The drama of the humdrum

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Before we enter the Waddington Galleries, an enormous sculpture in the window seizes our eyes with exclamatory force. Curving back against the wall, a giant fork brandishes on its prongs a glistening red meatball festooned with spaghetti. Dripping freely applied splashes of yellow polyurethane, the pasta twists and tumbles as if striving to escape. But the fork has no intention of letting its cargo go. So we find ourselves caught up in a knot of conflicting emotions, which keep us embroiled in the drama long after its initial impact arrested us.

Inside the exhibition, Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen provide plenty of other reasons for lingering. They have worked together since 1976, when the well-established Oldenburg displayed a titanic trowel at an international exhibition. From the early days of American pop art in the 1960s, he had been fascinated by the potential of everyday objects. In the Waddington show, a sculpture called “Fan – Hard Model” shows how Oldenburg can transform an ordinary appliance into an object imbued with strangeness. Made of pins and cardboard, the fan cannot move. But Oldenburg, a virtuoso draughtsman, enlivens its surface with flurries of crayon and spray enamel, and it exudes a surprising energy.

This dynamism pulses through all the diverse forms on display here. At one point, it descends into violence: a black aluminium pickaxe is driven down hard on a white plinth and stays embedded there, its handle jutting forcefully into the air. Nearby, though, energy flies outwards in “Collar and Bow”. The wings of a stiff collar shoot away from each other, like two fish arching through water. Between them a black tie uncoils at speed, as if driven by a life of its own.

Other pieces are less exuberant. The “Silent Metronome” is positively melancholy. A canvas cover has been torn away, revealing the hand of the instrument set in diagonal readiness. Yet it remains arrested, and looks as fragile as a bandaged victim. The “Beached Lutes” also have a woebegone air. Dumped in a cluster, they are useless: their strings dangle loose, and all three seem to have been abandoned by their performers.

Music is the most pervasive theme of the show, and “Soft Saxophone” (pictured) is its most elegiac expression. Made principally of muslin, it lies collapsed on a grey cloth, looking like a corpse laid out for embalming. Although a secular work, it stirs memories of images depicting Christ’s entombment. But no mourners are at hand. The saxophone is alone, as if defeated.

Yet even the most wounded of these musical instruments still seem capable of recovery. “Tied Trumpet” appears at first a terminally frustrated thing. Brilliant red cord has been wound tight around the middle, leaving the yellow tubes to twist helplessly. Yet they still seem bent on evading its grasp.

“Standing Soft Clarinet” may be battered and unable to stop drooping as it strives to remain upright. But its grey surface, resin-coated and painted with latex, succeeds in maintaining a balance. A sense of obstinacy runs through its pummelled form. This refusal to give up is even more evident in a large drawing of a French horn. The shiny tube has unravelled and rests exhausted on the ground. There it remains, as if accepting the inevitability of its fate. Even so, charcoal and pastel are deployed with such assurance that regeneration still seems feasible. A stubborn sense of resilience gives this exhibition a life-affirming dynamism.

Exhibition continues until October 27

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