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Camilla Low, Embraced Open, Reassembled, installation view, 2008
Courtesy: Sutton Lane, London/Paris.

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by Dieter Roelstraete

Oslo-based, Glasgow-trained Norwegian artist Camilla Low (°1976) is part of a distinguished group of artists, many of them women, who have been instrumental in bringing some of the bigger questions of sculpture back to life after two decades spent in the margins of a contemporary art world happy to distance itself from the crude facts of life’s basic materiality. In the following portrait, Roelstraete peers through the surface effects of mere form (or formalism) to find a deeply humanist impulse at work in the artist’s angular, abstract idiom.


I haven’t seen that much of Camilla Løw’s work but that’s okay (I have seen her show at Sutton Lane in London last year, among other things – and that’s almost enough). I have seen Camilla Løw work, however – and that has taught me more than a thing (no pun intended!) or two about her art and why I think it is different from so much of the work that “looks” like her art.
Løw’s minimalist, modular concrete-and-steel sculptures may, at first sight, appear to be anchored primarily in the (inevitably nostalgia-prone) context of a revival of certain formalist and retro-modernist concerns in contemporary sculptural practice – and “revival” truly is the operative term for the renewed passion for things (relics, products, objects, fetishes, and finally also commodities) that has seized a hold of the art world in the last couple of years: it is not just a matter of bringing the slightly obsolescent notion of “sculpture’ back into the arena of art, but also of bringing sculpture back to life more generally – of literally re-viving and reanimating it. And it is precisely this “lived” quality that is part of what, to my mind, sets Løw’s work apart from that of many of her contemporaries and traveling companions (I promised myself to steer clear of this minefield but I can’t help but noticing and bringing it up: many of her contemporaries are also women sculptors – but this does not necessarily mean that we should automatically interpret this fact as the collective reclamation of the traditionally male-dominated means of production of sculpture).

Camilla Løw, III, 2008
courtesy: Courtesy: the artist and Sutton Lane, London/Paris.


First of all, beyond the obvious references to canonical American Minimal Art, De Stijl and Russian Constructivism, we encounter here the decidedly ageless question of the human figure (or figuration as identification) and its universal measure – “man” (note, once again, the gendered nature of this fateful noun) effectively being the defining measure of Løw’s strongly anthropometric and subtly anthropomorphic works. Strongly anthropometric because of the sheer fact of their scale: with many of her sculptures “made” by simply stacking one cubic form (the basic unit being a grey concrete cube that measures 30 cm by 30 cm by 30 cm) on top of another and stopping at a total of five such cubes, these works inevitably invoke the human figure – the artist’s own stature functioning as a parameter of sorts (it is essential to the work that Løw herself is able to manipulate or “work” the cubes). Subtly anthropomorphic because of their vertical form: although some of her sculptures hang and others lean, most of them stand, and entering the small Sutton Lane gallery space in London where I first saw her work in the fall of 2008 really felt like joining a crowd of singular figures just standing around – although the use of the word “crowd” here suggests an organic contingency that was absent from the sculptures’ grid-like positioning in a meticulously measured phalanx that could easily have been read as constituting a threat. [The suggestion of threat may also come from another ghost inhabiting this verticality: some of the sculptures that I am discussing here were apparently inspired by the typically elongated script of Brazilian graffiti or pixação, in turn related to Celtic runes. Or from the modular nature of the sculptures, hypothetically endless columns – not unlike Constantin Brancusi’s “original”: the infinite repeatability of forms and its challenge to this idea of an origin and/or original is an ancient site of fear. Or – the final threat – from the nakedness of bare concrete, so redolent of the imagery of incarceration and imprisonment: grey cells].

Camilla Løw, VIII, 2008
courtesy: Courtesy: the artist and Sutton Lane, London/Paris.


