Keir Leslie – 5 December, 2013
Sutherland's imagery is bluntly aware of its nature as an archaeological construct. The motifs are presented as processed by the technologies of printing that turn a hand-drawn scrawl of slip on a vase into a pattern of black and white on a page. This is particularly evident in the series of prints on the far wall, a succession of white-on-black line works captioned by a carefully mutating array of words, multiple/repeats/one/no cycling along the line.
An unbearded, athletic youth
23 November - 22 December 2013
The invocation of Greece in art is almost always a desperately loaded gesture, a summoning of the heights of the tradition, a tradition called into being by that gesture. It is often a politicised act, defining cultural boundaries and outlining exclusions: the Venus de Milo commanding the galleries of the Louvre, the Elgin Marbles bunkered in the British Museum, Winckelmann eulogising the young white male body, Anthony Caro drawing out bombastic renditions of Homer. Sutherland evades these meanings, dodges those rhetorical haymakers, and instead produces a show of calculated blankness. It is this deft avoidance, central to Sutherland’s approach to her material, that is central to the success of An unbearded, athletic youth.
Partly this avoidance is achieved by a swerve away from the high classical. Sutherland presents us with Geometric and Archaic imagery, with demotic clay animals presented on simple wooden shelves, clumsily drafted lines delineating blocks of rough colour. It is also achieved by a filtering process: Sutherland’s imagery is bluntly aware of its nature as an archaeological construct, a result of a tradition of scholarship.
The motifs are presented as processed by the technologies of printing that turn a hand-drawn scrawl of slip on a vase into a pattern of black and white on a page. This is particularly evident in the series of prints on the far wall, a succession of white-on-black line works captioned by a carefully mutating array of words, multiple/repeats/one/no cycling along the line. Products of a cheap photocopying process, they hark back to an Art & Language-esque concern with words, repetition, and processes of reproduction, as well as evincing an awareness of the physical presence of the academic apparatus of books and papers through which the Greek tradition reaches us.
Although Sutherland is avoid the weightiness of that tradition, An unbearded, athletic youth is still about it, and the ways in which a young artist can situate themselves in relation to it. There are, therefore, a huge volume of ways to engage the show: as many ways, in effect, as there are ways to look at Greece’s influence. It is perfectly possible to treat it mostly formally, a traditionally Cantabrian exercise in design and drawing, perhaps with some reference to the works of Simon Ogden (in the mannered archaism, the ultra-sophisticated casualness of line and colour) or to Mark Braunias’ repetitive cycling through similarly biomorphic forms. Or perhaps Robert Graves’s reinterpretation of the dying king mythos, or Nietzsche’s conflict of the Apollonian and the Dionysiac tendencies in art, or perhaps instead through a minute, detailed, art historical analysis of Sutherland’s citations. But at the same time, these approaches, though clearly offered as options, are made to seem somewhat pointless. The combination that Sutherland has achieved, a mix of blankness and depth, is impressive.
Given that, though, and because it is about ways of situating oneself with a tradition, and given my personal situation, I find it most tempting to read An unbearded, athletic youth in a loosely autobiographical way. (It is perhaps possible to read the show’s title as circuitously alluding to Sutherland herself.) That reading, positioning the work as in some respects about the processes of being early career, about developing a language within which to make work, preserves the openness and fluidity of the practice.