(selected by Michael Stanley)
Periodic Table (detail), 2004
Sport is a good starting point for discussing Keith Wilson’s work. His sculptures are often created with a particular internal logic that one may associate with ‘rules of the game’, informed as much by subjective feelings as by formal or aesthetic concerns. One of his early works, ‘Football in Railings’ (1997), is exactly that, a deflated child’s football, with black and white hexagonals sandwiched between a section of iron railing. A case of incident or accident, the resulting narrative typifies the artist’s deftness of touch, subtle humour and ongoing intent in enjoying the impact when such stuff called art collides with the stuff of everyday life.
Sport provides another anchor for discussing Wilson’s recent sculptural projects, in the contingent relationship between spectator and performer. In the galvanised series of works which have occupied the artist’s recent practice, Wilson begins to acknowledge the body as part of the power relations that make up these day-to-day interactions. The genesis of this series is a work from 1999 entitled ‘Leaning Rail’. It took the form of a white, toughened plastic rail that one might find at a racecourse, positioned on the common in Bournville, Birmingham, as part of the exhibition In The Midst of Things (1999)1. The work had a practical function of supporting the body, a social function as a place to meet, and formally its presence drew a minimal sculptural line in the natural environment.
Indeed Wilson’s work often attempts to salvage from the muddiness of everyday urban life the clarity of minimalist form. More recently the metric cube – that icon of the minimalist canon – is irreverently re-named a ‘breakfast bar’ as utility has art theory ‘for breakfast’. The breakfast bars are not the finely engineered aluminium constructions that we may equate with 1960s minimalist sculpture, but the slightly dishevelled cousins brought in from the country, playing the part but distinctly uncomfortable in the role. Like most of this series of work they have been fabricated by a farming company that makes them the more likely candidate for an ‘off-the-peg’ solution – a readymade in line with Wilson’s often hands-off approach to his making.
Wilson is acutely aware of the sculptural tradition within which he operates, and language is often the vehicle that connects him to the potency of an art historical past: ‘Leaning Rail’ – Tilted Arc.2 The reference to Serra's seminal public art intervention isn’t simply a flippant exercise of irony or parody, but an intelligent punning that furthers the artist’s shaping of both material and meaning.
In ‘Periodic Table’ (2005), now on permanent display at the Wellcome Collection, London, a number of these ideas coalesce; the found structure, the underpinning knowledge system, the studio work, the formal reference to an historical sculptural practice, the bodily engagement of the viewer. In appropriating the format of the periodic table, he playfully subverts the very scientific structure that orders the matter, the material, the stuff that daily passes through the artist’s hand in his studio practice.
Michael Stanley (May 2009)
1. In The Midst of Things, Bournville, Birmingham, 1999
2. Richard Serra, ‘Tilted Arc’, 1981, Federal Plaza, New York City (destroyed)
The pieces I have included here evidence my ongoing enquiry into the social determination of our responses to notionally ‘mute’ objects. I am interested in the distinctive capacity that objects have for possessing both a stable core meaning and a multiplicity of more contingent meanings that come and go according to context.
If we take ‘Periodic Table’, for example, the work manifests a confidence in the imaginative discoveries to be made in accident and interconnectedness. But while in one context it seems to echo the gridded masterplan of Milton Keynes, in another it seems to be entangled in a dubious practice of collecting. Or again in the context of my ongoing studio work, it completes a series of pieces intended to subvert received systems of ordering. Preceding works addressed the number system (Vertical Hopscotch) and the alphabet (Z is for Ziggurat), and together these works make explicit an ongoing enquiry into the limits of what we can ask an object to signify.
The ‘stele’ works begin with simple metal bars, which are forged and rolled. These two very basic processes, the hitting and the rolling, each apply pressure to the bar of hot steel, producing an asymmetrical squeeze, as well as extruded ‘ears’ at the top, where the original bar corners were. It was this collision of the organic with the man-made which initially reminded me of calligraphic standing stones - hence ‘stele’.
Whereas historically steles were made by carving a flat face across a rock, the bulge produced in this simplest of forging processes produces a similar meeting of face and edge. These forged works are then re-made in giant form with a PU elastomer coating which gives them an equivalent surface, but with its own integrity. The literal squeeze is reintroduced in the larger versions with a bevelled zotefoam edge, the overspilling sandwich filling between two plate steel faces. The elastomer coating is flexible enough for this squeeze to still be in evidence in the final work, an intimate and surprising point of contact for anyone brave enough to touch. There is a nice reversal of the normal hierarchical relation between macquette and final work here – the smaller version in this instance being the classically ‘truer’ one – the ‘original’.
The finished forms are high visibility objects, densely pigmented, almost saturated with colour. This use of vibrant colour serves to draw you to something that begs to be given a name - even the pronunciation of stele is up for grabs - creating the need for a nickname. But the work is also clearly in conversation with New Generation sculptors of the sixties, especially with the painted steel works that appeared to promise to be forever freshly painted, forever new. The twist here is that through time, these stele works will lose their gloss, the pigment will fade and the surface will pit – it will be as if they gradually turn to stone.
They are standing stones with no announcement, with no instructional message or commemorative edict. They display a certain interpretative flexibility—what you might think of as their ‘context absorbency’. At the same time, their overblown character lends them a playfulness, and makes for an element of self-mockery that I hope humanises them. The steles strike an ambiguous attitude, at once sublime and ridiculous, serious and self-mocking.
Keith Wilson (October 2009)
Keith Wilson (born Birmingham, 1965) studied at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art, Oxford (BFA, 1985-88) followed by an MA at the Slade School of Art, London from 1988-90.
Recent solo exhibitions include What is Industry? Strategic Questions, Eastside Projects, Birmingham (2009), Old Work, Outpost Gallery, Norwich; Boat Race, Snape Maltings, Aldeburgh (2008), The Gallery Socks, Matthew Bown Gallery, London; Zone 1, Hammersmith Station, London; Periodic Table, Wellcome Collection, London (2007), Double-Blind S-Bend, Economist Plaza, London (2005), Galvanised, Milton Keynes Gallery (2004).
Selected group exhibitions include Deceitful Moon, Hayward Project Space, London (2009), Gallery Jade, Diana Stigter Gallery, Amsterdam; For the First and the Second Time, CAC, Vilnius (2008), Keith Wilson, Richard Woods, P3, London; Memorial to the Iraq War, ICA, London; Over Under, Jubilee Park, Canary Wharf (2007), The Space Between, Galerie Alexandra Saheb, Berlin; Charles Avery, Keith Wilson, Alexandre Pollazzon, London; Incidents, Matthew Bown Gallery, London; 60th Anniversary Show, Gimpel Fils, London; Painted Sculpture, Roche Court, Salisbury (2006).
Keith Wilson's work is featured in various public and private collections including the Arts Council Collection, the Saatchi Collection, Leeds Museums and Galleries, and the Wellcome Collection. He lives and works in London.