Finally – and this may retrospectively justify my highlighting of the gendered dimension of this work, of any work – besides being called, straightforwardly and tautologically, “Arcade”, “Concrete”, “Digital” (the original meaning of which is, it is worth remembering here in the current context of manual labor, of the handling of things, “regarding or related to the fingers”), “High-Rise” and “Unit”, some of her works have distinctly female or feminizing names, such as “Annalisa”, “Diva”, “Donna”, “Ramona”, “Sister” and “Viva” – yet more humanizing of the cold, occasionally crude formal language of bare concrete, painted metal and Perspex. (Not surprisingly, the history of Minimalism is characterized by a profound resistance to titling, to giving artworks names, let alone anthropomorphizing them – and this is of course wholly in tune with the strong “anti-humanist’ flavor of the sixties’ most influential philosophical or broadly intellectual movement, namely structuralism, of which Minimalism could be said to have been a literal, or indeed literally sculptural rendition. My copy of Minimal Art, Gregory Battcock’s seminal anthology, yielded no more than two exceptions to this quasi-role: Tony Smith’s “Willy” and Patricia Johanson’s “Minor Keith”.) So what appears crucial in Løw’s retrospective glance at the work of Lissitzky, Rodchenko or Tatlin is not so much the precedent of their ideologically charged use of categorical color schemes, their deletion of the plinth or pedestal (this is where sculpture is first allowed to hang, lean, slouch, and eventually even move) or their desire to submerge sculpture into architecture – in short, their formalism – but the basic humanism of the Soviet experiment in art instead.
Let me go back, once more, to the group of sculptures idly (?) standing around the Sutton Lane gallery space, titled “Embraced, Open, Reassembled,” resembling a “new order”. I am pushing this musical metaphor here for a variety of reasons (another ghost, no less directly audible): the concrete blocks may measure 30 cm by 30 cm by 30 cm to make them more easily transportable (or amenable to building a primitive human presence), but 30 cm by 30 cm is also the standard format of a vinyl long player – that by now fully archaic music-recording technology that, precisely because of its obsolescence (and thus much like traditional sculpture itself) has experienced a remarkable revival of late – best expressed by the prices now charged for what was once deemed futureless. And any mention of (the real) New Order will also stir the memory of Peter Saville, the influential (record cover) designer who, back in the late seventies and early eighties, gave English pop culture its sleek, industrial look – pop culture’s belated reply to Minimalism’s appropriation of industrial forms, Day-Glo paints and production methods, and the application of pop music’s heavy dependence on steady, metronomic (modular) rhythm to its visual language. Løw and order: hers are the robots.
Anyway, thus far the grimness.

Camilla Løw, VIII, 2008
courtesy: Courtesy: the artist and Sutton Lane, London/Paris.


Embraced, open, reassembled: the empathic tone with which this title opens (granted, only to then be closed down again, in the reassembly of “open” forms) already signals the artist’s own impatience with the imposition of too rigid a grid-like plan of attack upon the process of artistic creation – and the same productive confusion also motivates the introduction of new materials into Løw’s more recent sculptural output, such as (most notably) rope. Now rope can of course look back upon a fine history all its own in the tradition of dislodging, dislocating and loosening up the straining, austere logic of the grid, so easily constructed as an expression of Apollonian masculinity – it is impossible not to think of Eva Hesse in this context, but the likes of Giovanni Anselmo, Robert Morris and Fred Sandback also come to mind, and this enumeration alone helps to reveal the psycho-cultural connection between formlessness and trauma: the rope or thread inaugurates a “traumatic critique” of Minimalism. Yet also in this case the referential framework seems entirely secondary (if not inadequate) in considering Løw’s work: one such recent sculpture, appositely titled “Joy” – so quite far removed from the morbid leanings and dark eroticism of Hesse, Morris et al. – again conjures the ghost, thankfully, of human presence rather than that of recent art history. Oh joy: basically a cantilevered wooden square hung, just above eye height, on the wall, a rope bungles down from it – a mask perhaps, its necklace hanging underneath it? Or an upside down halo instead? Not a noose, in any case: Løw’s attachment is to the depth and riches of presence, not the shallow, overrated enigma of “absence”.

(01/08)

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