'Attebasile' Victor Man at Ikon Gallery
Address: 1 Oozells Square, Brindleyplace, Birmingham, B1 2HS
Dates: 26 November 2008 – 25 January 2009
Times: Tuesday - Sunday 11am-6pm
Victor Man is from Transylvania. Thanks largely to Bram Stoker, this region of Romania will, for most people, be forever associated with flapping bats, creaking coffins, dark castles and the like. While Man certainly trades on this, with a flavour of gothic camp running throughout his work, he is not nearly as indebted to his homeland as the curators of his latest show at the Ikon would like to think. The exhibition's press release makes various points about Romania's ''folk' traditions' and the 'physical and mental isolation of the period during Communist control' – but really, this is a show about disparate parts telling stories together.
Aside from one characteristic that unifies his practise – nearly everything is black – Man's work is varied, unpredictable and playful in conception. In Attebasile he displays a range of paintings, sculptures, photographs and prints, scattered across the space in (at first glance) haphazard fashion.
Man's paintings are cosmopolitan in subject: leather-clad dominatrixes, thespians and smoking women in high heels dip in and out of shadow and abstraction. They are gloomy, occasionally laboured affairs, but find their place in the wider exhibition. One highlight has to be a painting of a seated woman, whose upper half is concealed by a sheet of felt hung over the picture surface. Somehow, the fact that this section of the painting is never to be seen really engages. Gestures like this are ridiculous but knowingly so.
The sculptural works function more as propositions of actions. Rolls of felt lie ready to be unrolled. A long, thin assemblage of carved wood and leather gloves that is leant against the wall takes the form of a shamanistic prop/tool. A block of wood sits on the floor, with holes in it not unlike those in a bowling ball. The mock interaction suggested is, again, ridiculous. The one site-based piece here is a great black curtain drawn across one of the windows of the gallery, a theatrical nod to the neo-gothic architecture of the Ikon (a former Victorian boarding school).
Man's success lies in his refusal to pin down what and how he makes; his process is one of formal interplay where materials, textures, shapes and motifs are rearranged, swapped and in a constant state of flux. Nothing is what it seems in his murky little world, each artwork a curious constituent of a wider, shifting entity. The viewer takes on the role of investigator, searching amidst the ambiguity for something solid from which we can build our own narratives and draw our own conclusions.
The issue that arises amongst all the smoke and mirrors is not really the work but its presentation. Attebasile has the feeling of a self-conscious student exhibit, its contents displayed a little too offhandedly to convince. There is that dubious sense of 'this-relates-to-this' and 'look-at-this-next-to-that'. Whether blame lies with Man, or the curators at the Ikon, is hard to say, but greater efforts need to be made for the viewer's experience to feel less contrived.
What redeems this, and (mercifully) keeps the pseudo-profundity at bay, is the inherent whimsy in the work. Like some dusty old B-movie, the gloom and melodrama are simply all part of the fun. Victor Man is slick, sharp, and – crucially – to be really enjoyed if not taken too seriously.