Sarah Smuts-Kennedy leaves question of space up hanging
Several frames are suspended from the ceiling. Each is horizontal and the vertical fishing-lines that hold them in place are all tense. The ensemble isn’t spread out in the gallery but rather the cluster creates an interlocking cubic column, where each frame accommodates the means of support for every other frame.
This beautiful invention by Sarah Smuts-Kennedy at Sophie Gannon defies all the qualities that you associate with frames. First, you expect that a frame is vertical. Frames hang on walls and are necessarily aligned with the artwork that they bracket. And second, you assume that a frame holds something flat, not just air.
Called Ten parts whole, the multiple airborne frames are metal and evoke by their proximity the sound of clashing or tinkling as if, like wind-chimes, the different sizes would produce a different pitch on impact. But each is separated on its own plane and each is held in place to prevent sway and collision. With whatever noisy connotations, it is a pier of silence, permeable booth of inaccessible air, a frame that only ever frames itself, as one frame mounts the next.
There are other frames in the main gallery which cast curious shadows, an interest that Smuts-Kennedy pursues with panes of glass in other frames and also unframed coloured glass attached to the wall in the front gallery. The gallery lights – which are even more a part of art-display than fishing-line and frames – cast luminous shadows on the wall, where one beam activates another by adding a different colour to it.
The exhibition is called field work, perhaps alluding to the tradition of field abstraction, which is painting concerned solely with its own field, its unique and inalienable surface. Field abstraction is a claim for the autonomous presence of the picture plane.
If so, Smuts-Kennedy has a clever contribution to make by connecting the field with the frame. As described in the writing of Jacques Derrida on the preamble or framework (literally “work that lies to the side”, parergon), the frame is integral to the content that it positions.
Since Derrida, art has positioned itself more and more on the gallery-side of the frame. We don’t concentrate wholly on what’s in the frame but equally wonder how it gets to be held there: what is its claim, its discourse, its reference, its authority? What was said that caused it to occupy the space in the museum?
At the same time, art has brought new focus to space itself. Artists concerned with perspective have always been intensely conscious of space and share with architects the understanding that space is conditioned by what we put around it, what we put in it and what comes before it: the preamble to how a space announces itself.
Space itself isn’t just a mathematical entity defined by three dimensions. In our experience, it’s all about an inside and an outside, an encounter, an immersion. For that reason, artists are highly attuned to architecture.
New Zealand artist Sarah Smuts-Kennedy may frame her sculptural constellations and arrangements as operating within the parameters of mapping electromagnetic forces, but it’s not what makes them effective. Using slender geometric brass frames, tinted glass and various wires and anchor points, it’s the interlocking abstract forms and thoughtful negotiations of positive and negative space that make these sculptures resonate. They operate both within and without themselves – their shadows, reflections and proximities offering as much to consider as their physical form. If we’re to allow Smuts-Kennedy’s conceptual specifics to invoke a looser allegory for the limits of perception (and that which rests just beyond such limits), it gives Field Work’s economical and complex sculptural language all the more room to breathe.