Ruth Marten, A Treasure Hunt in a Lazar House
It’s an intriguing find, but it’s not an easy one. Ruth Marten’s sixteen exhibited artworks are disguised amongst vintage prints and elaborate frames in an antiquarian’s dream shop on Bermondsey Street, SE1. The exhibition is essentially an elaborate game of hide and seek. (And who isn’t taken by a timeless pastime such as this at Christmas time?) To up the challenge, the artist’s well-trained hand is purposefully lost amongst that of the original seventeenth to nineteenth century prints – quirky flea market finds – which she draws over.
Taking the surrealists as a model, Marten enhances images that are already detached from the contemporary viewer by time and its changing cultures, with subtly imposed unexpected additions, inviting her viewers to get lost not only in the exhibition space itself, but in her mad world in which exquisitely grand Georgian up-dos and dare-devil Blue Tits are seen side by side. Pairings she’d call Strange Bedfellows. An exhibition I’d playfully describe as an up-market Aladdin’s Cave. Let me explain why…
The setting is very apt. In contrast to what a serial contemporary art exhibition attendee may expect – stark white walls – this space is somewhat of a muddle. But like Ruth’s prints themselves, it is a carefully composed muddle. This is of course all part of the fun for Ruth who builds fantastical scenes through the juxtaposition of people and places – ‘Rococo’ (2012) being a great example. In this a toned nude, probably Venus, has her head replaced by an elaborate seashell, which is as though an inverted Birth of Venus (see Botticelli). Ruth has filled the inside of the shell with reflective tin foil to make it appear like a mirror – a commonplace attribute of Venus: goddess of love and beauty, which is taken on by female sitters across art history to signify vanity. The final clever evocation surrounds the title Rococo: the art historical period Rococo, which was known for its highly ornamented design and named as such through the merging of two French nouns rocaille (stone) and coquilles – shell.
In this space Ruth is able to weave together art of different styles and periods as she does in her own prints. What is created within is echoed outside of the frame. It’s a kind of natural (as opposed to man-made) installation. One could argue – it is an installation that shows that Ruth’s conversations are mostly with history. For, her images are disguised by history. The most fantastic thing is that once you discover which works are hers (with a kind gallery director on hand to help), you realise that the works are organised in a terribly orderly manner – like at a conventional gallery – however the works around it: the sets of drawers, and the frames within frames, and the bowls of clementines, all define the space quite differently.
As such, it’s more like entering a home than an art gallery, and so it provides a stronger sense of the artist as an individual with her artworks as a personal collection. This is apt because in some senses she is an art collector first, as in this exhibition of works she finds art before she makes it. The metaphor extends: you couldn’t and wouldn’t play hide and seek in a whitewashed gallery. It’s a game for a home, full of nooks and crannies. And it is this that provides a unique viewing experience. One which many contemporary artists are searching for by imposing a virtual landscape – an installation – onto an exhibiting space, rather than installing art into a general (but relevant), and existing environment.
As such, I was most taken by the conception behind the curation of this exhibition. The idea behind ‘A Treasure Hunt in a Lazar House’, as well as the work’s content are all part of the artist’s imaginative humour. Her approach to art past and present is playful, and so should ours be to hers. It could be said that she takes us back to early forms of appreciating art: a hybrid between the seventeenth century cabinet of curiosities, full of elaborate, luxurious and exotic items; the eighteenth century satirical cartoons defined by the ridiculous and hyperbolic; and the Victorian travelling exhibitions where the absurd – in animals, ailments and antiques – were given airtime. Seriously now, I think you’ll enjoy it more than I did my annual Christmas-time search for nick-knacks at the Aladdin’s Cave, or the time-whiling Boxing Day game of Hide and Seek; because more than just entertain; Ruth’s prints explores and informs (‘Rococo’ being just one fine example) and it so happens to be quite good fun.
Until January 19 at Pure & Applied, SE1 3UW,www.isisgallery.org
Images c/o Isis Gallery: 1) Brave Birds, 2011, Ink, watercolour and collage on vintage print, 33 x 21cm courtesy Isis Gallery, UK
2) Installation shot at Pure & Applied. Far right: Rococo, 2012, Ink and collage with mylar on vintage print, 20.1cm x 15.cm courtsey Isis Gallery, UK