The best art flies solo. When you have to turn to the text panel to work out what you are supposed to feel, the answer is “not enough”.
A vast amount of contemporary art depends on external explanation. The rot set in with Duchamp’s urinal in 1917. In the late 1960s, the leftwing Italian Arte Povera movement picked up the Dadaists’ baton of nonsense and, thanks to their feel for materials – coal sacks, old clothes, recycled mirrors, industrial timber – turned it into art bristling with sense and sensibility. But they kicked off a vogue for found-object sculptures that were less thoughtfully assembled. Let off the burden of having to actually make anything, many artists mistook idleness for imagination.
Not so Jim Lambie. The 50-year-old Glaswegian is a maestro of the found-object form. If Arte Povera’s Antonioni-cool ragazzi had been brought up in 1970s Glasgow rather than in 1950s Turin, they would have made art like Lambie’s, drawing not on Sartre and Rossellini but on the NME, psychedelia and glam rock.
Lambie’s work is steeped in his passion for music. He was born in 1964 in Glasgow, his father a foodstuffs salesman from Monday to Friday who spent weekends touring Scotland with his mobile disco while Lambie’s mother mucked in as go-go dancer.
As an adolescent, he was entranced by the city’s indie music scene. He played in a local band and still works as a DJ. His close friendship with Glasgow group Primal Scream led to him creating a cover for their 2003 compilation album Dirty Hits.
The utopia he has created this summer at Edinburgh’s Fruitmarket Gallery resembles a bedroom designed by Lewis Carroll’s Alice – if Alice had been a pop-mad teenager with a weakness for car-boot sales. The opening installation “Shaved Ice” fills the Fruitmarket’s downstairs gallery with ladders coloured in household gloss. As you weave through them, you discover that they are backed by mirrors. The result is an eye-twisting spatial pun: there is your face where no face should be, and the room behind you is suddenly beyond.
What gives this installation its mystique is Lambie’s choice of base material. Ladders are part of our quotidian world. They are for climbing up and down and reaching things. We take it for granted that we will be able to see through their slats in the same way that we expect taps to gush water. Lambie’s capacity to magic a familiar object into something new, yet not betray its original incarnation makes him a true heir to Arte Povera. His ladders, hanging from the ceiling and apparently ripe for climbing, remember their history.
Vinyl, of course, multi-tasks as a useful sticky tape, a flooring surface and the essential component of records. Lambie loves the stuff, yet this former student of the Glasgow School of Art never forgets that he is a sculptor not a musician. Aware that his job is that of transformation, he turns the Fruitmarket’s floor into a sea of psychedelic vinyl stripes.
Christened “Zobop”, this carpet’s zingy hum acts like an optical backing track to the spare assembly in the upper gallery. It is here that we discover what Lambie is made of as he co-opts the cast of his everyday world – album covers, boxer shorts, plastic bags, potato sacks, coat hangers, silver foil – into works that leap out with formal exactitude and provocative dysfunction.
But he also has a gift for knowing when to stop. In the short but illuminating film that accompanies the exhibition, he explains that a desire to assemble old album covers into the shape of a star ground to a halt when he realised that they “didn’t want” to be in that shape. The result is a concertina of stacks and squares – “Stakka” – that ripples across the floor as if mapping a disco dancer’s shimmy. Its sinister snakiness is seen to best effect through “Perm and Blow Dry”. This wall relief of second-hand mirrors, some opened out at right angles, fractures the entire room into punkish dissonance.
Compared with so many of his contemporaries, who outsource their quick-to-imagine, slow-to-fabricate creations to studios with specialist expertise, Lambie’s DIY ethos supplies integrity. Yet it never descends into sloppiness. Two printed shirts are tacked up on the wall, neatly buttoned so that just their zany neck linings are visible while their skins have been covered respectively in silver foil and black vinyl tape. Foil swathes a pair of underpants in which eyeholes and a mouth have been punched. The disarming appeal of these scarecrow-sculptures depends on the balance between outward unkemptness and discreet yet palpable inner symmetry.
The show throws into relief not only Lambie’s strengths but also summons the ghosts of the best of his fellow travellers. When he admits that his decision to work with whatever came to hand was originally prompted by “not having enough money to buy paint”, he echoes Phyllida Barlow, who began to scour skips because she couldn’t afford to work with marble or bronze. Cascading to the floor like an elegy for a lost punk paradise, a chain of safety pins strung with sunglasses suspended between two men’s shoes inevitably conjures the junky elegance of the waterfalls of lightbulbs created as emblems of transience by Cuban-American artist Félix González-Torres, whose world was devastated by Aids.
As such, Lambie joins a small but select band of sculptors who know that ready-made does not preclude handmade nor that scrappy cancels symmetry. The Fruitmarket’s wonderful world of interiors makes one envious of Lambie’s fecund interior world.
Jim Lambie, Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh, to October 19 fruitmarket.co.uk
Photographs: Courtesy the artist and The Modern Institute / Toby Webster Ltd; The Ahrenberg Collection; Private collection