Christian Marclay – the good and the bad

Christian Marclay’s new video installation ‘Pub Crawl,’ currently being exhibited at White Cube, Bermondsy, is brilliant. Unfortunately the new paintings he’s exhibiting as part of the same exhibition are not. They have no nuance, they go through the motions of being paintings but evoke not very much. Words depicted in each of the paintings relate to liquid (splatting, glooping and plopping). ‘Liquid’ – along with the relationship between sound and image or sound and physical form – provides a conceptual continuity throughout the exhibition and the gallery hand out explains that these particular ‘liquid’ words refer to the act of painting, to what paint does. But these are not sploshy, oozy paintings. They are slick surfaces that, for me, have no charm.

Maybe my encounter with them suffered for going to see exhibitions by Marlene Dumas and Sigmar Polke on the same day. These artists both have a much better grasp of painting both compositionally and in their tactile treatment of paint (although to be fair in the converse, I didn’t think Polke’s films were much good). The surface quality and use of words in Marclay’s work is perhaps more akin to Ed Ruscha’s paintings. But Ruscha’s works have strong verbal quality – they trip off the tongue – where Marclay’s words don’t. I can’t help thinking Marclay was probably cajoled into making his paintings to have something big and shiny to sell.

The rest of the exhibition is great and ‘Pub Crawl’ – fun and perplexing – was my favourite. 11 projections run the length of the gallery’s central corridor, projected at floor level so that as you walk between them the shadow of your legs also become part of the piece. Each projection shows a hand-held camera shot as its protagonist (the artist I presume) walks the streets of London. Each time he come across an empty bottle or glass, in the the gutter or propped on a wall, he reaches into shot and taps it or kicks it. The piece is reminiscent of a single-screen work ‘Railings’ by Francis Alÿs where he walks around London playing railings with a stick. But Marclay’s work becomes more complex in its use of multiple projections. The screens are choreographed so that the taps and the kicks add up to a musical composition. As I watch I wonder how the piece was composed; how planned and how random. This conundrum becomes part of the work’s appeal.

Another series of works, each titled after a drinking song, includes the musical score for said song framed behind bullseye glass. Bullseye glass (the cheaper cuts of blown glass which have a circle in them where the glass blowing implement met the blown plate) is often seen in old pub windows. Here the effect is to warp the scores behind them like a funny mirror, so they appeared as if you were looking at them with a booze sozzled brain. I found this amusing. Plus the bullseye shape in the glass had a nice visual resonance with the stack of records being made by a vinyl pressing machine in the same room.

Throughout the duration of the exhibition a series of musical performances are happening in the gallery and being written live to vinyl. Then they are being pressed as multiples with screen printed covers, also made in the gallery, and sold. This is a much better way of making something sale-able. It’s a project that coheres with the exhibition as a whole and demonstrates Marclay as a continually engaging artist trying new approaches. I won’t get to see any of these performances, but I think they give another dimension to the exhibition and – unlike the unfortunate, staid paintings – activate the gallery in a more unusual way.