British artist Cornelia Parker is known for – in her own words – “cartoon deaths.” She has exploded a garden shed, steamrolled silverware, and thrown things off cliffs. Her sculptures and installations are made through violent means but their appearance is often fragile.
This new exhibition is charged with a different kind of violence. Parker, 56, has visited fraught places – from a war zone to a prison – and created works that are minimalist and abstract. Their beauty, like their politics, is restrained. They hint at social critique, but don’t quite get there. Instead, they are formally elegant, even muted.
"Spilt Milk (Jerusalem)" (2012-13) is a photograph of a pavement from Jerusalem. White liquid has dribbled into the cracks. The angle is vertiginous; the world seems to have turned upside down and the pavement has become a wall. Parker draws the viewer’s attention to the texture of the concrete, to the delicacy of the milk – which might be thin white paint or cream.
The title is a play on the saying about not crying over spilt milk, which points to the uselessness of grieving over that which is trivial. It puns on the land of milk and honey, gone sour. The image is the most striking and succinct in the exhibition, but how does it reflect on the Israel/Palestine conflict? What does it mean to turn conflict into aesthetic symbolism?
Parker’s work is powerful because it poses these questions without offering easy answers. It makes you think about the role of art in relation to society – in that sense, it succeeds completely. Nominated for the Turner Prize in 1997, Parker is a much more subtle and sophisticated artist than many of her YBA peers. It is to her credit that she managed to stay outside of that movement.
The exhibition is dominated by a series of black bronze sculptures of the cracks in London pavements, which are less interesting than the political works. Parker’s obsession with grids is reflected elsewhere in drawings made out of melted down bullets.
"Prison Wall Abstract (A Man Escaped)" (2012-13) is a bold and wonderful series of twelve photographs that Parker took on her iPhone. They show the random black and white marks made by builders on Pentonville Prison wall. Apparently effortless, they look like Robert Motherwell abstract paintings. Here Parker has simply brought to light – put in a gallery – what the city produces by accident.
Until 27 July; Frith Street Gallery, 17-18 Golden Square, London