Artificial ruins rarely inspire reflection: they are, by nature, superficial. Think of architectural follies during the 18th century: approximations of medieval or ancient buildings that effectively functioned as oversized garden ornaments for the eccentric rich. Even on a more modest scale, synthetic patina rankles; just try mentioning distressed denim to a large group and see how they polarize. But ‘All Beneath the Moon Decays’, a two-person show of sculpture and décollage by Allyson Vieira and Paul Kajander, offered a more contemplative alternative. Curated by Rui Mateus Amaral, the show brought a cool, even chilling, focus to the hazy end days of summer, when hasty group shows dominate. Honing in on the origins of Western art history, Vieira and Kajander use ruins not as artifice but, rather, to collapse time. They merge Greek history with Modernism, monuments with contemporary construction. Their ruins are palatable precisely because do not aim to fool.
Vieira’s sculptures hover on the edge of legibility. Slashed into stacks of drywall, figures begin to emerge: half-formed caryatids posed in choppy contrapposto. From her ‘Weight Bearing’ series (2013), three pairs of these figures were scattered throughout the gallery, each pair balancing a piece of steel rebar. (To drive the unfinished feel home, the steel bars were peppered with dusty footprints.) Marble might have worked for the ancient Greeks, but today’s temples are likely built from gypsum. Vieira undoes whatever monumentality Greek columns posses through both material and scale. Built around her body’s proportions, the columnar works seem miniaturized. Rather than towering above visitors, they mirror them.
Where Vieira excavates, Kajander masks. Taking photographs of Greek sculpture from books by art historian John Boardman, Kajander paints over the images until new forms emerge. Where there was once Hellenistic detail and grace, Kajander teases out lumpen, disjointed shapes. But they retain their figuration all the same; a glimpse of ribs here, the suggestion of a torso there. These fragmented and reworked images are affixed to sheets of paper, replete with page numbers, and displayed in pairs within glass-less frames. This book-like structure leaves the work pointing recursively to its origin.
In their curving lines, Kajander’s pages adopt the distinctive shapes of Modernist sculpture – Henry Moore and Hans Arp come to mind. Of course, in evoking these artists, Kajander culls from yet another era: the Palaeolithic. He takes antiquity, filters it through Modernism, and ends up evoking the prehistoric. Epochs are flattened. And this is precisely the crux of Kajander’s work: it is not about Modernism; nor is it about classicism. Instead, it underscores how simply these seemingly distinct categories can be folded into one another. Antiquity might as well be modernity. Anything and everything can be easily interchanged.
Both Vieira and Kajander resuscitate objects from antiquity – and all the arguments connected to them. But their processes are imperfect. Far from the raising of Lazarus, their tales register a little closer to W. W. Jacobs’s shot story, ‘The Monkey’s Paw’ (1902), wherein a grieving couple wish to resurrect their dead son, but immediately regret the decision when he arrives, unrecognizably decomposed, at their doorstep. Vieira’s sculptures, in particular, seem dredged up from the grave, chipped and flaking, with screws and inner workings beginning to appear. Taken together, with their mutations and cracks, the ruins of Vieira and Kajander are rooted in the disposable, ephemeral stuff of the present. They might reference objects that have survived millennia of tumult and unrest, but a sneaking fear emerges: to have ruins you must first make something worth keeping. It starts as an elegy, but it ends as a warning.
First published in Issue 166