In Britain we’re not quite sure what to make of beauty, and for puritans, beauty takes on a noxious quality; beauty is the beast that art is meant to kill. Yet, on rare occasions, beauty will rear its beautiful head, tormenting us with its unattainability. One such example are the sculptures of Anthony Caro made in the early Sixties. His painted and welded steel constructions were so transcendently effervescent in their springing lightness of touch, so incomprehensibly and meaninglessly beautiful; like three dimensional versions of Matisse’s paper cut-outs, they epitomised the words of Emily Dickinson – ‘beauty is not caused; it is’. They can only be experienced, never talked about, and are the pinnacle that no British sculptor has been able to match since.
In the guide to Eric Bainbridge’s new show at Camden Arts Centre, Penelope Curtis writes: ‘Dealing with Caro is not something to be done lightly, because so many have failed’. Riding my way up the hill to Camden Arts Centre on my bike, a man leant out of a car window and shouted ‘I think you’ve dropped something, mate’. The sentiment stayed with me as I made my way round the show. With Bainbridge the pervading sense is that something is missing, that something has been lost, and something has gone astray. Doing Caro now, even without the colour, is an anachronism that is doomed to failure, and Bainbridge knows this. Like all comedians he loves situations where failure is inevitable; such situations can’t help revealing the truth, the bathos that to him is more valuable than the beauty.
Bainbridge’s previous work has involved materials such as inverted fun-fur, tea-cups, tangerines and dental floss. Limiting himself to the convention of welded scrapyard steel, with only occasional walk-ons by tea-towels or ghastly rugs, somehow allows the humour to become less wacky and more black. Making the welded steel the dominant element is however a dangerous move, since the medium is so ubiquitous, so cheesy, that there’s a danger of the artist losing his identity all together. Some, like The Philosopher’s Garden (2011), still incorporate an incongruous flourish, and one suspects the decorative spiral has been taken from an object in a garden centre. Others, such as Green Line (2011) seem like straightforward exercise in Caro-isms, yet still somehow retain a sense of restrained ridiculousness, a kind of ludicrousness that comes out of failed aspirations. The sculpture is so close to pastiche yet exudes a dumbness all of its own, its forms leaning in a way that is just slightly more quotidian than anything in Caro.
Bainbridge’s work feels like a painfully funny meditation on the ennui of the ordinary, yet simultaneously reaches for high art status. He acknowledges the pretensions of trying to make art in Britain, and revels in the inevitable tumbling back down to earth. There is a tension that comes from on the one hand taking on the mantle of modernist aesthetics, the striving for the ideals that Caro briefly achieved, and on the other hand refusing to give up on roots, background and the school of hard knocks. Bainbridge’s sculptures are always teetering on the edge of embarrassment, about to blurt out their dirty secrets. There is something intense and slightly nauseating about them, full of jarring incongruities, cultural faux-pas, and aesthetic betrayals.
Welded steel is the material of shipyard and the male sculptor, and the tea-towel and the washing line are incongruously juxtaposed with this material in a kind of bleak marriage of convenience. In Bobble /Bubble (2011) a square sheet of steel, its surface gouged and scraped, like barely repressed masculine anger, has a stained teatowel draped over it, balancing its harshness, soothing it, tolerating its absurdity. In The Mind of the Artist (Exposed) (2011), a delicate network of Caro-like beams sits atop a polyester blanket printed with a garish pink rose, which acts as both ground to the sculpture and as maternal embrace. One room has been given over to a washing line draped with bedlinen – a few tiny drops of blood or rust spot the surface of the linen, like little pin-pricks of pain. The title The Ghost of Jimmy the Nail refers to these slightly malevolent spots that spoil the purity of marital bed-linen.
In a way Bainbridge’s subjects are the human problems that are familiar and ordinary yet often repressed in the pursuit of high art. There’s something poignant, tender even, in the way he refuses to turn his back on this subjects, these problems of class and freedom, identity and contingency – the problems of relationships and the problems of trying to express yourself through received language. Aesthetics, beauty, originality are treated with skepticism, with a brass tacks wisdom that could be reductive yet still contains a measure of hope, the possibility of release. Some of the sculptures are put together in a way that has an unmistakable sense of play and jouissance, teetering with a fragile balance that seems about to disintegrate into pieces and make a pile on the carpet.
Caro’s work casts a long shadow, and many contemporary artists have been influenced and inspired to try and unpick the cultural assumptions that underpin this unassailable aesthetic. Rebecca Warren for example has recently paired her grotesquely sexy clay sculptures with mysteriously masculine Caro-like assemblages of bronze boxes, plates, buttresses and leaning geometric forms. Their weight, much heavier in feel than Caro, are undermined by the inclusion of an incongruous pom-pom, a feminine touch undermining the intransigence of their masculine inscrutability. Charles Ray has also developed the illusionistic qualities of early Caro, the way the sculptures change as you move around them, into minimalist objects that are never quite what they appear to be. Bainbridge joins them in trying to extend the formalist aesthetic into dealing with areas that are excluded from the classic pantheon of beauty, yet perhaps has more of a feel for formalist sculpture as an arena in which to play. The sense of play, and its frustration by the down ward pull of everyday reality, allows him to work with a relatively unrestrained sense of transforming creativity, though never letting go of the pervasive irony that the particular beauty he achieves comes with a price. His work is imbued with sense of being damaged, and that every move might unravel the whole and bring about its own collapse.
Bainbridge is essentially an artist who resides within the comedic, and its curious that much recent contemporary sculpture, whether it be the high anxiety of Warren, the deadpan incredulity of Ray, the absurd narcissism of Franz West or even the ridiculously over-determined, yet vulnerable, masculinity of Thomas Houseago, share this comic absurdity. Perhaps the comedic is the only way for sculpture to develop in the aftermath of Caro’s high modernism. Bainbridge is an artist who understands his own limitations, his own pratfalls, and his own inability to take modernism at face value. He takes these problems and uses them to make sculptures that beguile, arrest, fascinate and amuse his small but growing audience.