Julia Pfeiffer: Figures of the Thinkable
Maria Stenfors, London
February 27th - April 6th, 2013
There is a theory put forward by the comic book theorist Scott McCloud that in comics and graphic novels the ‘gutter’ (the negative space around each frame of the story) is the space in which the reader can connect the narrative, insert ones own additions, and perceive the story as a whole. The very blankness of the frame allowing the story to unfold in the readers mind.
It seems to me that the negative space in Julia Pfeiffer’s current exhibition Figures of the Thinkable is almost as essential as the work itself. Or at least is an essential space in which to connect these, at first seemingly disparate objects, photographs and wall-based work. This is nowhere more apparent than in the collective hanging of ceramic eyes that are individual works, all titled Iris Study followed by the colour of each ‘eye’. There is a space left between a grouping of five eyes and then three. The insertion of an eye by the viewer is inevitable. In the negative spaces such as these two key elements become apparent throughout this body of work. The role of clay as a medium and the portrayal of the vessel in various forms and guises. These two themes are not mutually exclusive however and they weave in and out of each other to a giddying degree.
Through developments in Modernism, it could be argued that clay has come to be regarded as a poorer sculptural medium with craft connotations. It is also often the medium used as by-product. Something to be sculpted in order that it is then transformed in to more durable mediums such as bronze. This choice of clay as a medium seems incredibly considered, with Pfeiffer using it in a concise, considered and playful manner.
The clay eyes stare out from one wall taking in the surrounding exhibition; a clay glazed dog vase who has balls too big to allow it to sit on a plinth, without the aid of two pieces of timber under each paw; a series of black and white photographs in which painted and real vases inhabit dada-esque stage sets. On the far wall the eyes look upon a wall covered in dry slip clay, the raw medium from which they were produced. In Building the Labyrinth the thin layer of clay has dried and cracked to reveal the slightest hints of the colours contained beneath, and at the same time literally form a ‘labyrinth’ of fissures. The temptation to pick at it and release the painting behind is overwhelming. It is in this gesture that the liquidity and solidity of clay as a material is immediately apparent.
The positioning next to it of the work Body Relief (Figure of the Thinkable), a clay relief on an easel, echoes the photographic studio composition on the opposite wall. Upon crossing the room to the photograph the painted backdrop in the image depicts the dog vase with the big balls; manifest in clay it stands, or at least tries to, on the other side of the wall. In the c-print the painted dog on the wall is surrounded by actual cups and vases on the floor, a painted spurt of liquid coming from the opening at the top of its head never to reach the receptacles.
This interplay between the painted, the photographic, and the physical object calls forth more questions than can, or should be answered by the works themselves. Was the painted dog produced first, then photographed, then made real, or was the clay version the reference point for the backdrop? This persistent questioning and doubting of the work's identity is the leitmotif of the exhibition; are the sculptures really sculptures? They are also vases and reliefs. Is the clay wall a backdrop for another staged photograph?
And so Figures of the Thinkable goes, back and forth, between content, the medium and a constant referencing of its own mediums and symbols. The removal of a frame of a comic book does not diminish it in its own right, it can still be appreciated on many levels both for the artistry in it and the slice of a narrative it depicts. However, it is only when seen as part of a bigger whole that it truly comes to life. So, while I am in little doubt that these works could quite easily stand alone as works and convey many of the issues at play, it is their very existence in the same space and the myriad of connections that swirl between them, in both the works and the negative space that surround them, that make this such a powerful exhibition.
Andrew Marsh is a freelance exhibition organiser and critic. He is an Associate Lecturer on BA Criticism, Communication and Curation at Central Saint Martins, London.view all articles from this author