Gabriel Kuri at South London Gallery

by Alex Ross, October 2011

Defining the slicker side of post-minimalist assemblage, Belgium-based Mexican artist Gabriel Kuri’s first solo exhibition in a London public gallery compounds a studied formal purity with mostly furtive social commentary. Configured in response to the venue’s location in one of London’s more disadvantaged communities, and registering a moment of global economic unease, the exhibition engages tastefully with themes of emergency shelter, public housing, financial insecurity and political disenchantment. Nonetheless, devoid of explicit programmatic intent, these concerns read fundamentally as footnotes to Kuri’s revered strain of wry formalism—a dependable blend of orthodox Minimalism’s visual purity spliced with the plain-spoken poetics of the everyday.

Kuri has always been equally attentive to literary and literal space, and this show proves no exception. Suggesting an interminable cycle, before contingency after the fact, a paradoxical and somewhat ponderous title, implicates repetition, duality and states of liminality as the exhibition’s foremost structuring conceits. The artist has also outlined a terminology pertaining to his chosen sculptural components: labeling his interest in exploring “hard” versus “soft” materials and resources. That each work is both untitled and identified parenthetically ((Untitled (Platform), for instance) supplies another binary to convolute an already encumbered conceptualism. Tasking a minimum of materials to brook conflictive theoretical currents, his art’s simultaneous reach and restraint impels comparisons to Tobias Buche, Leopoldo Estol and Gabriel Orozco.

Untitled (Extra Safe) cobbles together a weathered slice of a battered mining skip, a uniformly painted wedge-shaped metal abstraction and an inflated condom that appears to prop up both, albeit precariously. Exemplifying a distinct strain of down-market allure, the composition wrangles the pristine and polluted to dramatize semantic exchanges between art and life. In this context, the human-scale wedge—a throwback to Minimalism’s severity—is pulled from a state of lulling purity to allude to the languages of statistical representation and architecture, at once evoking a three-dimensional pie chart and a Knoll-inflected take on provisional shelter. Juxtaposed with the structures it connects, the condom’s presence adds additional complexity: functionally, pictorially and formally actuated, it evokes housing bubbles, population growth and the strain of pregnancy and labor. That it does so while continuing to represent both the detrital and decorative speaks to Kuri’s considerable economy.

Veering towards subtle emotional charges rather than impassioned enunciations, the artist’s works occupying South London Gallery’s main space demonstrate a distanced approach to civic topics. Those in the venue’s intimate Clore Studio present sculpturally mediated discourses more explicitly allied to issues of political representation. In Untitled (Safe Step), a roughshod steel-gray polling table serves as a plinth for a carefully arrayed selection of worn door wedges and shards of soap. At first glance, the sculpture recalls Hans Haacke’s 1970s systems works, but closer inspection jettisons any possible hopes for effective critical engagement. Instead, Kuri leaves us to ponder the archival limpidness and subdued formal play evident in the work’s assignation of color decisions to readymade sources. That the result is a neutral scheme of tans and olives speaks for itself. Sidestepping a prime opportunity for an artifactually-narrated restaging of sloppy political, economic and social realities, the piece proves as spent and sanitized as its components.

Untitled (100%), the exhibition’s sole garden sculpture is just that: a garden sculpture. The work’s proximity to the venue’s surrounding council estates comprises a delicately jostled formation minimalist arcs that may leave some viewers wondering whether the exhibition’s willful indeterminacy is not also a case of blithe disregard. This is arguably the show’s weakest point and a case where understatement amounts to saying too little, but also invites us to assign it as a symbol of historical stability succumbing to our fractured times. Whether or not this is Kuri’s intent remains ambiguous, but it is reassuring to imagine the work as more haunting than haughty. Inscribed on South London Gallery’s original marquetry floor (sadly, not on display) is an old sentiment that continues to ring true: “The source of art is in the life of a people.” I like to think that Kuri saw it.

Gabriel Kuri: Before Contingency After the Fact
29 September–27 November 2011
South London Gallery
65 Peckham Road, London