VAN Critique November/February 2015: ‘Softening the Stone’, Chris Campbell- Palmer at Platform Arts

Small Platform
Installation view of ‘Softening the Stone,’ image courtesy of Platform Arts

Chris Campbell-Palmer
‘Softening the Stone’
Platform Arts, Belfast
4 September – 24 October

‘SOFTENING the Stone’, a solo exhibition of work by London-based Chris Campbell-Palmer (b. Belfast, 1990), marks an exciting time in the career of the artist and in the evolution of Platform Arts as an exhibition space.

Founded in 2009 as a studio group for contemporary practitioners, Platform’s ambitious approach to the development of their exhibition programme is highly impressive, as is this presentation of new work by Campbell-Palmer. The exhibition marks the launch of Platform’s reconfigured gallery layout, which has seen the venue transformed from an expansive 3000-square-foot gallery into two distinct, and arguably more manageable, exhibition spaces. Despite the reduction in size of Platform’s main exhibition space, it by no means feels like a compromise in terms of scale, and the gallery remains capacious and industrial – an ideal setting for Campbell-Palmer’s sculptural and relief works.

Upon entering the gallery through a new, dedicated reception area, Campbell-Palmer’s uncanny sculptural works immediately promote visual pleasure and intrigue with their sugary-sweet yet muted colour palette of pastel pinks, oranges, blues and purples. The artist has been successful in his masterful manipulation of recognisable forms – including flowers, a cupboard, and a hand-propelled wheel cart – as their scale and colour play with their familiarity and confuse our relationship with them. Other objects within the space are less recognisable, and we struggle to determine their manipulated forms, searching for something familiar. Not only are we often left wondering what specific objects are supposed to be, but the materials from which they have been created are also somewhat alien. Campbell-Palmer utilises a plethora of materials including Plastidip, Flintex and Herculite to produce these obtuse stylisations.

In the accompanying exhibition text, Campbell-Palmer references the “Disneyfication of archaeology”, through which small reminiscences develop into extravagant fictions in the generation of artificial sceneries. This reference to Disney is an important one, as the sculptural works on display have similarities with the props that furnish Disney’s theme parks – physical recreations of those originally found in animated worlds. Shape and form are familiar yet exaggerated, colours aren’t quite true to life, and the softening of hard edges gives everything a cartoon-like aesthetic. In fact, what immediately came to mind upon navigating the space was the opening marketplace scene from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast (1991) as if filtered through a highly imaginative contemporary-art practice.

Throughout the gallery, large stone-like bottles are placed on textured rubber mats, their cork tops ineffective at capping the liquid within, as fluorescent ooze leaks down their sides. To the rear of the space, oversized, seemingly-malleable nails have been hammered clumsily into the wall, some lying misshapen on the gallery floor. This evokes a strange fusion of Claes Oldenburg’s sculptures and Natascha Sadr Haghighian’s I Can’t Work Like This (2007), wherein the scale of domestic objects is exaggerated (Oldenburg) and common tools of installation are heightened to become the art object itself (Sadr Haghighian).

The exhibition’s single video work is also of note, projected floor-to-ceiling against an entire wall of the gallery. Aesthetically distinct from the other works presented, this subtle and captivating piece repeatedly attracts our attention, its presence continuously felt but not dominating the space. Without this video work, the exhibition would not feel lacking, but its inclusion demonstrates Campbell-Palmer’s acute understanding of the potential to display seemingly very different works alongside each other, building a multi-layered and immersive environment rather than one of discord.

At its core, Campbell-Palmer’s work is about experimentation – working with new materials and concepts in a way that is both playful and rewarding. He utilises liquid processes to produce set forms (often not knowing what the result will be), and the same could be said of Platform Arts as an organisation. Its fluid approach to its studios and gallery spaces since its inception has been a similarly successful experimentation: trying things out, pushing boundaries, seeing what works and what doesn’t. The maturation of Platform Arts has been a pleasure to witness over the past few years in particular, and its refreshing programme of exhibitions has set it apart from many galleries and artist-run venues in Belfast.

‘Softening the Stone’ is one of those rare moments when artist and venue achieve a moment of perfect balance, poised at equally exciting times in their development. The debut of this new exhibition space is a significant new chapter in the growth of Platform Arts (simultaneously looking forward with ambition and building on past successes), with Campbell-Palmer’s meticulous presentation of work setting a very high standard.

Ben Crothers is a curator and writer based in Belfast.

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