Joe Scullion: Settle, Jacob Dahlgren: Abstract Space in Concrete Terms

Rua Red, Dublin

I first encountered Joe Scullion’s work in his solo show, Waiting to Materialise, at the Talbot Gallery last spring. I was initially underwhelmed by the muted colours and unrecognisable forms in the paintings, but this time I was better prepared. Settle was exhibited in Rua Red’s Gallery 2 and consisted of seventeen paintings, each lit separately and hung at a standard height and width apart. This typical, even slightly banal presentation corresponded to the paintings’ ethereal content perfectly. Scullion’s work can be categorised as landscape-based, yet these painted spaces have an uneasy quality as they are not landscape in any traditional sense, being occupied by fantastical futuristic furniture-like objects. Scullion’s delicately painted visions look familiar at first, but on closer inspection it is only the components of these abstract designs that are recognizable; as completed objects – strange imagined containers of nothingness in space – they make less sense. The process of identifying these entities is a little like trying to recall a word one never really knew to begin with.

Jacob Dahlgren: The Wonderful World of Abstraction (2006). Silk ribbon and steel. Installation shot, Rua Red, Dublin (2014). Photo: Joseph Carr.
Jacob Dahlgren: The Wonderful World of Abstraction (2006). Silk ribbon and steel. Installation shot, Rua Red, Dublin (2014).
Photo: Joseph Carr.

In Maker (2014) a pale green cement-like structure is very carefully rendered but left unfinished, like so many other of these depicted objects that seem to dissolve into the shadowy atmosphere. It seems natural to imagine these forms as either gargantuan concrete masses looming several feet tall over the viewer, or as delicate cardboard maquettes sitting modestly in a glass vitrine. Their surroundings vary: some live in rooms with carefully mapped-out angles and lines (with Scullion’s pencil sketches still visible), others live in shadowy landscapes void of any architectural framework. In Front (2014) the smooth cream floor and the brown textured walls almost suggest some coherent purpose for the angular pink object and its legs; yet once again the scale and exact function of the object are indeterminable. Other landscapes are fading, dark into light, with colours indistinguishable from each other. In Comes Down (2014) a fanlike pastel structure is in motion, on the verge of fusing into the evanescent abyss behind. Horizon lines are blurred or extinguished, forming a hazy terrain in which these configurations are suspended, waiting lingeringly to be fully formed or put to use.

The titles of the paintings do little to clarify their content. Consisting of single words, fragments of sentences, and subtle word plays, they tend to refer to temporal and spatial relations rather than to stable objects. Titles such as In Point (2014) and Here About (2014) are broadly associative and wide open to the personal connotations of the viewer. One comes away with a sense of having slipped into the parallel universe of the artist where unresolved objects, musings and inventions have been thrashed out in the landscape of Scullion’s mind, and to powerful effect.

On first impression the work of Swedish artist Jacob Dahlgren in Gallery 1 resembled an overbearing older brother to Scullion’s serene, modest, inward looking paintings. Dahlgren’s show, Abstract Space in Concrete Terms, consisted of three artworks. The Wonderful World of Abstraction (2013) took over a large portion of the gallery floor. It consisted of a huge dense cube of multi-coloured ribbons tied vertically from a metal grid suspended from the ceiling. The effect was visually striking, but it was not at first clear that the viewer was being invited to physically enter this kaleidoscopic forest of colour. In the press release Dahlgren states, ‘It’s very important to be part of the work. . . At first you don’t know if this is ok, if you are allowed to or not. Then once you see that you can, have permission to, it’s a magical moment.’ Entering the sculptural structure the density of the ribbons shrouded the space in darkness; considering the work is made up of pure colour this was a surprising effect. The experience of wading through the soft labyrinth was multisensory, and as one navigated through the ribbons to create a path they fell perfectly back into place, leaving no trace on the work and bringing it back to its original form, in wait for its next visitor.

The next piece encountered was Units of Measurements (2014), a work modified specifically for Rua Red. Thirty metres of Stanley measuring tape horizontally spanned nearly two walls of the large gallery. The striped grid pattern created a trompe l’oeil effect, and it was not clear what one was looking at until closer inspection. Every second length of tape began at alternate sides to the wall. The work brought installation and building materials to the viewer’s attention and turned the mind to issues of production and presentation. This labour-intensive piece is highly typical of Dahlgren’s interest in geometric, linear shapes and his characteristic transformation of everyday objects into sculpture. For instance, in Reykjavik (2009), Dahlgren transforms a number of coat hangers into geometric abstract paintings, the everyday objects changed beyond recognition in the process.

Upon entering the exhibition, the sound of the video work Non Object (2013) followed the viewer around the space. This piece issues out of Dahlgren’s obsession with striped t-shirts (he has claimed he will wear one until the day he dies), an enthusiasm evident in nearly all of his work since his earliest years. In Signes d’abstraction (2005), which was performed in a mall in Stockholm, the artist invited 300 people wearing stripy tops to occupy the shopping centre for the day. Separated into groups, each were given specific tasks, with the aim of conjuring solidarity between the participants. Non Object itself consists of an hour and 25 minutes of looped footage of Dahlgren following people sporting horizontally striped tops around in the street. It takes the viewer a few minutes to discover the connecting thread of this seemingly random pursuit. The time spent trailing stripe-clad members of the public varies from person to person and one only gets to see the camera’s subject from behind. Once you realise the logic of the piece the quest becomes more engaging: the sounds, actions and pursuits of the ‘characters’ become the story, you feel more actively involved. The viewer becomes the spectator of an imagined video game of which the artist is in control.

Both shows in Rua Red therefore approached abstraction from different positions: Scullion’s work presented an array of newly imaged spaces and required time and considered looking; Dahlgren’s work was full of light, colour and tactility, and depended upon physical interaction to be fully appreciated. Both shows therefore seemed to me to aim at quite different responses, while at the same time sharing a stimulating engagement with abstraction as a theme and with the different ways it can be explored today.