Helen Marten’s drawings are on display at the Sadie Coles HQ’s tiny back gallery. A beautifully drawn close-up of a coyote’s tummy and midsection; a cat; people playing billiards. Some remind me of surrealist André Masson, while others remind me of medieval woodcuts or 1920s cartoons. A pale-colored pencil picture of American writer William H Gass, naked to the waist, is among them. His chest and arms are covered with pictures that artist Philip Guston painted right on to his body when the two were staying at Yaddo, an artist’s retreat in upstate New York, where Gass was giving a reading from his book The Tunnel. Guston paints a clock on Gass’ bare back in a second artwork by Marten. Both are based on a set of photos shot during the 1969 event.
Marten has a knack for digging out information. I never meet her without being informed about a book or poet I’ve never heard of, or a link or concept that’s fresh to me or has been given a surprising twist. So it is with her work, which is often akin to a poem or a narrative that veers off into wild arcs and tangents. Marten received the Turner Prize in 2016, and her debut book, The Boiled in Between, was released last year. I admire her skill and endurance, but I’m not sure I’d want to be inside her head. Marten’s work is full of metaphor and linguistic games, much as Gass’s, who studied philosophy under Ludwig Wittgenstein. She pushes the boundaries of logic.
Marten’s latest show, Sparrows On the Stone, is titled with an SOS. Little surprise; this enormous assemblage of paintings, sculptures, and artifacts threatens to drown you or leave you gasping on the beach due to its prolixity, distractions, and infinite intricacies. There was just too much to look at, too many things to account for, too many signs and pictures, too much detail, too many things at once, and too many words. Excess is at the heart of her work. She wants you to be lost in your own thoughts.
There are just too many tripping risks. Footnotes strew the floor, while ideas swarm the ceiling. There are hidden messages all throughout the place. After a time, they become your own internal monologue, and as the show progresses, the voice gets more agitated. Marten, too, incorporates the voices of others into her work. On the side of a model bus is inscribed an epigram by WH Auden. Gass’s diagrammatic Pennants of Passive Attitudes and Emotions, which reads like a catalogue of terrible human faults, is also aboard the bus. Grief Lessons, a piece that combines enormous ceramic bells and lines from poet Anne Carson’s Grief Lessons, a translation of four Greek tragedies by Euripides.
Carson asks, “Why does tragedy exist?” “It’s because you’re enraged. Why are you so enraged? Because you are wracked with grief.”
We know there was a disaster somewhere, and the evidence keeps turning up in Sparrows On the Stone like flotsam from a shipwreck. As I peel out a theme of what seems to be a crucial aspect in the work, it becomes a blind alley. It’s as though one is always beginning again. Sure, there are the well-known motifs and visual strategies that distinguish Marten’s work. Her syntax casts a wide net over a variety of thoughts, feelings, and ideas, let alone the eggs, the bar of soap with the word “portrait” emblazoned on it, the bricks and bread, the trains and buses, the models of the solar system (each planet, to scale, sitting on a biscuit), the breakfast cereal packages, the lonely phrases on Post-it notes, the top hats and watering cans, the utensils and the utensils
We would observe a stick figure prone on the floor if we could see the gallery from above. It’s not just an armature. Open-armed, the legs spread symmetrically, the head closest to the entrance, the whole thing drawn out in black steel rebar, with a number of free-standing walls, each following the same basic pattern, on which hang a succession of extremely big paintings, each of which took months to complete. Each painting is a complicated bank of layered imagery and abstraction, with many layers on a variety of grounds ranging in texture and absorbency from transparent aluminum to embossed leatherette and velvet, and utilizing a highly technical and precise silk-screening technique.
In one, a frock-coated analyst reclines on his own sofa, wearing pinstripe pants, delicate shoes, and a swollen head. A frantic man on a raft reaches out to grab a baguette floating by in a wooden box, and over him, a row of stern heads frown like unappeasable critics, or the superego, and above them, a mad guy on a raft leans out to grab a baguette floating by in a wooden crate.
Other paintings include frozen graphic cascades, networks, and nudes, a woman and child, Adolf Wölfli’s grumpy handwriting, and whirly abstract shapes, all reproduced with exactitude and accuracy, even down to the glitches, interruptions, asides, and comedy. Another picture depicts clowns having a good time, a criminal fleeing from a policeman, and a man eating in a jail while staring at a suspended and inverted figure. It seems to be a place of torment. A double self-portrait of the artist appears in another picture, with the words TEMPER TANTRUM towering over it (at least that’s how I interpret it).
But why the Guston and Gass images? The artist superimposes his pictures on the writer’s body, and the writer’s words mix with the artist’s visuals. It reminds me of sex. The pairing creates new and hybrid pictures. The human body is porous. They both devour and leak. Everything feeds into the next. It’s all a little too complex. It’s no surprise that there’s so much anger.