Text by Lesley Guy
Crude Oil is a show about material, process and history – both ancient and modern. Shellfish transformed into oil, then plastic, then shoes, then tables and finally shellfish – and all of this transformed into art. These ideas are investigated in new works that sit alongside historical sculptures on loan from the Henry Moore Institute.
A photograph of Henry Moore’s polystyrene enlargement for Seated Figure: Arms Outstretched, 1986 and the 13 minute documentary Le chant du Styrène, 1958 by Alain Resnais are the hooks from which this exhibition hangs.
Resnais’ film is mesmerising. Ordinary plastic objects are elevated beyond the mundane and shown to be beautiful and magical through the process of their manufacture. The film, gleaming with optimism, is so utopian in its transformation of technology into poetry. Even the smoke from the factory looks clean. The curation of the show follows this line of thought; the arrangement is clean, stylish and organised – there is a lot of surface to bounce off.
Given the works Deshayes has selected to accompany his own, classical references appear throughout. Many Cooks, 2013, is like a big yellow Greco-Roman frieze, but St Cristina, 1889-93, George Frampton’s pre-raphaelite looking plaster relief, is fossil-like. Nearby the white panels of Gulls in Gypsum, 2013, conjure up the scene of vacuum forming in Resnais’ film.
Flints in Gluten, 2013, two panels with glistening white squid floating on a blue plastic sea, look perfect except where a bubble has been caught during the moulding process. The presence of the artist is there in that mistake, and ironically, the skill in the process is revealed.
Deshayes’ own Le chant du Styrène, 2013, looks like pieces of melted aluminium that have been pulled or dragged into shape. The forms are sand swept, like the ocean floor, and are clamped into place on blue poles, which works nicely adding structure to the space. Henry Moore’s polystyrene maquette was the starting point. It inspired Deshayes to investigate the status of materials used in art. Here he displays the polystyrene, but in disguising it he doesn’t quite let it sing – not with its own voice anyway.
The tables that are not tables fascinated me. They are not plinths either for two the bronze busts that sit on them, more like floating platforms – yet their table-ness is hard to hide. Frank Dobson’s Margaret Rawlings, c 1936, looks relaxed, gazing out to sea perhaps, or emerging from the oily surface, but Epstein’s Bust of George Black, 1942, with its angry stare, just didn’t belong there.
While it is good to see these works form HMI on display at S1, I struggled to see the connections to the contemporary work. I’m sure it was an amazing opportunity for Deshayes to exhibit alongside these historic pieces, to let them into his world, but it could be seen as an indulgence that reduces Epstein and Moore to decoration or worse, embellishment. The Resnais film and the Moore maquette are more meaningful companions to this body of work, and alone would have and allowed it the space to speak eloquently enough for itself.
Nicolas Deshayes, Crude Oil is on display at S1 Artspace, Sheffield until 21st September 2013