Tintype Gallery, London, 10 March – 13 April 2017
Tucked in an alcove at the back of the gallery is a cluster of drawings, one of which, in a shaky, pale blue hand, simply spells out the words Actual Size (all works 2017). In the context of ‘Aiming or Hitting’, Marion Coutts’s first solo show since 2008, the pointless tautology appears as a gentle reminder to try and focus on the world as it is, a reassurance that everything has its own scale. The exhibition’s careful photographs, sparse drawings and slight sculptural installations evince a sense of hesitant detachment: a wandering eye and sense of curiosity, tempered with a deliberate step back, a wary distance. In the main room of the gallery, Curtain is a line of black vinyl strips that runs from shoulder height to the floor, bisecting half the room like odd, funereal party streamers. Two rounded pieces of chalkboard occupy the opposite wall, each shaped like the conjoined circular outline of an image as seen through a pair of binoculars. There are no ghosts of words or remnants of anything ever having been written on them, just the residual faint lines of chalk that always stays behind when you try to to wipe a chalkboard clean. This deliberate blankness sets the tone for the whole show, while the work’s title gives us our stage instructions of where to remain: The Middle Distance.
Framed photographs are hung at various heights around the room seemingly randomly, as if a paper plane had been thrown at the wall to determine where they should be placed. Indeed, two of the images show grounded paper planes, their numbers suggesting dozens and dozens of whizzing attempts: Paper Plane 101 is a sleek, neatly folded example, while Paper Plane 34 is slightly tattered, its nose scrunched from impact. But these works don’t feel as playful as they sound: rather, they are a melancholic study in coming to a sudden halt. As the title of the exhibition implies, there is the preparation of aiming, and the thud of hitting, but no sense of the release of sudden soaring or flying that should be in between. The other images maintain this stillness, focusing on the nape of a small boy’s neck in the black and white photo Boy Looks at Rock on Top of Another Rock and the well-used disarray of the book shelves in Library, filled with volumes of philosophy and art history jumbled and toppled like dominoes. All the photos have a grainy, slightly blurry quality, as if salvaged from long-forgotten negatives found among the mess of those books. The bottom half of False Acacia Aurea is tinted a deep yellow, dipped in iodine; colouring the dense green foliage of the image with disinfectant becomes an act of care, of trying preserve whatever these random images used to mean.
Coutts’s work as a writer tells its own story, particularly her memoir The Iceberg (2014), which documents the death of her partner, art critic Tom Lubbock; and while no artwork, in my opinion, needs biography as ballast, her work here seemed determined not to tell a story, to hover listlessly on the threshold of articulation. As in the photo Projector With Colour Removed, a hazy white circle marked with squiggles of dust that hangs highest on the wall, attempting to focus on nothing still produces something. Coutts’s lines of dust and chalk feel more like blank screens, waiting, in vain, for things to be projected upon them. ‘Aiming or Hitting’ gives us a set of empty stages, lined with curtains from behind which we wait for the artist to emerge.
Originally published in Frieze No. 187, May 2017