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In his latest exhibition, 'Made in Belgium' at the Yarra Sculpture Gallery, sculptor John Marshall uses cigarette paper boxes to develop a series of works that respond to the language of high modernist sculpture.
Using the empty Rizla packet as the sole material, Marshal constructs small carapace-like forms that recall the shell of a lobster or the caterpillar tracks of a tank. These modules, occasionally supplemented by the protrusion of tiny paper antennae, are then positioned into precise linear sequences on top of long white plinths. This purposeful but ambiguous sequencing and the clinical nature of its presentation combine to create the effect of a strange assembly line or a hatchery for some curious scientific experiment.
In the post September 11 world, the utopianism of high modernism and the belief in a work of art unhinged from the political and social exigencies of the world seem as remote as the work of medieval masons. Instead, it is the approaches of the Minimalists, artists who used repetition to establish an artwork entirely embedded in the world, that seem to be most useful, offering a ritualised model for art in times of trouble. The repetitive action provides a means by which art might be renewed, now positioned as a kind of self-styled catharsis. The meticulous carvings of Ricky Swallow or the crocheted sheaths of Louise Weaver are good examples of this, using obsessive, repetitive action as a means by which the products of the post-Humanist world might be redeemed. Marshall's work emerges from a similar place, as an automatic manual action (perhaps a means of fending off nicotine withdrawal pangs) drives his sculptural program.
But to view Marshall's work as simply a therapeutic exercise is to miss some of the meaning. Just as he shifts the 'rolling ' action to work upon the cigarette papers' packaging, Marshall shifts the focus of his practice to an ancillary studio action (having a cigarette). In this way, his work resembles the approach of Bruce Naumann who used the ritual of drinking coffee as an aesthetic device in the1960s. But Marshall's work is not just a meditation on the studio process-it is also informed by the processes embedded in the formalist sculptural method.
In this approach (popularised by Sir Anthony Caro at London's StMartin's College in the 1960s and rapidly disseminated internationally) the ritualistic circumnavigation of the work of sculpture was fundamental to the act of contemplation. To this new mode of interpretation, the pipe or cigarette was indispensable. By the 1980s the image of the sculptor as a ponderous, cigarette-smoking bloke-in-a-boiler-suit had become a favourite art school stereotype. Having studied at the Victorian College of the Arts under David Wilson, arguably our most eloquent interpreter of the St Martin's School aesthetic, Marshall is well-versed in the formalist lexicon and its problematic nature. By reducing the formal 'event' to an almost imperceptible element-the tiny paper feeler-and drawing upon the auxiliary action of the 'smoke', Marshall deftly manoeuvres his work to establish a means of reengaging with formalism.
Over the course of the last decade Marshall has frequently used the egg motif as a device for playing with the sobriety of much formalist sculpture. In 'Made in Belgium', with these new cocoon-like forms Marshall seems to be suggesting that it is the 'unofficial' formalist processes, rather than its self-conscious actions and objects, that may offer the best starting point for putting high modernism to work again in our world.