When the lights are off and everyone’s gone home, it’s quite possible that night-time murmurings can be heard from BALTIC’s Level 3 gallery, where Caroline Achaintre’s ambiguous artworks may be resuming a conversation we interrupted by visiting them.
This impactful survey exhibition, something of a material turn for BALTIC perhaps, does good justice to Achaintre’s mix of ceramic sculptures, paintings, linocuts and distinctive woollen wall-hangings. A clever layout of banked walls and alcoves walks us alternately past groups of shiny glazed clay pieces folded into hints of recognisable objects, and individual encounters with the huge multi-coloured shaggy tapestries, “painted” (as Achaintre describes it) with a rapid-fire tufting gun that shoots wool strands through the back of a canvas sheet.
Evocations of tribal art, expressionism and (more subtly) the visual languages of heavy metal and science fiction pervade the work. Masks and faces are suggested throughout.
From babyhood, we have an instinct for pareidolia, i.e. reading the merest marks as a pattern that represents a face – this is a useful survival instinct, but it is also the basis for Rorschach therapies, supernatural visions and fairy stories. Evidence for the strength of this is given by the popularity this exhibition has had among younger visitors – remarkable perhaps for a show with such largely abstract content, but testament to the way in which two vaguely-suggested eyes and a mouth can trigger the imagination.
The most minimal of these suggestions can turn a lump of clay into a personality, or “an object into a subject”, as Achaintre neatly puts it; and the room then fills with a cast of characters. This resonates with animist traditions, belief in the afterlife, and all the other ways in which we might consider that souls are not confined to the living human.
There is playfulness here too, balancing the angst of the uncanny with gentle humour and material exuberance. The wall-hanging Lord Lard (a new work made for this exhibition ) embodies this particularly well, looming high like a harlequin wizard or a gothic monster from early video games, and trailing wool-strands over the floor in an unruly advance. The sinister but beautiful grey ceramic and leather Lee Vee Double D, in its museum-like alcove, could be a space-warlord’s ceremonial helmet or a fossil creature from the deep ocean.
There is great visual energy in these works, with powerful zig-zags, candy stripes, chevrons and glistening glazes, everything somehow directional, pushing the eye around. The excellent linocuts have quieter suggestions of feathers and wood-grain, and two of them resemble stylised tribal masks, evoking perhaps the same striated excisions that would be used to fashion the objects themselves.
Some have spoken of Achaintre’s work as a mass of contradictions or dichotomies – but instead the dominant feeling here is of ambiguities and opposites held in vibrating balance, as between two magnets. Hence we hover in a mid-ground between figuration and abstraction, two dimensions and three, the pliable and the rigid, whimsy and menace, seduction and repulsion, spontaneity and polish, and perhaps even fine and applied arts. In today’s ultra-segmented world, Achaintre is remarkably unselfconscious about transcending multiple media, and she shows an unforced and authentic expressiveness equally in each area of her practice.
Perhaps the most satisfying adventure here is into the idea of the mask. The face-shapes conjur this immediately, but even some of the ceramic pieces are “masquerading” as other materials, having been finished to resemble lizard-skin or corrugated card.
In the contexts suggested in this exhibition, of carnival theatre and shamanic ritual, the mask functions not as a subterfuge or concealment, but instead as an acknowledged pluralism of identity. A mask may hide, but it also reveals, dissolving inhibition and giving vent to an inner spirit. It is a device through which to look outward, but it also gives us a different view inward to the wearer. In conversation, Achaintre returns often to this theme, explaining the double pairs of eye-holes in some of the works as symbolising this two-way vision. It is intriguing therefore to note that wool-tufts and linocuts are both fashioned by working from the reverse side, or the reverse relief, of what eventually becomes the “presented face” of the work.
This exhibition has been a very popular attraction over the summer – catch its remaining days while you can; and listen for murmurings after the doors have closed!
Caroline Achaintre continues at BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art until 30 October 2016.
Dave Pritchard is an independent consultant based in Northumberland.
Images: Caroline Achaintre, Lord Lard 2016. Installation view, BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead. Photo: John McKenzie © 2016 BALTIC; Caroline Achaintre exhibition installation view, BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead. Photo: John McKenzie © 2016 BALTIC; Caroline Achaintre Golem 2016 Ceramic. Image courtesy the artist and Arcade, London Photography: Andy Keate.