The patina of age that gently creeps across more traditional buildings, imbuing them with a sense of cosiness, doesn’t sit happily on many surviving 20th century modernist buildings – it probably won’t, as they begin to age, on those of the 21st. The effect is somehow alien to the utopian concept underpinning each structure, and besides, it doesn’t suit the concrete, glass and steel materials. Artist Lucy Williams has set herself the task of looking back at the original buildings and via intricately-constructed, scaled-down and not quite 2D representations of the whole or details, encouraging us to re-engage with them, even to re-love them.
Pavilion, her show at Timothy Taylor’s Mayfair gallery, presents 16 new pieces, most of them arranged on a ceiling-high modular, wooden structure that references the work of Bauhaus director Walter Gropius and later modernists architects, whose buildings inspire her work.
Born in Oxford in 1972, Williams studied fine art at Glasgow School of Art and got a postgraduate diploma at the Royal Academy in London, in 2003. Her first solo show had been in London in 2001 and a succession of others quickly followed in 2004, 2006, 2007 and 2010 at McKee Gallery, New York. In 2007, Beneath a Woollen Sky, featuring a series of mixed media images of modernist buildings, some of which sat below blue tapestry skies in which white clouds blossomed, was her first solo show at Timothy Taylor. Her work has appeared in numerous group shows, most recently in Building Blocks: Contemporary Works from the Collection, Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, Providence, Rhode Island, USA, and in Point of Entry: The Space Between Art and Architecture, Galerie Pfriem, Lacoste, France.
She works in shallow bas-relief. In the early days, when her pieces were spare and mostly monochromatic with occasional primary and secondary colours added, calling to mind Ed Ruscha’s architecturally-inspired images from the 1960s. As she developed, becoming more confident, more daring in the subject matter she was prepared to tackle, the colour gamut broadened, the textures and techniques becoming more involved. These days, her panoply of materials includes Plexiglas, bubble wrap, balsa wood, cork, pebbles, wool, mortar, piano wire and coloured paper, but might insert sections of embroidery, too, sometimes calling on friends to help out with larger areas.
Some of the buildings she has depicted no longer exist but, in any case, she prefers not to visit the sources of her inspiration: ‘I quite like it that I’m offering my own version of what the place is like. I don’t need a 360-degree view to be able to re-create it,’ she has been quoted as saying, ‘Often, visiting a building only gets in the way.’ Instead, she scours the library of London’s Royal Institute of British Architects for period photographs to use as reference.
At Timothy Taylor, an almost 3m wide collage depicting Jean Dubuissonʼs early 1960s, apartment complex in Paris’s Maine-Montparnasse area – dubbed an example of brutalism – for which Williams hand-cut thousands of coloured paper fragments, is the centre-piece. Aside from this, the other items in the exhibition are relatively small in scale and, had it not been for the clever device of the wood structure that achieves the effect of amplifying and extending them, may well have been lost in the cavernous gallery void.
No figures appear in any of the works. In Seagram Building, 2012, the façade is reduced to an almost abstract orange and grey grid, interrupted by the precisely cut wooden slatted blinds and assiduously realized plants in the empty offices within. City Hall, 2011, is little more than the dark zig-zagging shape of a staircase in profile overlaid on a geometrically patterned, lime, dark green and yellow, tessellated wall surface. The colours may sound loud but are never lurid, more often sudued. Elsewhere the subject matter originates from architects and designers who created their own softened versions of modernism, including Eric Lyonsʼ 1950s very humanly-scaled Parkleys, part of the Span housing scheme at Ham Common in London. Subtle and elegant, the star of the show is Williams’ rendering of the Sonneveld House – a family home – minus the family – built by architects Brinkman and Van der Vlugt in 1933, in Rotterdam, which she overlays with the finely-cut, filigreed silhouette of a tree.
Soulful and reinvigorating they may be, but despite the home-spin techniques and the rendering in warm colours that restores the structures she chooses to their unblemished origins, Williams’ finished pieces are not overly prettified, nor steeped in nostalgia. They flirt with the viewer but instead of cosying up and allowing us to get too close, each maintains an ambiguous, impenetrable distance, and its this quality that makes them special and is, ultimately, their USP. Within a few days of opening, the exhibition was almost completely sold out.
Images from top
City Hall, 2011
The artist, Lucy Williams
Photographed by Adam Shapland
Seagram Building, 2012
The display structure
Todd White Art Photography, London
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