Time and place
Segsbury Project: Simon Callery At the Officers' New Barracks, Dover Castle, until 1 August, and the Storey Institute, Lancaster, from 6 September-15 November
In the mid-1970s there were plans to turn the Officers' New Barracks at Dover Castle into a visitor centre, but they stalled; though not before many internal partitions and fixtures were removed. So while the long, stone-faced facade of Anthony Salvin's 1858 building is dourly Neo-Gothic, the interior is almost New Brutalist in character, with large expanses of bare stock brick, openings apparently punched through the walls, and a rough concrete floor. In this stripped-down state, the barracks makes a fine exhibition space, suiting work in both two and three dimensions.
With Simon Callery's Segsbury Project, supported by the Henry Moore Foundation, it is open to the public for the first time.
Projects at the interface of art and architecture are familiar; Callery's is unusual in taking its inspiration from archaeology, and the understanding of landscape and habitation it uncovers. Segsbury Camp, which gives the exhibition its title, is an Iron Age hill fort on the Ridgeway near Wantage, and in 1996 Callery - primarily a painter - joined archaeologists from the University of Oxford on their excavations there. As an annotated map on the barracks wall makes plain, these chalk downlands are particularly rich in archaeological evidence, and Callery has been involved in subsequent investigations at Alfred's Castle and Marcham-Frillford - two more prehistoric sites in the area.
Beside this map are familiar adjuncts of archaeological research: the aerial photographs, which reveal features unsuspected on the ground; the drawings that record specific aspects of an excavation. Callery complements them with a sculpture, some chests of photographs, and three large abstract paintings.
The sculpture, Tr e n c h 1 0 , is a cast made from a 20m x 2m excavation cutting across a Bronze Age ditch at Alfred's Castle, executed in such a way that the exposed chalk has stuck to the plaster, so presenting us with raw material rather than an impression. The cast is propped upright like a wall or barrier and, being just above average human height, it monopolises your field of vision with its sharp or knobbly protuberances of chalk, its fragmented surface and nuances of colour. Halfway along, the 'wall' sashays out in a Gehry-like warped doublecurve; this was the ditch.
Seven big plan chests sit side by side at the end of the room; together they contain 378 photographs, two to each drawer, taken in collaboration with Andrew Watson to record in close-up all of the Segsbury Camp site. The 'wall' gives us a section of the site 'for real'; here it becomes an image, though surface textures are still almost tangible. If you open the drawers at random, as most people do, the photographs are enigmatic (at least to the uninitiated) - you see sporadic labels on the chalk but don't know what they mark, shadows whose significance is uncertain; but a composite nearby shows the grid that underpins them, placing each image in context of the total excavation, with its post holes, pits and trenches.
This assembly of plan chests presents man at his most rational: meticulously mapping and surveying the world, adept at deciphering and classifying it. No stone unturned; the triumph of science; an exhaustive archive.
Whatever else it does, this painstaking study of a patch of Ridgeway downland suggests that Callery's paintings might be examined close-to with the same attention.
If you do so, you see the still-perceptible weave of the canvas; vestigial pencil/crayon lines in grey or green, which never quite settle into a regular grid; successive layers of white or whitish paint, the last of them applied in multi-directional dabs that seldom merge with one another, giving the paintings a porous, airy, 'broken' look, and making them acutely responsive to fluctuations in the light. They are certainly not as monochrome as they first appear.
Oddly, Callery has given architectural titles to all three, though the broad, panoramic Fabrik could just as easily be a landscape, and the tall Flake White Entasis and Porch (the latter over 4m high) seem perfect candidates for that old Modernist standby, Untitled. But countering the scientific impulse that informs much of this exhibition, these paintings are not meant to be explained, and unlike the Alfred's Castle cast, they are more immaterial than material.
With Dover's cliffs so near, and that cast even nearer, they could seem suitably chalky;
but then Melville devotes a whole chapter of Moby Dick to the colour white, concluding one page-long list of its benign connotations with the words: 'There yet lurks an elusive something in the innermost idea of this hue, which strikes more panic to the soul than that redness which affrights it in blood'.
Which only goes to show how subjective the associations of these paintings might be, should you want to do more than just enjoy them for the beautiful things they are - well offset by those yellow stock brick walls.
In a statement accompanying the exhibition, Callery speaks of the urge 'to measure and locate ourselves within time'. From the evidence on show at the Officers' New Barracks, he seems both seduced by, and sceptical of, archaeology as a means of doing this. Its methods help to situate us in time, to be sure, but we still feel the lure of what can't be reduced to facts, and still need to imagine - that situates us, too.Which, presumably, is why Callery continues to paint.