Peter Coffin’s "Cosmolology + 1" at Herald St, London

Anna Gritz

January 24, 2011
Herald St, London
January 15–February 20, 2011

There is something theatrical about Peter Coffin’s recent exhibition at Herald St. The scene is set for what appears to be a science-play consistent of three main set components: clouds, hanging plants, and neon wires—backdrops, curtains, and stage lighting. The gallery/stage functions as a cosmic model, or rather a rehearsal of the cosmic process as Antonin Artaud would call it—the study of the study of the study of the Cosmos.

Like in any exploration, the subject reveals itself bit-by-bit, reliant on the point of view of the visitor, which slowly takes shape through the act of conquering space. That is, the visitor turned actor performs this play collectively with the works on view. In the first room, in the midst of an arrangement of seven thin neon tubes that wriggle in erratic, vertical lines from ceiling to floor, Untitled (Lines), 2011, look like jungle lianas, each flickering in a different color taken from the Newtonian color spectrum. Yet there is something materially unstable and slightly unnerving about these solid glass tubes and the way they reflect every move in a multifarious shadow play onto the gallery walls. Whoever meanders through the colonnade of light is engulfed in a light therapy of its own kind, absorbing one shade after another until the entire spectrum is consumed.

In the second room, Coffin shows five digital prints that feature an array of rainbow colored clouds that create meteorologically impossible designs. The clouds are of various sizes, shapes, and pixilations, and cropped on the edges like wallpaper, as if cut from a bigger continuous pattern. Coffin’s clouds derive from the scrapbooks of 19th century landscape photographers such as Mathew Brady, Gustav LeGray, Francis Frith, Roger Fenton, Eadweard Muybridge, Henry Peach Robinson, Oscar Rejlander, and Eugène Colliau. Back then, the light sensitivity of the collodion photographic processes were unable to pick up the subtle variation in hues of the sky when photographing landscapes—thus, the skies registered as being cloudless. To remedy this mirage, the photographers would revert to the trick of collecting cloud formations as stock material to superimpose into the empty skies of their landscape photographs. The clouds became serial backdrops employed as devices to set the mood of a photograph. Singular clouds can be discovered over and over again in a diverse range of landscape settings. Something interesting happens though when Coffin collapses the various cloud studies into one work: the clouds defy the limelight and retain the characteristic of a backdrop. Freed from the foreground one would expect the clouds to thrive; but instead they are more reminiscent of reused gift-wrapping paper from a children’s birthday party—beautiful, but not fully equipped to carry the weight of the work.

From the cloud room a curtain of hanging plants leads into an adjacent space, a private viewing room filled with older works by Coffin and other gallery artists. The view through the curtain feels like a glimpse into a backstage area filled with old props. The green vines that grow from a planter above the doorway become a fluid separation; a motive that has no end in itself but that is intrinsically linked to the space it divides.

Coffin’s strategy is in essence alchemistic in the sense that he aims to resolve fundamental antagonisms between mind and matter, idea and form, sublimating physical actions and processes into a spiritual experience. At the end of his quest, there’s a heap of gold in the form of two interlinked donuts gleaming in the backroom behind the vine curtain of “Cosmology + 1,” a mysterious take on the shape of the universe, possibly, whose hole, in this case, is missing but gilded.

The Cosmos, Light Art, Printmaking

Anna Gritz is a curator and writer based in London. She is associate curator at the South London Gallery.

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