Stone Soup - Mark Barker and Terence McCormack at Roland Ross
Originally featured in Art Monthly 466
Arriving at the gallery, I found myself having to retrace my steps, certain that I had made an error. The intervention of black paint coating the entire window frontage, Left to R.R, 2023, a collaborative work conceived by Mark Barker and Terence McCormack during the installation of their exhibition, meant that the space was seemingly erased from view. The piece develops with the realisation that tufts of dog’s hair (the gallerist’s pet) have been placed delicately onto the interior windows. The artwork appropriately foregrounds notions of intimacy, comfort and disquiet, themes that are slowly revealed and retold throughout both artists’ individual contributions.
Moving through the exhibition you experience a duality of space. Half in darkness, half illuminated by stark strip-lighting, the gallery floor shifts from tile to wood. This meshing of different textures and tones is highlighted in the titular Stone Soup, 2023, a large wall cabinet that bridges the two spaces. Sunlight has stained the back of the cabinet, the subtle knocks and marks now evidence of the history contained in the collaborative sculpture. Repurposed from one of the many antique shops in the local area and utilised by Barker and McCormack with the intention of forming a shared repository of materials collected during the installation, the piece now holds a single image of McCormack’s housed behind one of the cabinet’s glass doors. The print, a scanned promotional feature on the TV drama Intimate Contact from a 1987 issue of Women’s Own, asks in bold type: ‘What would you do if your husband got AIDS?’
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By asking what would you do, the provocative question notably erases or reverses more expected queer male identity and subjectivity positions. The article and the drama’s narrative emphasis is centred on a female character who learns that her English husband on a business trip to New York contracts HIV/AIDS. The success of this work lies in its relational aspects, including its visible objecthood controlling the centre of the room – its presence notably appropriated from the home environment for which it was originally envisioned. In turn, a suggestive queerness is attributed through its arrival in the gallery and its absence and abject removal from the domestic setting. Several turnips are also hidden in its drawers, their earthly odour perfuming the gallery throughout the course of the show. A direct allusion to the UK government’s remarks on recent fruit and vegetable shortages could potentially feel a little on the nose, but the implication of this durational and sensorial component draws the relational elements of the exhibition together.
In Dixi Ventilation screen, Berlin, a, 2022, and Olymp Ventilation screen, Berlin, b, 2022, Barker has documented variants of Portaloo vents encountered in Berlin. The vents, analytically recorded in sliver gelatine, make visible the specific architecture designed to ventilate but also the desire or preference to lock oneself in an enclosed space. Withdrawn from their original locations, the grates have a captivating stillness. They, like Stone Soup, are images that feel so familiar and familiarly experienced that their stark reappraisal becomes an oddly transgressive gesture. The ornamental qualities that are drawn out in the photographs are reminiscent of confession booths, an idea mirrored in untitled, 2023, a wall-based latex piece by Barker on which an icon of a distorted church has been laboured into the surface, appearing like a liminal apparition coming in and out of focus.
The perceptible absence of a corporeal referent or physical body in Barker’s images continues and is exemplified in McCormack’s Family Zone, 2023, a synchronised display of 240 slides. Projected black-and-white images of fens, estuaries and snails that snap and jut against full-colour images of West End toilet cubicles. The differing orientations and registers of McCormack’s projected images produce striking moments of disquiet. Occasionally, frames of cadmium yellow bridge across two images; it is compelling that McCormack has opted to include moments of under and overexposure, leaving slight grazes of light on the wall or other imperfections that are then blown out by perfect shafts of light and colour. The interplay and contrast between what can be perceived as picturesque and empty, and signifiers of spontaneity and freedom, speak to the agility required to navigate between distinct social divisions.
The exhibition’s title is taken from a European folktale that speaks of collaboration, where individuals come together to create some sustenance out of the pretend belief that a soup solely cooked of hot water and stones could be delicious. The exhibition similarly brings together a stark set of fragments in which a connecting logic is set in play. By reassessing moments of intimacy, absence and comfort, the artists successfully highlight how these emotions can pool together to form our complex subjectivities.