In his recent book Curationism, the Canadian critic David Balzer notes the recent migration of the word “curated” from the artworld out across the sock drawers, playlists, and sandwich fillings of mainstream culture. It’s a tendency that can be seen to reflect the fight to find difference, soul, or personality amidst the proliferation of rapidly replaceable mass-produced consumer goods. It’s a tension within contemporary culture that also finds strong echoes in the work of the 38-year-old Rochester-based artist Matthew Darbyshire.
In the days before our interview, interwoven with email chat about Curationism, Darbyshire sends me a link to a YouTube “room tour”. Over 10 minutes, an unseen narrator guides viewers around a small bedroom, indicating features of note – fairylights zigzagging a wall, neatly stacked white archive boxes – with the sombre, measured tone of a museum guide. The contents of the room are familiar, mass produced, readily available. They are culturally frictionless objects, re-made and reproduced to the point where they shed earlier associations – to Christmas trees, to bureaucratic accoutrements – yet displayed together, they feed easy assumptions about the inhabitant, her age, aspirations and socioeconomic background.
“But can you extrapolate so much these days?” counters Darbyshire when we discuss the video over cups of tea later in the week. “People update, replenish, makeover so frequently.” Squinting over teen interiors on YouTube is not part of the artist’s usual methodology – his studio in an old brewery building is strewn with chunks of plaster, sheets of polystyrene, sheerings of plastic and other debris of hand-making – but over the last seven years, through works such as the apartment-like Blades House (2008) and An Exhibition for Modern Living (2010), he has become adept at identifying formal elements that typify the lived environment of our time.
An Exhibition for Modern Living, for example, was first shown at that year’s British Art Show and takes its title and display format from a 1949 exhibition of Modernist design shown at the Detroit Institute of Art. Where the post-war show was all optimism, Darbyshire’s Exhibition for Modern Living is an exercise in deadening ubiquity.
Here the shelves and plinths display objects such as Arne Jacobson’s modernist Egg and Swan chairs, which are now mass-produced and spread across branches of Foxtons and McDonalds. Religious statuary is reduced to kitsch, graffiti to wall decoration. The union flag is stripped of political associations to adorn scatter cushions. But check your prejudices design junkies: as Ned Beauman’s review of the work in Frieze memorably put it, this is a work in which “taste is the bait and class is the snare”.
Tricky to get a handle on at the time, at five years distance, An Exhibition for Modern Living is more evidently a snapshot of a moment – the forms, the colours, the surfaces that typified Britain in 2010 – than pointed social needling. “I don’t want to be pigeonholed as an artist that’s just interested in mass consumption,” explains Darbyshire. “The objects themselves, their intrinsic aspects, the poetry that I can create with the arrangement of these things is really interesting.” The piece now lends its title to a major survey of his work opening later this month at Manchester Art Gallery, which will feature 10 large installations as well as smaller, more playful elements. Will he update it to take in recent interior decoration trends such as shabby chic and a tendency he describes as “strewn taxidermy”? “We haven’t yet got shabby chic in the banks or the accountant’s waiting rooms – as a unifier or democratiser [An Exhibition of Modern Living] is still more accurate.”
Darbyshire is interested in what is lost and what is gained when something is copied over and over again: be that a Phil Collins song, an artwork, or the seasoned oak rendered synthetic in the wood-look veneer that coats the shelves of the mocked-up interior in Oak Effect (2013). Originally fitted to the floorplan of an Olympic Village apartment, Oak Effect’s “oak” furniture will now have its artificiality accentuated by hand-made wooden artefacts from the gallery’s collection arranged around it.
His 2014 work Bureau more specifically explores distinctions between hand and machine copies, with Darbyshire effectively turning himself into a printing machine, diligently hand-painting banal advertising posters in four coloured layers, and building “3D prints” of objects including a water cooler and the Farnese Hercules, through layered plaster formed in hand-cut polystyrene moulds. At the centre of the installation, resting on an Windsor chair, an immaculate 3D print of a woman produced by an automotive prototyping facility gazes – one imagines dismissively – at Darbyshire’s lumpen Hercules.
A spinal injury and resulting surgeries put Darbyshire’s career on hold shortly after he graduated from the Royal Academy in 2005. Ever industrious, from his bed in the Whitechapel hospital, he stitched himself felt overalls as a more accommodating alternative to his previous work “uniform” of Polo shirt and Levi’s – they would go on to become prototypes for his Standardised Production Clothing (2009) series. Nine other versions followed, in materials including pinstripe and tweed, brutally reducing social stereotypes down to their literal fabric.
While he seems never to stop working, the energetic Darbyshire is a social being. Many works over the last few years have featured collaborations: even his mother, the artist Pippa Darbyshire, has been enlisted, painting the polystyrene renderings of Soviet statuary in Palac (2009) to resemble aged stone.
More recently, in the popsicle-toned honeycomb plastic sculptures of the Captcha (2014–) series, Darbyshire has turned his attention from the physical readymades of An Exhibition for Modern Living to readymades of the digital realm. 3D scans of familiar objects – the Doryphoros of Polykleitos, a Doberman dog, a lavatory, a flat screen TV – were purchased from a supplier over the Internet. Darbyshire built each of the 3D forms out of layers of polycarbonate then painted them in graduated colours that precisely matched the colour fade and meld of the Photoshop colour wheel. The polycarbonate is so airy that from certain angles the forms appear almost substanceless; they have the uncanny quality of digital images forced into physical existence.
In destroying the formal hierarchy between a classical sculpture and a wall-mounted toilet, Darbyshire also draws a disquieting line back to the “nobrow” tendency portrayed in An Exhibition for Modern Living that he sees as “homogenising and eviscerating and emptying everything: making it all mush, all the same” and through it to the YouTube room tours and the desire for a “curated” life.
The flip side of this phenomenon – and one also detailed in Balzer’s book – is an extension of the artist’s role to becoming a wholesale provider of “aura”, possessed of a magic touch. During the Blair era (as in many others) art was presented as a means to salve social ills. Since the crash, artist have been enlisted to the curatorial ranks, solicited to curate displays by cash-strapped museums as a way to re-package existing collections. For Darbyshire, both tendencies undermine the artist’s right to be a marginal, recalcitrant figure. “It really bugs me that the artist has become this regenerator, educator, redeemer – like a social worker or service provider. Why should we?” he says, genially, but with feeling. “Art can be incredibly powerful, it has all those potentials, but it shouldn’t do it dutifully.”
‘Matthew Darbyshire: An Exhibition for Modern Living’, Manchester Art Gallery 25 Sept – 10 Jan