Ryan Gander occupies a place in British contemporary art somewhere between Mark Wallinger (who is more political), Grayson Perry (more political and more entertaining), and Jeremy Deller (more earnest). All of these artists are media-savvy, but Gander seems the most relaxed. We can see this in the videos that explain his work clearly and concisely scattered throughout the show.
He has no signature style — aside from it being beautifully realised —and some of his work is obscure while other pieces are more immediate and, at times, glib. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, though I could do without animatronic eyes that look back at me from the gallery wall.
To the casual viewer some of these works seem impenetrable, but rest assured, these works are all about something. This impenetrability is countered by his affability as the films in the show demonstrate. He’s happy to talk about his work with what seems to be disarming honesty. For me, it’s his work as a whole rather than specific pieces that probably asks the most interesting questions of the audience.
One large piece fills a gallery wall with different sized round glass sheets, each of which has a paint smeared on them. They’re messy and colourful (but the rhythmic display adds a measure of cleanliness to the work) and almost decorative. Each of these glass discs is, we’re told, a palette relating to a portrait of a person or group of people. These pictures have, apparently, been destroyed. If you want to wade through it, there is a sheet with all the (non)paintings’ details. It’s a strange work in that, if we believe him, Gander took time to make something that we can’t see and then displayed the paraphernalia relating to that work as the work. It seems at first like a one-line joke — something a lot of artists have fantasized about doing, but never have — but perhaps it is more profound. Do we believe the artist? Can we reconstruct the paintings in our head from the evidence of the palettes? Perhaps the palettes are portraits, too? This gap, between what is made/presented and our encounter with it is what I think he’s really interested in. My own taste (which is another issue) is for works that are complete, so I find this gap frustrating. I want the artist and especially the art work to stand up for something, but Gander’s work is too slippy for that. These palettes are visually pleasant enough, and they do force us to speculate on the look of the missing painting, but they never really escape their simple material quality.
Gander’s shifts between media and subject matter could be disorienting for someone seeing his work for the first time. It’s almost as if he’s made a one-man group show. It’s inevitable that this prolific approach – which is by no means arbitrary as he filters ideas over months and years until he’s happy with them – means that some pieces do hit home, compiling his ability to notice the poetic in everyday things and then hold interesting elements in tension. In this show it’s the three cast sculptures of dens made by his daughter. What were made as temporary structures in which to play and hide have become, through being transformed into marble, sepulchral and very permanent. There’s a profound melancholy about them, fixing as they do something improvised and youthful and turning it into something both literally and figuratively heavy.
If part of the point of his whole approach is to draw out a response from an audience then perhaps I should let the work percolate a little, which would mimic his studio process. Sometimes jokes can tell us profound truths, and when he gets it right the work can transcend the explanation that surrounds it, but at the moment I’m not captivated by the bulk of his work.
I will be returning to see this show as an OCA Study Visit and it would be great to mull over the issues with other artists. There’s something going on, I’m sure, but I can’t quite put my finger on it. Perhaps that’s the point. Join me on Saturday afternoon, the 13 September at Manchester Art Gallery.
Places are free to OCA students, to book yours email firstname.lastname@example.org