Beth Stuart’s ‘The Golem. Her Lover’ at Battat Contemporary

It smells. That’s one of the most notable things. For years, Battat Contemporary has, at least in my stilted mind, become synonymous with the anti-septic. They posses a weird penchant for pushing the cliche of the white cube to the extreme point that they rarely seemed to show work that wasn’t black, white or grey. This has always been a jokey complement to the complete indifference of its staff to those who look at the work or ask questions about it. But the Beth Stuart show smells. Like popcorn at that. And this may in part be why her ‘The Golem. Her Lover’ registers as so theatrical.

Aside from an awkwardly cut rectangle to reveal a white radiator (I’m guessing this was unavoidable), the exhibit is uncharacteristically colourful. Painted in earthy tones, the space is transformed into something that could be called exotic. It’s a horribly campy word, among other things, but seems to fit. But it’s exotic in a very particular set of ways: the way that pencil crayons with titles like Indian Summer seem exotic next to Dark Green or the way that high school theatre productions of famous musicals seem exotic. It is especially the latter that the show conjures. There’s something distinctly like a production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat put on by a cast of fat teenaged drama nerds with back pimples about the whole thing.

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It smells like popcorn because there is a mass of it pooled together in a fine mesh in the middle of the show. Will it rot as the show goes on or be replenished? Such questions were not being answered. Though there was a stack of plastic covered statements about the the exhibition dropped in a heap by the front door, no such information was on offer. This is significant because of the way that everything about it is foregrounding its material qualities. Aside from that, it’s all built up as the component parts to illustrate a narrative written by the artist, and which was also nowhere on display. Leaving that, the whole thing is like the rain soaked drawings from a children’s book one sees in the gutter on garbage day.

According to the gallery:

The exhibition is accompanied by [a] piece of speculative fiction written by the artist. This narrative chronicles a medical treatment undergone by the story’s protagonist (Charles). A rabbi-turned-doctor dispenses a prescription to treat the symptoms of an existential menopause that is working its way through Charles’ mind and body. This life transition is gradually rendering Charles invisible to the outside world and internally opaque. Its texture feels to Charles related to the maturation of creativity in an aging body that mirrors decaying capitalism and the stagnancy of privilege [They just conflated stagnancy and creativity]. There is a crisis of inertia [Can inertia have a crisis?] that is wrought in Charles[‘] body, a body to which he has heretofore been ambivalent. The prescription begins the process of mitigating this ambivalence and recognizing Charles’ ignorance of the relationship of the physical body with creative drive. [Is the prescription then the short story itself which is mirrored by the artist’s creative drive? Is the show itself a symptom of stagnancy or decaying capital?]

While the objects and images in the exhibition move between [an] oblique and direct relationship to the text, they form a consistent material and textural atmosphere. This atmosphere describes the disjuncture between the perception of what is inside the body and its outward appearance. [Is this like when Wittgenstein used to say that an atmosphere is what we refer to when we don’t know how to pay attention to things?] It recognizes the artwork as an attempt to form a translational link, [So you’re saying the artwork is a Golem? A mute killing machine to act out the resentments of the artist who takes on the role of God? Or else performs the social function of slave labour and policing?] a kind of mute avatar defending the journey from the internal to the external. Much of the work is made using traditional Venetian plaster techniques, [But why? It only very loosely approximates clay or the folk sculpture of the Jewish culture that created the Golem. Is it because it’s a more bourgeois art material filtered through the sentimentality of someone who clearly grew up in the 80s?] a material made of ground stone reconstituted through pressure and manipulation to resemble its original form; motifs of compression, digestion, and accretion appear throughout the exhibition.

A Golem, for the gentiles in the audience, is a kind of “Frankenstein, you know, like the one in Kafka’s church in Prague” as the mature, fur-bound lady looking at the show said to her bewildered male companion. They also thought the show was a combination of KKK aesthetics and traditional African art. Judging by their expensive clothes and worldly conversation, this might not have been as psychotic as it sounded. Or maybe it was. A Golem, of course, is made out of clay but all this Venetian jazz seems rather Catholic.

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The set design aesthetics provide a good frame for the paintings, but they also make them a bit fuzzy. Although a few of them would be relatively successful autonomously, here, they no longer work as paintings, but as pieces of a set. They’re prop paintings, rather like what you see on daytime TV, whether it’s a soap or a game show. Stuart’s work in the past didn’t usually seem to be going for that Price is Right feel, but that seems to be exactly what she’s making explicit.

This pressure put on the (cheap-looking) theatricality of display is complemented by the concern with its material qualities. The materials all get spelled out in the accompanying handout (epoxy, acrylic, shagreen etc.) as though they have some symbolic significance, though it’s hard to work out what that is. Why is this show so concerned about gluten free macaroni? remains the most lingering intellectual issue it raises.

A show made of supplements is like popcorn without a show to watch.

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