Nihilistic Optimistic, Blain | Southern

Recently it has been books more than art which have absorbed me so it’s unsurprising that literary references have crept into my art reviews. For my latest piece on CAN JM Barrie’s Peter Pan and Dickens’ London streets all fed their way into my enjoyment of light and shadow.

Whether it’s the wild fraying of hair, curled-up boots, or the loose confident stance: there is a little of Peter Pan in the silhouetted shadows of Tim Noble and Sue Webster.

“If he thought at all, but I don’t believe he ever thought, it was that he and his shadow, when brought near each other, would join like drops of water, and when they did not he was appalled. He tried to stick it on with soap from the bathroom, but that also failed. A shudder passed through Peter, and he sat on the floor and cried.” Peter Pan, JM Barrie

It is not just the figure of the boy who never grew up which strikes a resemblance either, Noble and Webster’s sculptures and installations for their Blain | Southern show Nihilistic Optimistic are an equally familiar play of fiction and fantasy.

The six large-scale works included in the solo show are concerned with materiality and form, deconstruction and half-formed chaos, disintegration and materialisation; they are the paradox of ‘Nihilistic Optimistic’. Assemblages of step ladders, splintered wood, saw-dust and other debris are arranged in the dark and a series of light projectors transform their seeming chaos into perfect shadows.

The installations appeal to the fascination of storytelling in the warm dark of the gallery. The allusion isn’t pretentious or obscure, Noble and Webster continue with their exploration of self-portraiture by borrowing from Victorian silhouettes and the rubbish of the streets. But they don’t need to be about more than this to work.

There was a kind of deliberate choice not use such recognisable objects any more, and to start fracturing things up -splintering things. So the mind has to wander in a different way, like you’re giving and taking, and it’s as much about the gaps and holes in between.” Tim Noble

The transformation of layers of urban waste into a solid shadow is explicable, but enough to instil awe and wonder. The splinters and fragments are perfect for describing the rougher edges, but how do these assemblages come to reflect a familiar person? The silhouettes are all larger than life and yet they are imbued with a visible character which makes them feel alive, as though they might in fact be shadows which have slipped from their true owners to create an independent mischief.

But for Peter Pan the slippery materiality of his shadow is not all fun and games: the shudder, the tears; these are reactions the viewer might grow to feel in the presence of these imperfect silhouettes. The titles of the works all suggestively point towards the darker side of the playful; ‘Wild Mood Swings’, ‘The Individual’, ‘Nasty Pieces of Work’. ‘Self-imposed Misery’. They are named to be as unstable as the illusion.

Noble and Webster describe these works as ‘street compositions’ but if they belong to any street it seems to be the fantasized labyrinth of a Dickensian London; street sweepers, flickering gas lamps and paranoid shadows, all move within our imagination.

Nihilistic Optimistic will be at Blain | Southern until the 24th November.

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