‘Disappearer’ (2001–4), taking its title from a Sonic Youth song, re-appeared repeatedly in Eva Rothschild’s early shows. I came across it for the first time at The Showroom Gallery in 2001 where it hung from an invisible wire in mid air. The ‘sculpture’ is a spiky sphere formed from an arrangement of coloured incense sticks, one or two of which are lit every day until the object begins to literally disappear, transforming gradually into a perfumed smoke which fills the space atmospherically, expanding beyond the small proportions of the original object. The scent is evocative of ‘alternative’ shops in Camden Market, students escaping to India on the hippie trail and a generalised sense of ‘spaces for meditation’. For me, ‘Disappearer’, with its dematerialization of ‘truth to materials’, its corruption of the modernist sculptural form by way of an engagement with peripheral atmospherics, is a key piece which sets the tone for much of what Rothschild’s work is about. By Gemma de Cruz
Dublin-born Rothschild arrived in London via Glasgow in early 2000. She’d shown at The Modern Institute in 1999 and her first solo London outing at the Showroom followed on from Jim Lambie and Clare Barclay. It was no surprise when The Whitechapel grouped these artists in its ‘new generation’ show, Early One Morning, in 2002, which claimed to identify ‘new trends in sculpture.’
Rothschild was soon tagged as the artist who combined minimalism with magic; her predominantly black sculptures referenced New Age mysticism or hinted at the occult. She questioned how certain objects come to embody such powerful connotations within belief systems by taking them out of their usual contexts and repositioning them in the gallery within works of art – examining their power beyond mere materiality. Even the slightest hint of a recognized motif or symbol would spark an association, be it witches, wolves, paganism, incense, voodoo or the Californian hippie movement. Rothschild puts counterculture on a par with New Age religion and spirituality; for her, movements that people in search of an identity head towards for an answer.
It’s Rothschild’s interest in these sub-cultures, or perhaps her own lack of belief in them, that makes her work so twisted. Many of her sculptures are like visual puzzles, incorporating spirals, hoops or woven images: they’re akin to brain-teasers that ultimately lead nowhere while suggesting that they do. As part of her practice, Rothschild has made a consistent body of wall-based works incorporating black leather and fluorescent strips woven into images, depicting scenes you might find on a teenage goth’s bedroom wall. At the bottom of the images, the strips are left to hang down, like the fringes on leather jackets worn by metallers or bikers. These echo the falling strips in larger sculptural works such as ‘High Times’ (2002) and are a recurrent motif in her work, at once solid and fluid.
Looking at Rothschild’s work isn’t always straightforward; she pulls on notions of teenage pop culture
and occult dabbling, tying it up in the beauty, geometry and elegance of ’60s minimalism; altering the context of both the materials and her subject. Despite the hardcore undercurrents, the sculptures retain a pop sensibility; she pays homage to her ’60s influences through the quality of materials but allows in an element of kitsch. By doing so, she simultaneously references, questions and parodies belief systems. It’s her earnest respect for the materials she uses that prevents cynicism seeping in.
When obvious antecedent Antony Caro made ‘Early One Morning’ in 1963, his work was based on looking forward, rewriting the rules for what a sculpture was and how it could be made. In borrowing those ideas and aesthetics, Rothschild is making work that by its very nature looks back; she may be giving Minimalism an edge, and likewise taking the edge out of the occult by isolating it from any sincere reading of its meaning. But it’s the way that these two very different subjects inform each other that makes Rothschild’s work exciting – to pit the value of a belief in an inanimate object against a very established style of art.
After the Showroom and Whitechapel shows, Rothschild’s career accelerated at a steady pace, shooting from one landmark exhibition to the next, including a solo show at the South London Gallery in 2007. Most notably, in 2009 Rothschild was awarded the coveted Duveen commission at Tate Britain – previously undertaken by Martin Creed and Mark Wallinger. Tate took a very public gamble on an artist who was not only relatively unknown but also had traditionally made work on a small, intimate scale. It paid off as Rothschild embraced the challenge by making the first sculpture to fill the full 70-metre length of the galleries. ‘Cold Corners’ (2009) had an almost kinetic energy. It comprised a group of consecutive black steel triangles joined together which travelled through the space like a giant wave reaching up to the ceiling before crashing down along the floor, all the while retaining a sense of lightness that defied it’s material content and colour.
The most impressive aspect of this work was that while it was monumental in scale it retained much of the ‘spiky’ energy of her earlier, small-scale work, such as ‘Disappearer’. She may have swapped incense sticks for welded steel but the energy was the same. Instead of directing found objects into new context she was making a cold material interrupt the space it was in, forcing its way up, down and around the Tate’s neoclassical galleries.
This spring sees the opening of the Hepworth Wakefield – Rothschild’s is the inaugural show. The new art gallery is designed by architect David Chipperfield and celebrates the work of sculptor Dame Barbara Hepworth. The gallery will display Hepworth’s 44 plaster and aluminium prototypes as well as tools and materials from her studio, alongside loaned works by artists such as Constantin Brancusi and Alberto Giacometti. Good company indeed.
This is Rothschild’s first solo show since the South London Gallery, and of course we expect magic.