Review: Cerith Wyn Evans at White Cube Gallery 

Since the 1990s, Welsh conceptual artist Cerith Wyn Evans has created work about language, perception and representation. The artist skilfully weaves in elements of the musical, literary, philosophical and cinematic, resulting in exhibitions that are densely layered and at times even cryptic, and that have won him acclaim from international institutions such as the Tate Britain, Musée d’Art Moderne de Paris and Austria’s Kunsthaus Graz, and participation in numerous biennales and triennials.

His recent exhibition at White Cube Hong Kong, …)( of, a clearing, featuring installation, sculpture, painting and sound, continues his exploration of the visual and the aural, the relationship between them and the things that lie in between. Using the work of several modern artists as a point of departure, Wyn Evans creates a series of pieces that refer to seminal moments in art history theory, in particular Lucio Fontana’s Concetto Spaziale aesthetic (1947–68), which erased the boundaries among architecture, painting, sculpture and the fourth dimension within art, which cubist artist Max Weber described as “the consciousness of a great and overwhelming sense of space-magnitude in all directions at one time”.

Wyn Evans started out as a filmmaker and video artist in the 80s, working with director Derek Jarman, and film still informs his work today. The exhibition features 19 works executed in various media, arranged as scenography that hums with light and reverberates with sound, oscillating between the meditative – like a minimalist, modern Zen temple – and the extra-terrestrial, in its neon-lit, white sterility. The artist creates an audience experience by providing the opportunity for transcendence, less spiritually than beyond the pictorial plane, in order to shift and challenge our perspective and perception.

A series of four rectangular, white, neon works, Neon After Stella (2022), suspended in the ground-floor exhibition space, greet visitors upon entry into the gallery. Composed of concentric right angles, the works reference modernist artist Frank Stella’s iconic Black Paintings – black, enamel-painted canvases with thin, unpainted white lines, which explore the idea of the death of painting. Stella looked at painting as a flat image and an object. Wyn Evans has resurrected this idea in a three-dimensional, sculptural form, as a neon-light sculpture. They’re hung one behind the other, creating a moiré effect of light and shadow, the hypnotic, immersive works seemingly pulsing with life, beyond the confines of their static, sculptural form.

Standing to the side is a large potted bonsai tree, Still Life (In course of arrangement) VIII (2022), living nature transplanted into an artificial environment, contrasting with the urban, industrial materials of the neon. The tree, which calls to mind Marcel Broodthaers’ potted palms in La Bataille de Waterloo – exhibited in June 1975 at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts, where Wyn Evans had his first show – creaks as it rotates slowly on a turntable. A piano composition plays softly from several suspended speakers, creating an ambient, contemplative mood, like a futuristic waiting room, that is absurdly interrupted by the intermittent creaking of the tree.

The upstairs exhibition space reveals the play of light, shadow and sound on an elegant composition of works and objects, in which each work can be understood in reference to the others. Circles and vertical lines are recurring motifs in the exhibition, creating a visual dialogue between various works. Light Track Assemblages (2022) is a series of six works composed of lighting tracks, spotlights and fluorescent lights, hung on the wall like paintings, based on a photograph that the artist took of the ceiling in White Cube Bermondsey, London, during his last exhibition with the gallery. The vertical neon lights also mirror the lighting strips running across the Hong Kong gallery ceiling, so that the eye is drawn up the wall to the light overhead. Circles of light freckle the exhibitions space around wall sculptures and two large gongs – resembling two large eyes, with their iris-like pattern – that are placed in the centre of the room and played at intervals by staff. The sound oscillates and reverberates throughout the brightly lit, white space, at once calming and unnerving with its eerie, otherworldly timbre.

Echoing the vertical lines of Light Track Assemblages, on an opposite wall hangs Indeterminate Painting XXII (2020) and Indeterminate Painting XXI (2020), two white-on-white varnish and acrylic-on-canvas paintings. The works require the viewer to move around the canvas to bring them to life, the barely perceptible lines of varnish reflecting light from various angles.

Across from the gongs stands Foldsin Shade, a Japanese fold-out screen made of seven panels of shattered glass, the cracks forming a delicate landscape like fine ink calligraphy. The cracks represent the energy of soundwaves made material: the invisible made visible. The sound from the gongs doesn’t just create a sense of calm, but also suggests conflict and chaos, as in the shattered glass. The composition of the works in the space creates sound lines as well as sight lines, linking them together through cause and effect. Sculpture and painting step beyond their immobile forms and enter space.

In an adjacent room hangs a series of five small, perforated canvases, (A) Plane (In Five) (Primed/Penetrated) (2020), referencing Fontana’s incision paintings and Francis Picabia’s Jeune Fille (1920). Circles are cut out of different areas of the white canvases, resembling braille, and echoing the circles of the spotlights in the adjacent room. Blurring the line between sculpture and painting, the artist redefines and plays with depth and space in the painting, as light and shadow animate the works.

Wyn Evans strives to explore new forms of expression in a collision of abstraction and symbolism, playfully creating visual riddles and exploding the linearity of perception. Unlike Frank Stella’s famous maxim that “what you see is what you see”, Wyn Evans’ work revels in ambiguities and a multiplicity of meanings that unfold over time and space. The exhibition space becomes a composition of signifiers as the artist creates sound lines and sight lines that traverse it. Works allude to other works, to each other and to the architectural space itself, and a superimposition and layers of meanings is created. We are encouraged to see more than we actually see.

Images: Exhibition views of ….)( of, a clearing by Cerith Wyn Evans at White Cube Hong Kong, January 21 – March 12, 2022. © Cerith Wyn Evans. Photo © White Cube (Kitmin Lee).

Published on March 1, 2022, Artomity Magazine

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