Art reviews: Roman Ondák | Lucy Skaer

Lucy Skaer's Exit, Voice and Loyalty from her Tramway show. Picture: Keith Hunter
Lucy Skaer's Exit, Voice and Loyalty from her Tramway show. Picture: Keith Hunter
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IN the ground-floor hallway of Glasgow’s Common Guild is a rather splendid glass case. The contents, however, are somewhat more mundane.

Roman Ondák: Some Thing

Common Guild Glasgow

* * *

Lucy Skaer: Exit, Voice and Loyalty

Tramway, Glasgow

* * * *

An old-fashioned manual coffee grinder rests prone on top of a painstaking pencil drawing of the very same object. The thing and the image of the thing nestle together, but they are not perfect reflections of each other. The drawing is the kind of intense and rather gauche affair that might hang in a teenage bedroom or the art classroom of any secondary school.

Roman Ondák is a Slovakian artist, who has reached the heights of art-world success. In 2009 he transformed the Czech and Slovak Pavilion at the Venice Biennale by the simple expedient of opening the door and filling the space with the same planting scheme as the garden outside. It was possible to walk through without ever quite realising you were in a work of art, never mind the kind of bells and whistles national presentation you might expect in the spotlight of Venice.

At Modern Art Oxford in 2011, the work, Time Capsule, recreated Fénix 2, the rocket-shaped capsule that was famously used to rescue 33 trapped Chilean miners. The visitor was underground looking at the means of escape. Ondak’s art is barely there: stealth artwork that changes your perspective quickly and seamlessly. All of this raises the question of why the heck he might expose himself by showing what turn out to be his own teenage drawings. It’s a curiously brave and reckless thing to do. But if this exhibition is slow burn rather than deep aesthetic pleasure it does reap gentle rewards.

In the downstairs gallery an oil bottle rests on a painted still life of itself and a dishcloth. In an act of weird symmetry, a white chair matches the outer dimensions of its own painted image, though when you look up close the scale is all wrong. Upstairs, in a moment of rare poetry, a tiny branch of real vegetation protrudes from a pencil drawing of a plant.

Amongst all this hangs a strange anomaly, a socialist realist landscape painting by another painter that the artist rescued from the scrapheap. It’s a reminder that Ondák, who is in his late forties, comes from a world that has changed, from a Soviet-era state that no longer exists. Look at Ondák’s early works and their very ordinariness is like standing once more in your own teenage shoes. In the funny space between the picture of the coffee grinder and the real thing is a lot of time and an invisible world.

Across at Glasgow’s Tramway in a vastly scaled solo show, Lucy Skaer makes Ondak’s intervening decades seem like the teeniest, tiniest blink of an eye. How do you grasp or describe an exhibition that begins with the reconstruction of the corridor-long walk into the New York studio that Skaer used until her recent return to Glasgow and ends with bronze arrowheads that she has made using original terracotta moulds that are almost 2,000 years old? I love Skaer’s work and I love that it confuses me and sets me challenges every time I see it. Her lush, colourful homecoming show this summer at Mount Stuart on the Isle of Bute couldn’t be more different from the vast cold space at Tramway and the stern lessons that this exhibition seems to impart.This seems to be a show about the push and pull of meaning, about what happens when you rip objects from their everyday context, tear holes in them and make them anew. Skaer squeezes new meanings out of old stuff or possibly squeezes old meanings out altogether. Walk down the reconstructed corridor and you are faced with a projected film, Margin of July. It’s the view from that studio window, a sunset reflected on the wall, a work in progress on a studio bench. But the artist has punched a hole in the film stock and you can only negotiate meaning through a sliver of film at the edge of your vision; what you are looking at is a black hole. Skaer works in lots of ways, in print and film and ceramics, but she thinks and acts like a sculptor. The film is an object that has had a hole blasted through its meaning and its very fabric.

It takes a while to adjust to the varying scale of Skaer’s main presentation. The walls are lined with pallid prints that require careful examination to render up their content. Each print has been made from the daily printing plates of the Guardian newspaper. But Skaer has rendered the information near invisible, the daily throb of information reduced to the faintest pulse. On each print she has left only a trace: a scrap of a masthead advertisement, the portrait heads of Blair and Brown locked in eternal confrontation, a field of tents that might be a Syrian refugee camp or a night at Glastonbury.There is a risk of failure in all of this; you struggle to make meaning in such a big and empty space, but Skaer has got there before you. Next to the prints are a clutch of cast glass columns huddled together as though for warmth. The work is entitled Unsold Editions. This is art work that hasn’t worked. Made to be sold, it has lingered on the shelf. Skaer is interested in economy and in currency, both in the sense of monetary exchange and current use.

The centrepiece of the Tramway show must be one of the most ambitious works that the artist, who trained in Glasgow and was nominated for the Turner Prize in 2009, has ever undertaken. It is a vast floor installation of ceramic tiles, which if my calculations are correct number some 525 individual works.

Each is made in the shape known as emerald cut, a way of faceting the precious gemstone to make the most of its beauty and outwit its structural flaws. Each is glazed with a traditional Chinese glaze, and each is unique, yet they are assembled in near martial ranks in homage to the Chinese Terracotta Army. That army is the closest art has ever got to military operation, where the language of individual expression and industrial uniformity combine in mind-boggling form. Much of what Skaer does is tough and resistant to language and interpretation, but there is a richness and depth for all the surface cool. For the final works in the show Skaer has been smelting her own bronze, the kind of backyard furnace that would be familiar to the ancient people that made the original objects she has used for casting. The form of the bronze arrowhead is almost like a disintegrating drawing. With each casting it gets blurry and indistinct, for the final work in the series the fine metal has simply pooled and puddled. Shape, meaning, legibility have all but exploded and all that’s left is raw stuff. When Skaer made this work she both literally and metaphorically broke the mould.

• Roman Ondák until 14 December, Lucy Skaer until 15 December.