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Review - Exhibition - In a Sensitive Light

Jaffer Kolb takes a look at the Serpentine Gallery's retrospective of the work of Anthony McCall.

Anthony McCall, at the Serpentine Gallery, Kensington Gardens, London W2, wwwserpentinegallery.org

As you walk into British artist Anthony McCall’s show at the Serpentine, the first thing you see is a translucent white perspex screen, smaller than a piece of A4 paper, showing a rotating series of 81 slides of abstract light patterns and shapes. It’s a bit Peter Kubelka, a bit Stan Brakhage, and an
unrepresentatively humble first impression of the exhibition.
But that’s much of the charm of the artist’s eponymous show: it’s brilliantly curated, leading you into fantastically dramatic blacked-out spaces by way of comparatively low-key process drawings and crude examples of McCall’s work.
Numerous schematic diagrams and studies hanging around the slide plinth in the front room show the sculptor at his most architectural. The drawings are precisely done; volumetric light diagrams are suspended in simply ruled boxes; matrices of dots determine the locations for his Fire Cycle series of
the early 1970s (where he lit fires in various patterns in the Scottish countryside).
It’s a pleasant reminder that process work can be both beautiful and informative – these drawings don’t have that nasty feeling of affectation. They look considered; they evolve and demonstrate a trajectory of thought that is at times pleasantly illogical. Covering the room’s walls, the drawings span McCall’s work from the early 1970s to the present.
As a continuation of this process work, two smaller rooms house projections of McCall’s early films, one of which features a series of figures walking through a windy field, holding large squares of white fabric. In another, a man digs a square of earth and buries a box of dirt. These pieces are uneven, but mark a step towards the fascination with time and projection so important to McCall’s later work.
The back three galleries, the Serpentine’s largest, are dedicated to McCall’s light sculptures – his masterworks. And these are no James Turrells. They cannot stand quietly in a corner; they do not inspire thought or wonder. They are centrepieces which demand attention and almost violent interaction. His Line Describing a Cone (1973) was the first example of experimentation with what has
become his instantly recognisable style. Shot (and projected at the Serpentine) on 16mm film, the piece comprises a white curved line against a black background. Fog machines create an atmospheric density which gives the projection a solid quality, creating the illusionof a half-cone shaped wall – and that’s it.

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