On a hot day in Berlin, the lights were dimmed inside Johnen Galerie, as though Martin Boyce’s art were too delicate to withstand the heat. Boyce’s reliance on webs of abstruse references places him squarely within a generation of artists who emerged around the turn of the millennium, ironically but appropriately, in time to leave behind the century on which their art relies.
An artwork that references another artwork can be a complacent acknowledgment of shared knowledge, as well as a fortification against vulnerable subjectivity. A memory, however, is an altogether more slippery proposition. With Boyce, the distinction is crucial. He has founded much of his work on a single reference—to Joël and Jan Martel’s concrete Cubist trees (1925). There is something heroically myopic about his long-term mining of this minor work of modernist design. Stylized steel letters, loosely arranged across a wall-hung rectangular slab of what looks like concrete, spell FALL (Fall, 2012), but you have to look twice for the forms to connect into legibility: their font is designed to follow the contours of the angular leaves of the Martels’ trees.
At best, the rigor of Boyce’s referencing is a filter for a more fluid and personal access to the past, like the painted steel mesh of the lamps suspended from chains throughout the gallery, filtering watery light (Years and Stars and Storms, 2012). Fall evokes Camus’s The Fall as much as the Northern English post-punk band The Fall, as Boyce’s sampling recalls Peter Saville’s modernist-inspired designs for New Order’s 1980s Manchester label, Factory Records. Boyce has previously alluded to New Order’s lyrics in his titles, and New Order’s earlier incarnation, Joy Division, was influenced by existentialist novelists such as Camus. It is through such circuitous routes that Boyce operates.
The lamps are dour, unglamorized British derivatives of Jorge Pardo’s “design art,” but Fall effects a subliminal link between early international modernism and the Brutalist concrete 1960s architecture of British housing estates and high-rises. High modernism is of course even further in the past than the British state’s travesty of it, so there’s an element of gratuitous obscurantism in Boyce’s chain-of-association methodology, as though he were unable to claim his own past until he has rooted it in the formal language of a movement that long preceded him.
Still To Be Said (2012) is the exhibition’s emotional center, allowing memory to press most urgently against its referential vehicle. Lamps rise from a varnished wooden tabletop. They resemble plant forms and the undersides of their shades are densely petaled with brass scalpel blades through which light yellows and refracts. The table is both functional furniture and a precisely calibrated memory of a British schoolboy’s desk, which would have been etched with scatological exclamations or hopeless endearments, rather than with these Martel-inspired decorative forms that refuse to connect into meaning. The inset blades intimate the psychic threat of involuntary memory even as their geometrically referential shapes suggest that they are mere cultural signposts beyond which that memory must remain tantalizingly inaccessible