SMAC Gallery, Cape Town
Ruann Coleman’s ‘Certain lengths,’ is an array of cerebral, minimalist sculptures. SMAC’s sparse, fluorescent atmosphere is a necessary backdrop for these works, many of which are minimally-altered found-objects, plucked from the obscurity of industrial scrap heaps.
The works are laconic yet offer readings on multiple levels. Stretch is made up of an L-shaped metal hook and a thick elastic band. This arrangement of objects loosely references an act of sexual penetration and attests to the crude confidence of the readymade. Hook, rubber band – Voilà! Art!
Personification is prevalent in Coleman’s work and as such, Stretch connotes athleticism or the opening of an orifice. But foremost, upon hearing the title, one’s brain simulates the image of the rubber band being pulled taut and rebounding elastically. Closer inspection of Stretch reveals delicate woodgrain encircling the band and we learn that in reality the supple elastic is a rigid, brittle object and the composition not as hasty as once thought.
The elastic band is carved from rubberwood; a hardwood felled from plantations of Pará rubber trees that produce natural latex. The jarring incongruity of the medium and the form present a trompe l’oeil, the kind of visual pun that tickles the viewer – like learning the simple explanation for a magic trick that fooled you moments before. In the same vein, the works Brace and Embrace contain branches that have been cast in dark, waxy-looking cement. Coleman notes that, in the context of the art gallery, people are resistant to, for example,
‘…the beauty of a twig, with a response “oh it’s just a twig” or “he just picked up a stone”… I’ve started to explore this notion of how accurate the viewer’s perception really is, by changing the nature of material to take on a new identity, showing a painstaking carved twig as opposed to one [that I] picked up.’
Coleman’s whittled twigs recall works by Giuseppe Penone, such as Tree of 12 Metres (1982), a trunk pared and shaved to reveal its innermost structure. The choice of wood and other typically utilitarian materials, Coleman cites as representations of self, ‘I saw myself as a piece of wire, made of steel but bendable.’ The strengths and weaknesses of the medium are metaphors for character traits that are then addressed in the sculptural form (for example by adding a structural support).
The series of works for which the exhibition is titled, Certain lengths (I, II & III), are arrangements of laser-engraved wooden rulers. Although there is an undeniable allusion to male genitalia, the lengths also reference other body-parts. These rulers fold and cross over one another – a collapsible surrogate for Ruann Coleman.
A similar work, Comparing, displays parallel rulers, one wooden and the other bronze. They are almost exactly the same length, with the wooden one scraping a minute victory. These compositions attempt to quantify the body in order to make it comparable in what is essentially a dick-waving-contest. To be compared and possibly rejected is the subtext of the work – displaying the vulnerability that accompanies body politics. Despite monuments and missiles being phallic, the penis (and the ego) is a fragile thing. The tension of a work like this is what must follow, the answer to the comparison: is he big enough?
Perhaps in answer to that lingering question, is Drift, a 13m log that undulates through the space, like an enormous eel or a calligraphic brush stroke. It is supported by a white panel that it gives it the appearance of weightlessness.
The log was found already serendipitously marked with an ‘R’ and is notched at meter increments.
Giving something a numerical value reduces and simplifies it. Coleman’s Self Portrait shrinks him to his age. This and other visual synecdoches appropriate the Minimalist and Arte Povera aesthetic of greats like Marcel Duchamp and newer proponents such as Jose Dávila.
This sinewy, concise quality is what makes Coleman’s work ‘masculine’ providing the basis for his self-aware subversion of masculinity.
‘As an example, steel is associated with masculinity. Its characteristics of being hard, strong and can withstand heavy pressure. I, on the other hand, bend it; display it in fragile states…I see steel as a romantic material, when it rusts; it leaves a mark when you touch it. A visual and physical transfer of a moment.’
The uncynical romance that Coleman mentions above permeates the show and is most overt in works like The Kiss (two fishing rods straining at different ends of the same nylon thread) and The Distance Between Us (two tonguing measuring tapes). These homologous objects in states of copulation seem to speak more of love than sex. Coleman’s thirst for connection is evidenced by the idealised nature of these allegories of relationships with their equitability and balance.
The show appears sober but is instead a heady and bruising encounter that makes you want to fall in love. Coleman’s neatly considered trifecta of form, medium and language is profoundly effective at communicating its messages of yearning, sex, devotion and self-hood.