Helen Marten review – Turner winner’s new show leaves you gasping

A number of drawings by Helen Marten hang in the small rear gallery at Sadie Coles HQ. A close up of a coyote’s belly and abdomen, delicately drawn; a cat; people playing pool. Some make me think of surrealist André Masson, others, medieval woodcuts or cartoons from the 1920s. Among them is a pale-coloured pencil portrait of the American novelist William H Gass, stripped to the waist. His torso and arms are covered in images, painted directly on to his body by the artist Philip Guston when the two were staying at Yaddo, an artist’s retreat in upstate New York, where Gass was giving a reading from his novel The Tunnel. A second drawing by Marten shows Guston painting a clock on Gass’s naked back. Both are copied from a series of photographs taken at the event in 1969.

Marten is great at unearthing things. I never meet her without being told of some novel or poet I’ve never read, or some connection or idea that’s new to me or given an unexpected twist. So with her art, which itself is often like a poem or a story that keeps swerving off at wild arcs and tangents. Ella won the Turner prize in 2016, and last year Marten published her own first novel, The Boiled in Between. I envy her talent and her stamina, but I’m not sure I’d want to be in her brain. Like Gass, who studied philosophy under Ludwig Wittgenstein, Marten’s work is filled with metaphor and language games. She stretches reason to breaking point.

Marten’s new show Sparrows On the Stone spells out an SOS in its title. Little wonder; the prolixity and diversions and endless details of this vast agglomeration of paintings, sculptures and objects threaten to drown you or cast you gasping on the beach. Too much to look at, too many things to account for, too many signs and images, too much detail, too many things all at once, and too many words. Excess is central to what she does. She wants you to lose yourself.

Too many trip hazards. Footnotes litter the floor and ideas flock overhead. There are little messages everywhere. After a while they become your own interior voice, and as the show goes on the voice becomes increasingly fraught. Marten too adopts other people’s voices into her work. An epigram by WH Auden is written on the side of a model bus. Also on the bus are Gass’s diagrammatic Pennants of Passive Attitudes and Emotions, taken from The Tunnel, which reads like a list of dreadful human failings. Lines from poet Anne Carson’s Grief Lessons, her translation of four Greek tragedies by Euripides, are appended to a work which also includes huge ceramic bells.

“Why does tragedy exist?", Carson writes. “Because you are full of rage. Why are you full of rage? Because you are full of grief.”

We know there’s been a catastrophe somewhere, and in Sparrows On the Stone we keep finding the evidence, like flotsam drifting from a shipwreck. If I detect a theme of what appears to be a vital element in the work, as I tease it out it turns into a blind alley. One is constantly starting again. Seguro, there are the familiar tropes and visual tactics that make Marten’s work so identifiable. Her syntax casts a wide net over a multitude of thoughts, feelings and ideas, let alone the eggs, the bar of soap with the word “portrait” emblazoned on it, the bricks and the bread, the trains and buses, the models of the solar system (each planet, to scale, sitting on a biscuit), the breakfast cereal packages, the Post-it notes with their lonely phrases, the top hats and the watering cans, the upholstered people on their park benches with their lonely lunches, the model apartments and the hagstones and the bells.

If it were possible to view the gallery from above we would see a stick figure prone on the floor. It is more than an armature. Open-armed, the legs splayed symmetrically, the head nearest the entrance, the whole thing mapped out in black steel rebar, with a number of free-standing walls, following the same schematic outline, on which hang a series of very large paintings, each of which took months of work. With their multiple layers on several different grounds, whose texture and absorbency ranges from sheer aluminium to an embossed leatherette and velvet, and using a highly technical and exacting silk-screening process, each painting is a complex bank of layered imagery and abstraction.

In one, a frock-coated analyst with pin-stripe trousers, dainty slippers and a bloated head reclines on his own couch. Above him, a row of stern heads scowl like unappeasable critics, or the superego, and above them a crazed guy on a raft leans out to grab a baguette floating by in a wooden crate.

In other paintings there are frozen graphic cascades, networks and nudes, a mother and child, the crabby handwriting of Swiss outsider artist and composer Adolf Wölfli, whirly abstract forms, all rendered with exactitude and precision, even down to the glitches, the interruptions, asides and slapstick. Another painting has cavorting clowns, a criminal running from a cop, a guy eating in a cell while looking at a figure suspended and inverted. It looks like torture in there. In a further painting there appears to be a double self-portrait of the artist (that’s how I read it), with the words TEMPER TANTRUM looming above.

But why the images of Guston and Gass? The artist superimposes his images on to the body of the writer, and the words of one somehow mingle with the images of the other. It is a bit like sex. The conjunction breeds new and hybrid images. Bodies are permeable. They consume and they leak. Everything leads to everything else. It is all so bloody complicated. No wonder there is all this rage.




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