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Stage and screen

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Douglas Allsop: Seven Sequential Spaces At Southampton City Art Gallery, Civic Centre, Southampton, until 6 October

Slotting a video cassette into the VCR, does anyone look twice at the tape coiled tightly around its spool? One day, Douglas Allsop did; and in a surprising act of lateral thinking, found an architectural role for it.

For it is videotape that defines the first of Allsop's 'Seven Sequential Spaces' at Southampton City Art Gallery - a substantial exhibition for this artist whose work has long been appreciated on the continent (he had retrospectives in two German museums last year), but is not well-known here.

Across the big barrel vaulted room that is the gallery's main space, Allsop has attached strips of videotape to aluminium profiles on the opposing walls to form a taut 1m screen that spans 15m. The lengths of tape do not abut exactly but are a little apart, so, at the same time that the screen reflects back elements of the scene in front of it, there are glimpses of what lies beyond.

Installed towards one end of the gallery, some way above spectators' heads, its appearance changes greatly with your viewpoint. At times it is nearly monochrome and opaque;

at others, consumed by light, it starts to dematerialise. And while these variations are absorbing in themselves, your attention is directed also to the high window nearby, itself a screen of sorts; but one which, on inspection, proves to have three components, for the glass with its glazing bars is shielded externally by a screen of interlinked stone circles - part of E Berry Webber's original 1929 design - and then by wire mesh, added later to deter the birds.

So the view out from the gallery to Watts Park, the tree-fringed green space in front of the gallery, is mediated by a series of screens or grids. Each eliminates some of the information beyond, while inserting its own material quality (wire, stone, glass, videotape); a difference, among other things, between grids which both mask and reflect and those which only mask.

This first intervention, Blind Screen, proves to be integral to all that follows. In the second of the 'sequential spaces', opening off the main gallery, five large, cast-acrylic sheets are hung flush on hardened steel hooks against the walls. Four of them, facing each other down the length of the room, are black, while the last - at the end - is clear;

and all have apertures of various shapes and sizes (slots, squares, circles), cut out of them in regular patterns. Allsop calls them Reflective Editors; their mirrored images are part-erased by the blank white wall.

What you register at once is how precise and immaculate these pieces are. In the spirit of Mies van der Rohe (demanding that visible welds be ground off and painted over), or of Mies' admirer Donald Judd, who showed the same perfectionism when supervising the fabrication of his sculptures, Allsop seeks the ideal of machine finish - impersonal and unblemished.

Just as the videotape screen in the first space brought adjacent 'screens' into focus, so the Reflective Editors point up their surroundings. They join with the other reflective surfaces (polished stone jambs and shiny floor) to make a place which seems particularly alive. Move just a step or two and the room is reconfigured - a kind of optical complexity that has parallels, for instance, in the pavilions of Dan Graham and the work of Herzog & de Meuron.

While its galleries at Tate Modern are mostly indifferent, Herzog & de Meuron clearly put thought into the use of translucent/reflective materials there, especially in the vicinity of the long two-storey escalator;

and its new building in Basel for pharmaceutical company Roche shows similar concerns.

There is, of course, a difference between perceptual enrichment of this kind and the visual chaos that can arise in buildings when such effects are unconsidered.

Meanwhile, the apertures in the acrylic sheets, particularly the broad vertical slots in one of them, engage with other openings in the second room - their position, their proportions, what they frame; and given Allsop's Constructivist background, it is apt that one framed view is of a Kenneth Martin painting from Southampton's permanent collection.

In the third space is another videotape screen, only just above head height, and, sideby-side on the wall, two large-format Lambda prints in which a blur of variegated colour is overlain by narrow, horizontal black bands.

Both are entitled Watts Park, but it is the 'screen' that is in focus, not the scene beyond, which remains indeterminate - as open to your own projections as a Rorshach blot.

The wood-panelled Baring Room comes next, and seems at first to be an interruption, as if we have entered a very different exhibition. There is no sign of anything by Allsop;

instead, six landscape paintings from the 17th-19th century, which he has chosen from the city's collection. But the logic of your progress so far through the 'sequential spaces' prompts you to establish connections.

One obvious link is in format - all Allsop's works in the previous rooms are horizontal in emphasis, with the implication of landscape.

But I think the kinship goes further. An Extensive Landscape by Philips Koninck (1619-1688) is just that - a panorama stretching to a level, distant horizon; but though at first it looks to be quite meticulously done, the information it contains is not distributed evenly. Clouds overhead cast some areas into shadow, trees in full leaf are like foliage screens - in both cases, detail is edited.

And the 'screens' are metaphorical as well as literal. Like any painter in a particular period, Koninck reflected certain conventions, assumptions about what was worth representing and what could be overlooked - a partial blindness, that only an exceptional artist will challenge. What we 'see' too depends on habit and conditioning. Can we give ourselves the slip and see anew?

In the next room, which is otherwise dark, three slides are projected successively for 10 minutes at a time to fill the whole of one wall. Like the earlier Watts Park images, the stated subjects of them can barely be deciphered because of the superimposed screen/grid, which is different in every case;

while viewers' silhouettes are sporadically absorbed into the work as their reflections were earlier. That spectators remain aware of themselves and their surroundings is fundamental for Allsop. His art is no escape route to another world, it deals with the specifics of this one.

Then, in the sixth space, a luminous vitrine holds the key to all that has gone before.

Laid out in a 7 x 4 grid, and lit from below, are 28 oblong pieces of film, each with its own permutation of dots, lines, or bands, each a unique screen. And it is these which Allsop inserts in a device attached to his camera to make the Watts Park images and their equivalents, and these that underscore the principle of the Reflective Editors and the Blind Screens.

We emerge from this glowing room into the seventh 'sequential space', which is the main gallery where we began, though approached now from another angle, and with the memory of all those screens and grids, those reflections, elisions and ambiguities, we have encountered in-between. So ends an unusually cohesive exhibition, distinguished by its intelligent conception, attention to materials, precise execution, and subtlety of effects.

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