Eventually, after some time spent looking at Andrew Lacon’s new work in DCA’s Gallery 1, I decide to ask if I can walk on it. It is a floor, after all, a marble terrazzo floor in a geometric pastel design. On the other hand, there is a walkway around it. And we are in an art gallery. One isn’t usually invited to walk on works of art. The answer, however, is yes.
Next door in Gallery 2, Kate V Robertson cuts out the deliberation. The only way into the space is via a walkway made from sections of tyre, or across the “cobbles” – concrete casts of the insides of Tupperware containers and take-away boxes, which are beginning to crack and break under the continuing passage of viewers’ feet.
In this, the first show curated by DCA’s new head of exhibitions, Eoin Dara, both artists are making their biggest works to date. Both also speak of an interest in engaging directly with viewers – and I suppose you don’t get to engage much more directly with a work than by walking on it. But I wonder if that is enough to make for a stimulating aesthetic experience.
Andrew Lacon: Fragments, DCA, Dundee ***
Kate V Robertson: This Mess is Kept Afloat, DCA, Dundee ***
Aaron Angell, GoMA, Glasgow ***
Glasgow-based Robertson is a sculptor who trained as a photographer. She makes much of the fact that she is not formally trained in sculpture, which she believes gives her a certain freedom to break the rules and use materials “the wrong way”, accentuating characteristics which surprise us – the fragility of concrete, for example.
Other works include a series of rectangular panels hung from the ceiling, some made from blackened and perforated steel, some cast in resin; a slowly-spinning “cloud” of polystyrene, and a floor work made of crushed eggshells which crunches satisfyingly when walked on.
Clearly, these works are about more than looking; we experience them through sound and sensation as much as sight. But I do wonder if, in emphasising the multi-sensory elements, the artist has neglected the visual. The works sit awkwardly: the cobbles peter out in the middle of the room, the panels hang too high to be clearly seen (although they cast interesting shadows). A brick-sized block cast in clear resin is an interesting object, but it simply sits dully on the floor.
And for all that the works engage our senses, their meanings often remain opaque. Robertson, as the title suggests, is interested in what props up modern society. There are clearly concerns about waste (plastic and polystyrene), and about technology, our dependence on it, the way it mediates the world to us. The floating panels are said to mimic scaled-up smartphones, but the specific connections – like the panels themselves – remain out of reach.
Birmingham-based Lacon also has an interest in materials and in hand-made processes: his 50 terrazzo tiles are the product of many hours of hard graft. He also draws on the history of marble and its associations. Traditionally, in Europe, it was a rarefied material used for classical sculpture and palatial floors, but he subverts that by using marble chips – leftovers from the manufacture of kitchen countertops – and mixing them with concrete.
This work is also informed by time spent in Mexico, where coloured terrazzo is common both in museums and ancient monuments and, in cheaper, modern versions, on the walls of apartment blocks. And in Britain in the 1950s, there was a bizarre proposal to use marble in the public spaces around social housing (when upkeep is taken into account, it’s almost as cheap as grass). So there are concerns here about value, provenance and pastiche, but the work alone won’t take us there. Breaking the “don’t touch” rule isn’t enough, in itself, to open up the ideas under the surface.
Both Robertson and Lacon respond to the spaces in DCA and highlight features of them, but, as well-designed, purpose-built galleries, they give relatively little to hang on to. Aaron Angell, making work for GoMA’s Gallery 1, has a different set of problems: this grand, pillared room has always been a difficult space for art, but it also has a long, rich history which can be grist to an artist’s mill.
When Angell created a show at Kelvingrove for GI in 2016, he became fascinated by a Wardian Case – an ornate display case used by wealthy Victorians to house rare plants from the tropics – in the Glasgow Museums collection. At the time, it was too badly damaged to display, but now, restored at his request and planted out with ferns, it takes centre stage at the entrance to the show.
It’s an elegant, problematic object – a link to colonial Glasgow, which is just a whisper away from exploitation and the slave trade. Around it, he creates a group of sculptures and installations which pick and mix historical periods, references and associations in an intriguing and whimsical way. The show is bookended by vegetation: ferns at the beginning, and a giant cabbage at the end, produced by a grower in Wales.
Angell is, among other things, a potter, and the show includes glazed cineraria – urns given in Roman times as wedding gifts in which, after the march of the inevitable, the happy couple’s ashes could be mingled. He has also made cement to the ancient Roman recipe (using pig’s blood).
Working with a loose theme of the gallery as a domestic space (GoMA was originally built as a private home, although this section would have been the garden), he represents the heating system – a circular inflatable bed in which he has placed concrete casts mimicking a Roman hypocaust, and the lighting – a concrete sculpture with a functioning gaslight attached. And there’s a painting on glass: a medieval depiction of hell, but with frogs instead of humans.
None of these works yield their meanings easily. Each depends on a rich tapestry of allusions, some of which will be unknown to the viewer. In this way, they don’t make engagement easy, but at least they are visually intriguing, drawing us in and making us want to know more.
Andrew Lacon and Kate V Robertson until 25 February; Aaron Angell until 18 March