Michael Samuels: This Was Tomorrow
Trigg, David, Art Monthly
Spacex Exeter 28 July to 15 September
Dominating the main gallery at Spacex is what appears to be a rather unlikely monument to 1960s British living rooms. Reaching from one end of the space to the other, the tall, slender construction, comprising fragments of modernist furniture held together with G-clamps and ratchet straps, dramatically bisects the gallery. This is Tragedy of the Commons, 2012, Michael Samuels's most ambitious work to date and the centrepiece of 'This Was Tomorrow', his first solo show in a UK public gallery. Yet despite its imposing scale, the work exudes a curious air of familiarity. Perhaps it is the fragments of teak drawers and classic cupboard designs; or maybe it is the numerous hi-fi speakers or the anglepoise lamps, which are hard not to read anthropomorphically. Above all, though, its homely quality can be credited to the human scale and the domestic, ergonomic design of the work's constituent parts.
Continuing Samuels's quirky investigations into the formal, material and spatial qualities of sculpture, the works in this show all utilise G-Plan furniture. Launched in the mid 1950s by Donald Gomme, the aspirational G-Plan brand revolutionised British furniture, combining contemporary Scandinavian-style design with modern marketing techniques. Samuels's approach to this now retro product line is to cut up, skilfully splice and reconfigure its cabinets, tables and sideboards to create complex, fragmented sculptures that embrace a visual unpredictability while revealing an intuitive inner logic.
The word bricolage is often bandied about in discussions of Samuels's work and it could be argued that the artist has claimed the mantle of Kurt Schwitters. Yet Samuels' modus operandi is not as close to Levi-Strauss's conception of the bricoleur as some have supposed. In his 1962 book The Savage Mind, Levi-Strauss observes that bricoleurs approach tasks by reviewing the resources they have immediately to hand. He stresses that the bricoleur operates within a closed universe and that the 'rules of his game are always to make do with whatever is at hand'. While Samuels may have previously made do with whatever came to hand, his recent works comprise carefully selected elements, deliberately sought out in secondhand furniture shops or on eBay. Thus it is perhaps more accurate to consider Samuels as an assemblage artist, one who, in the words of William Seitz, is concerned with 'the fitting together of parts and pieces'. …