a vehicle to other concerns.

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Where White likes to provoke accidents, Mark Wright is keen to control his paintings. He starts with photographic landscape sources, but combines several views together with his memories as he develops a response. That is fragmented to a degree that reads most readily as abstract. Wright sees Paul Gaugin as a background influence, explaining how ‘where Van Gogh painted a chair while looking at it, Gaugin went away and sought to paint its essence. I’m in the Gaugin camp, which led to symbolism, fauvism, abstraction…’  Wright’s compositions aren’t   designed in advance, but neither are they accidental: he says he is ‘very conscious of searching out the structure through the process of making’. The oil builds to a dense surface, in carefully deliberated palettes. Wright likes how different distances operate for the viewer: movement, vibration and colour impact from afar; the sheer range of mark making, strata, pentimenti, and colours – often several layers deep – take over up close.  50 layers might accrue over up to three years.

Not surprisingly, then, Wright talks of painting’s ability to incorporate and explore time: the time of making; how time and space relate in the painting; the time of the viewer. He mentions Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenological observation of the sensation of engaging with a painting; and cites the intensity of observation that Richard Wollheim found necessary as ‘it often took the first hour or so in front of a painting for stray associations or motivated misperceptions to settle down’ before ‘the picture could be relied upon to disclose itself as it was.’ That is more than one can practically expect in an age when the attentive norm is measured in seconds. Yet it is worth slowing down to distinguish the way art history – both its genres and its painters – can be traced in Wright’s apparently-abstract fields.

Take Glas. That suggests a watery source, replete with reflections. Monet may easily lie behind that. And where Glas shimmers with harmonious primaries, Learg has a queasier mix of colours that don’t sit easily with each other: that, together with its geological structuring, puts me in mind of rocky landscapes and of 1970’s John Hoyland.  The Park Studies and Borgese Gardens I indicate their source – gardens in Rome – but use different media to different ends. The studies might be read as open accumulations of water, grass, paths, walls and sky. Cezanne and Morandi are possible echoes, though Wright mentions that the palette comes from de Kooning’s painting of the same place. He is attracted to de Kooning’s explanation of how painting thrives on a certain type of instability: ‘When I’m slipping, I say, ‘Hey, this is interesting.’ It’s when I’m standing upright that bothers me… As a matter of fact, I’m really slipping most of the time. I’m like a slipping glimpser’. Borgese Gardens I is a watercolour, and trades in the use of the paper’s white to introduce light in a different way from oil paint. It’s readable as a woodland scene, rather than open parkland: Ivon Hitchens comes to mind as a comparable creator of bosky space. And the pastels, exploring ideas within a single day, do something else. Wright’s titles, by the way, can operate as a verbal echoes of the oscillation between representation and abstraction: likely to read as meaningless to most, they are actually descriptors that come into focus through a Gaelic-to-English dictionary: ‘glas’ is ‘unripe’; ‘linn’ is ‘era’; ‘learg’ is ‘hillside’.

That, then, suggests how Wright arrives at what he terms ‘metaphors for my experiences of being in locations’. The originating landscapes combine with the history of painters and their genres to constitute the subject of the work; and the different sources lead Wright into different abstracted languages in different paintings.

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In 1974 the philosopher Thomas Nagel published what has become a famous paper: ‘What Is It Like to Be a Bat?’ argued – in the context of questioning whether mental qualities could be reduced to the physical – not just that it is impossible for us to know what it is like to be a bat with its very different sense attributes, but that it is a matter of principle that we cannot know. Yet, even if we accept that Nagel is right, the question turns out to trigger speculations that are interesting in themselves. We can look at White and Wright as providing answers of a sort to two somewhat parallel questions.  What is it like to be – or, at least, to act as – a material such as silicone?  And what is it like to be – or, at least, to experience – a landscape?  Just as in the case of the bat’s inner world, we can hardly expect the questions to be ‘answered’ in the conventional sense, but it proves creatively stimulating to respond to them. That’s the deeper connection between them as artists: a shared way of seeking to show what lies behind our experiences of the natural world.

SOTTOBOSCO_Paul Carey-Kent