Materials of Resistance

Review of Clare Thornton’s solo exhibition, Materials of Resistance, at Plymouth Arts Centre for This is Tomorrow.

In Clare Thornton’s solo exhibition of work from the last seven years, delicate materials ­– including the body itself and those that stand in for it – are put at risk and tested to breaking point.

Thornton has paid precise attention to the building’s near-domestic scale and architectural quirks. We are guided up the narrow staircase by handrails adorned with irresistible, pastel-coloured ceramic bangles, whose inspiration comes from two fearless women of the avant-garde. Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven (1874–1927) wore curtain rings as bracelets (not to mention hats made of cakes and tomato-tin bras), while Nancy Cunard (1896–1965), in a Man Ray photograph, is covered with ivory bangles from wrist to elbow: armature as much as ornament. Thornton interrupts the continuity of hard, glossy surfaces with a single bracelet of spiked hair: tactile but defensive. Despite the ceramics’ vulnerability to damage, their location invites us to touch them, and is a gesture of generosity, trust and acceptance.

The gallery’s stairs become a place to pause. A chamois leather punch bag encases the vertical post that the staircase pivots around. It is both body and costume. Contrasting with the solid coolness typical of a punch bag, this one seems to have been turned inside out. The soft animal skin offers a sensuous comfort, but the form is implicit with aggression, conjuring an image of arms striking out. Its proximity to the fragile ceramics is alarming and bold.

Upstairs, resting in a corner on the floor, an extruded earthenware tube – corporeal in scale – loops and folds over itself. What appears to be a single length is, in fact, three. Their ends touch but the cuts are decisive and these pieces seem removed from some larger whole that is not present. Previous works in this series of visceral forms feature bands and splatters of colour. Now they are pared back to white and their reticence is unsettling.

Other isolated sections hang over hand-whittled yew hooks. Although made with a mechanical extruder, the tubes’ gentle curves seem tenderly formed, teased into shape by hand. A pinch at the end of one, pinprick pockmarks interrupting the pristine glaze of another, and the strong-but-breakable nature of the material itself remind us of their human quality. Emerging from the end of one tube, a tail of artificial auburn hair droops, at once elegant and horrifying.

The falling body is central to an ongoing collaboration with writer and artist Emma Cocker. In this iteration of The Italic I, two monitors show slow-shifting, still images of Thornton repeatedly falling to the ground. Words appear on a third perpendicular screen, like a dance coach side of stage, calling elliptical instructions to pupils. “It could break at any point”; “Restraint has positive force, a necessary tension”; “There is a letting go before you let go”, the screen reads as the figures split, overlap, merge and blur, twisting into impossible configurations. Devoid of a narrative explanation, each fall is deliberate and the effect of gravity inevitable.

Thornton’s background in dance and scenography is evident in the upstairs galleries, where machines are treated as collaborative performers. In a photographic triptych, dancer Laura Dannequin interacts with a huge, mechanical wood-block wallpaper press. Her body dynamically demonstrates the sheer physical labour required to produce a decorative pattern. The wallpaper itself hangs nearby: two palest-pink strips escape their designated wall space, intruding on to the floor. Held by butterfly-bolted white oak batons that transcend functionality, this is wallpaper as sculptural object. Pairs or doubles or halves are recurring motifs throughout the exhibition, and here, bisected circles, elongated triangles and V shapes are repeated in yellow and eau de Nil. From this abstract geometry a fractured figure appears to be toppling forward, head and limbs detached, the body coming apart.

There are formal parallels in a neighbouring photograph in which the artist’s body is draped, face-down over an industrial roll of fabric in a warehouse. Is she resting, exhausted, or participating in an undefined protest? Her short-sleeved shirt, polka-dot skirt and trainers contribute to the image’s absurdity, but also suggest that work can consume the body and mind in numerous ways. In Modern Times (1936), Charlie Chaplin’s character struggles to keep up with the speed of an industrial production line, and is swallowed by a machine’s rotating cogs. While Chaplin is bewildered at his predicament, Thornton’s seemingly calm demeanour provides a more ambiguous take on where power lies, and throughout Materials of Resistance, bodies and materials under strain remind us of the terror and liberation of losing control.

Images: Installation views of Clare Thornton's 'Materials of Resistance' at Plymouth Arts Centre (2017–2018). Photos: Jamie Woodley.