Curated by Irish artist Mark O’Kelly, Starting Over suggestively connected a small number of works by four contemporary artists, Alan Brooks, Tacita Dean, Scott Myles, and Gerard Byrne. The artworks included reflect upon pivotal moments in each artist’s career; rigorously selected, they each explore ‘the meaning of intuition and hindsight’ and together constituted a compelling address to the ‘complex idea of looking back in order to move forward into the future’, as O’Kelly put it in his substantial essay accompanying the show. This latter idea carries considerable weight, as O’Kelly’s curatorial agenda aligned itself with the same concerns underpinning the practices of the four artists involved. In these artists’ work, the past is often mined for material remnants and narrative threads that may be resituated in the present, or re-orientated towards the future. This timely exhibition also draws upon recent art historical debates concerning the archive, a discourse that O’Kelly views as central to the exhibition, as each artwork ‘navigates and points to repositories of knowledge and experience which are not easily or immediately available’.
In this, Starting Over recalled another celebrated artist-curated show of recent years, Simon Starling’s Never the Same River (Possible Futures, Probable Pasts), which took place at Camden Arts Centre, London, in the winter of 2010-11. Starling’s exhibition demonstrated that this concern with looking back in order to move forward is indicative of today’s renewed sense of temporal instability, as reflected in the practices of numerous contemporary artists, Starling himself included. The strength of Starting Over lay in its conceptual coherence and its relevance to such broader shifts in artistic practice. The existing discourse on archiving as artistic method points to its symptomatic nature: as a mode that exposes problematic technological developments, such as the ascendency of the digital (as argued by Hal Foster in his essay, ‘An Archival Impulse’, 2004), and advancements in technological warfare and science (as articulated by Starling in his aforementioned exhibition). While drawing on this discourse, O’Kelly’s project avoided being derivative by effectively refocusing this archival concern away from outside influences and in towards the more enduring and insular conditions of the artist’s studio. The works in this exhibition were offered up to the viewer as material remnants of the process by which an artist thinks through their own practice. As O’Kelly asserts, this gesture acts to bring ‘poignant focus to the ways in which the passage of time transforms the interpretive meanings of artworks…as life brings us further and further away from the initial moment of making’.
The relationship between the presentation of a finished artwork and the often unseen preparatory work, relegated to the confines of the studio, was alluded to formally throughout the exhibition, as scrawled notes, erasures and hasty diagrams were coupled with unveiled material supports, such as Post-it notes, blackboards and the backs of canvases. The first works encountered in this small exhibition space were Alan Brooks’s series of primitive looking drawings that are derived from rubbings taken from graffiti found on the city streets. The imagery is mostly made up of human heads as well as sexual organs and scrawled expletives, which often become titles of specific works, as in Portrait of jw the cunt (2007) and Shithead (2010). Contrary to appearances, Brooks does not present us with the original rubbings, but meticulously repaints them onto archival-prepared Post-it notes. These surfaces make discernible the artist’s method as these small and delicate supports bear no marks or indents of the pressure required to make a rubbing. Rather, each miniscule mark is reproduced obsessively by the artist’s own hand. Brooks’ work serves to introduce a concern with both the indexical mark, as a found material trace of the past, and the graphological gesture.
Tacita Dean’s Sixteen Blackboards (1992) couples this emphasis on mark making with themes of departure as it pinpoints the beginnings of her artistic career. Sixteen Blackboards is composed of 16 photographs of the same blackboard which has been erased and drawn over. These surfaces contain drawings, notes and photographs that display numerous leitmotifs and references to later works (for example, we see many drawings of feet and references to the act of walking or limping, a theme Dean explores most explicitly in her 2003 film Boots). In 2006, Dean herself reflected on this early work saying, ‘What staggered me looking at myself is, how much of the subject matter in those drawings in that period of time are the ideas that I’m still working on’ (Tacita Dean: Analogue). This act of departure and revisiting was replayed in other works, as can be seen in the photographic documentation of Mark O’Kelly’s and Gerard Byrne’s joint visit to the site of Byrne’s earlier work, Temple Bar Music Centre site-specific commission, 1993. This same emphasis on the return journey was evident in Scott Myles’s Everything Inbetween, Dundee, Scotland Oct 2 1996, Everything Inbetween, Monument Valley, USA, Mar. 23 1998 (1996- 1998). This latter work consists of two almost identical photographs of the artist pictured in the same clothes against the backdrop of Monument Valley; however, on closer inspection we see that the artist is older in one of the images.
This theme of departure and revisiting, which recurred throughout the exhibition, was solemnly concluded by Myles’s The Lecture (2010-2013). This free-standing, aluminium-backed mirrored screen print shows the back of a poster taken from one of Felix González-Torres’s stack pieces, Untitled (1992/3). On the face of the mirrored surface we see the swipe of a roller and the marks left by the adhesive previously used to stick up the poster. These marks could be read as the brushstrokes of a large paintbrush as this work resonates with a series of black and white photographs by Gerard Byrne depicting the backs of Old Master paintings. On the other side of Myles’s work, which the viewer was free to walk around, is a reproduction of González-Torres’s black and white print of a lone bird ascending through a cloud-streaked sky. As is well known, González-Torres’s stack pieces often invited the viewer to take something away, in this case a print. These works all related to the grieving process and the death of the artist’s lover from AIDS in 1991. This work acted to bring the exhibition’s themes of mark making, departure and reclaiming the past full circle, by referencing the act of mourning and of letting go, a necessary part of the process by which we start over. O’Kelly’s impressive curatorial debut seeks to anchor the transience of the present moment in the context of the recent past as these four artists turn back to old works, an older generation of artists, and their younger selves in the hope of facing the future with a firmer footing.