Goldsmiths Curatorial Critique

Juan Fontanive and Chosil Kil at Riflemaker

Posted in Reviews by va801km on October 17, 2008

79 Beak Street, London W1F 9SU

Juan Fontanive, 'Tin Tan', and Chosil Kil, 'drawerings'
15 September – 8 November

Riflemaker looks like it could be an artist led space, were it not for the position just 
off Regent Street; housed in a gun-makers workshop dating from 1712, it has a peeling 
low-key frontage and an anti-white-cube aesthetic, with faded paint on wood panelling and 
an eclectic selection of old wooden chairs serving as shelves for its literature.  Yet it 
is a commercial gallery, funded from sales of works by its represented artists.  Showing 
mainly young and upcoming international artists, with the occasional high profile 
retrospective (the website claims a 2005 William Burroughs exhibition brought over 30,000 
people through the doors) it has developed a pattern of solo shows and external projects 
in partnership with other organisations which have garnered it reviews in most of the 
national broadsheets and arts publications.  And obviously made money to boot.

The peeling chic is the result of careful restoration and its signature appearance is 
maximised to appeal to those looking for something less institutional than the white 
walled temple of modern art.  The old shop sign has provided the gallery's logo, which 
hits retro and post-modern keys. The nature of the space so striking that the art has to 
consciously work with it because competition would be futile. This has led the gallery to 
focus on installation.  It was set up in 2004 by two collectors, Virginia Damtsa and Tot 
Taylor, who curate the space themselves.  Each exhibition is accompanied by a limited-
edition hardbook book priced at £10, and a programme of artists' talks and film.

The current exhibitions are by Juan Fontanive (ground floor), a young American artist, and
South Korean-born Chosil Kil (basement).  There are also the remains of an installation by
Liliane Lijn on the first floor.

Fontanive's show 'Tin Tan' consists of mechanical devices ('stupid machines' in his words)
which whir wire arms and compositions of black and white paper in a clockwork fashion.  The
first thing you notice on entering is the breathy clacking noise of cogs and motors. The
sculptures colonise the room, like fungus, growing out of walls and corners.  They are
reminiscent of Jean Tinguely's mobiles and Paul Klee's paintings, which combined with the
setting and their purposeless charm gives a feeling of nostalgia.  They are friendly and
benign, quirky and slightly old fashioned.  The artist states that they 'congratulate the
air and each other'. The whole installation is technically perfect but whimsical; the
artist's statement talks about beauty and freedom, air and infinity, but also ridicule.

The statement ends with a puzzling sequence introduced as if it were a sharing of common
experience, when what it describes appears to be a particular instance of a a (bad) dream;
the artist describes approaching a mysterious man sitting in his garden who, when he turns
around, has 'make-up and madness on his face and in his putrid eyes', which seems to be
telling the viewer to look for the darkness within the whimsicality of the work.

Downstairs, Chosil Kil's work is based on another simple premise, the play on words of
'drawerings', with the use of actual found drawers (the furniture variety) to display some
pieces.  All in one way or another use common and personal homely items: curtain tape, MDF,
a tray, a pillow.  In a reflection of the exhibition upstairs they are monochrome and have
a strong thread of nostalgia and whimsy, but seem to tell more specific personal stories. 
In 'Nils, Thomas, Mum. Me and Frank', a broken ring of MDF hangs suspended in a loop of
curtain tape from a wall-mounted drawer, like a sling.  I imagined that each part was
figurative, the drawer perhaps representing the mother which no longer sheltered her
children but still supported them (or held them back) from a physical distance. 

‘All Is Well' recalls a traditional party game; small objects are hidden beneath a cloth on
a tray and the whole is lacquered black, stuck together.  In the game the game-master would
usually remove one object at a time, cover the tray and move the remaining objects around to
test the participants' memories of the absent objects.  But in this case we can never be
correct in our memories because we never saw what was on the tray in the first place - only
vague outlines of things which might be small bottles or piles of coins.  The memory has
been simultaneously buried through encapsulation, repressed. Its partner piece is a framed
piece of white paper on which the artist has written and over-written 'the names of people
she no longer wants to know'.  As the names become illegible, she says, the memories are

One piece only has been deemed worthy (or needy) of a full explanatory wall text.  'Rings'
consists of a glass bell-jar dome on a black plinth beneath which is a randomly coiled
length of gold wire.  The wall text explains that the wire is made from 5 gold rings, 14-18
carat, given to the artist by her mother on her leaving South Korea, to be sold 'in case of
emergency'.  Each ring had its own story - who it had belonged to, how her mother came to
have it.  After 11 years in Britain the artist had the rings melted down and re-formed into
this wire, which the text proclaims represents the transformation of the relationship
between mother and daughter.

On the first floor are several pieces by Liliane Lijn from her NASA residency 'Stardust'
project, using Aerogel and video to create small 'ruined landscapes' in perspex  tanks
animated by an aurora which is created by the abstract play of the down-projected video
onto the sculptural fragments.  The video pieces are named in the works but you never 
really see them; by peering upwards into the tanks you can make out skewed fragments but 
they are used as content-less raw material in the sculptures, except for the descriptive 
titles in the information sheets: 'Visions of the East', 'Tunnel Vision' and 'Burma'.

The three exhibitions share a number of poetic resonances, which is obviously not by
accident.  It is easy to see why the gallery is well-received and successful.  I was left 
with the impression that it was as much about a playing a shrewd game as interest in the 
art.  Everything is contemporary without being too challenging; it has the look of a 
project space, but is fully in control of the end appearance of the work.  It seems to 
pick and choose very carefully from current eclectic trends, treading a fine line 
between appropriation and repetition, irony and romanticism.

In 2007 a project called 'Riflemaker becomes Indica' attempted to recreate the ethos of 
the the iconic 1960s radical bookshop and gallery that was next to White Cube; Sally 
O'Reilly in Frieze magazine said of the result:
"Riflemaker operates within a system of market value an legitimisation that has absorbed
previous models of adventurism... and this cannot be made temporarily transparent."  
Does Riflemaker embody an essential emptiness in the production and consumption of
contemporary art, or a new optimism in combining meaningful exploration and risk-taking
with commercial value?  Whichever it is, they are doing something right; they've recently
opened a new gallery in Soho Square.

Image: work by Juan Fontanive, ©

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