Small is beautiful

While one woman artist's sculptures languish in a room in Vauxhall, another has all of the Serpentine Gallery to herself. Which is the better?

Tim Hilton
Sunday 23 October 2011 06:31

TWO exhibitions by youngish women reveal different aspects of the art world. Jana Sterbak has all the rooms of the Serpentine Gallery to herself and fills them with aplomb, though sparingly. Frances Richardson has a much less appealing space at the Gasworks Gallery in Vauxhall, a room that's used for occasional exhibitions in a communal block of artists' studios. Sterbak's work is on international tour, she has a lot of publicity and a sumptuous catalogue. Richardson has no catalogue; her exhibition is a local affair with an atmosphere of make-do and experiment.

Such is life. Some artists get on the contemporary big-time circuit, most don't. People sometimes think that artistic reputations are made by critics. Would that it were so! Fame nowadays is manufactured by curators and their publicity machines. I write this not as a criticism of Sterbak, merely as an observation. She was born in Prague, emigrated with her family to Canada, had some Canadian shows and then, in 1990, was in the "Aperto" section for young artists at the Venice Biennale. Next she was chosen for the Tate's "Rites of Passage" show last year. One piece in that exhibition was a woman's glove, its leather puckered after being in a washing machine. Another was an aluminium tailor's dummy, clothed in a rough dress made from thin rectangles of dried meat.

The element of Dada performance in such works is obviously more important than their precise physical characteristics. Like other circuit artists, Sterbak is not an object-maker. She responds to invitations from galleries by devising theatrical or cinematic effects. Thus she dominates their (often darkened) public areas, and the visitor is made to attend to observations about the world that are not simply visual. The Serpentine exhibition does include some objects, for instance some neat little cones made from tape measures, but these don't add up to much and are certainly not as persuasive as Sterbak's videos and installations.

One video is specifically about persuasion. A young man is seen on a television monitor reading (in French) the Declaration of the Rights of Man. You watch, and soon see that there's something not right about him. He's not behind his speech, not confident enough for television, nor indeed for his text. That's because he has a bad stutter and so is nervous about reciting the things we take to be basic human truths. Thus the work is edgy: not quite edgy enough to be unsettling, I feel, but we can take it as a metaphor for all sorts of political or human failings.

Sterbak is not afraid to let viewers know that she thinks about the human condition but - as so many artists have found - it's not easy to say new things about perennial mysteries. Grand themes never guarantee grand art. If Sterbak was less thoughtful she might be more original. Most of the things she makes look dated. They seem to belong to the early 1970s, especially the metal piece called Seduction Couch, which reminds me of the American minimalist Robert Morris.

Frances Richardson is an international artist too, her commitment being to Africa. She went from her home in Leeds (where, incidentally, she was at school with Damien Hirst) to art college and then straight to Nigeria. Richardson sensed that most of the art she saw there was inauthentic, so went into the bush and learnt the skills of Yoruba carving from a master craftsman, the first white person ever to be allowed into this mystic tradition. Such a programme is obviously remarkable, courageous too. Anyway, Richardson knows how to sacrifice a goat before starting a sculpture - I bet Hirst doesn't - and after a year of her unusual apprenticeship felt able to make work that was both African and had some relevance to her identity as a young European woman.

Obviously there's a contrast between Sterbak and Richardson in terms of background and art-world sophistication. The deep difference is that Richardson makes things with her own hands. Wood-carving doesn't have many devotees among video artists, but here's one of those people who can't feel content without fashioning an object from a larger block. Is this not a general and unchanging human impulse? I can't tell how much Yoruba craftsmanship is left in Richardson's work, but there's obviously much skill and love in the way that she has reduced and ornamented her pieces of acacia, yew, cherry, elm and magnolia.

African though it is, Richardson's sculpture belongs with the subversive, personal and sexy pieces we have seen from British women sculptors in the last few years. I reproduce Purse, with its pink plastic flowers rather thoughtfully stuffed in the acacia's holes. Other pieces combine ancient-looking wood with amazingly vulgar bits of fun fur or nylon hair bought in Brixton market. They don't look exactly right, but I'm sure that Richardson is on a winning streak. Perhaps some smart curator will take notice of her - but I'm told she's more interested in going back to Africa.

! Jana Sterbak: Serpentine Gallery, W2 (0171 402 4103), to 25 Feb. Frances Richardson: Gasworks, SE11 (0171 735 3445), to Wed.

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