Those gents at Lascaux, brows staved, shirtless in the dark, getting creative with blow-paint and manganese crayon. With sticks and stones, pigments and toothaches these early lads founded the mute world of decoration. And doing so they created Homo-history’s first miraculous metaphor: a cave bigger on its inside than on its outside.
December’s show at the John Hansard gallery is Parallax by Terry Smith. Smith opens the show cold; his premier piece, Caracol, a mouse’s-eye video of Venezuelan singers in chorus, occupies the entire first room. After a few moments of staring at me and the other lunchtimers the piece found its tongue and the peeking Caracan faces turned full madrigal. The room filled with an atmosphere that was half nootropic campus-bodhi and half Sigur-Rosian warble. It was really good; we lingered and listened with concentration. Then a new group of visitors entered, chatting over the soundscape. Our group raised its leaflets and abandoned the vocal Venezuelans to the newcomers.
The Hansard hasn’t provided fly-cards, as usual, so matching the artworks to their descriptions in the leaflet is a minor chore. The works are in order though, which suggests that you should walk the gallery wall by wall. I tried this for a few minutes then lost the trail, then pocketed the leaflet and went properly Frost. The first stop on the road-less-travelled was Half Cut, a door hinged at its belt-line and slouched against the gallery wall. A cute one-liner – although when was the last time you were half-cut rather than hammered? Alight was a range of epileptic tellies that looped views of streetlamps near Smith’s studio. For each lamp lit a different piano note sounded. The notes finally combined into a chord. Honestly, the effect wasn’t really that successful. A cross between an E4 ident and the yawnier parts of American Beauty. But it did have that Turner-Prizey magic-of-the-small-things-ness that certain visitors will go for.
I bumped into Sarah Smyth, a contributor to Fussed. I’d rather be caught at Rick Perry gubernatorial than at a modern art gallery, but I do feel guilty reviewing exhibitions that I haven’t attended. We had a few moments of whispered expounding and pen-pointing, chiding the lifeless work and promising that we’d mention each other in our articles. Then we separated as politely as we could do and still stay in the same room. After a few minutes I went into the darkroom to watch the video, Opening/Closing. The montage of doors opening and closing was more arresting than it sounds. And a quiet representation of Smith’s minimal ethos.
At the entrance desk the woman had warned that there would be explicit language. I couldn’t find it the first time. ‘Right at the back,’ she explained, ‘next to the staff toilet.’ It turned out to be Fuck Nauman. Another telly, this time on a plinth, showed two clips of men repeating the phrase ‘fuck Nauman’ in syncopation. The clips became more and more abbreviated until, well, the phrase ‘fuck Nauman’ was repeated really very quickly. Using postmodern purple-humour the work is actually an offering to the American artist Bruce Nauman, whom Smith considers an influence. And you thought Amazon vouchers were a decent present. The best bit of the exhibition was Smith’s collection of Spark Drawings. These boyish flare silhouettes would look just as great above a city-girl’s sofa as they would opposite a bachelor’s bed. I wanted to take one home.
In twenty-first century Hampshire we are a long way from Lascaux. And our modern world is now properly divided on the question of what looks good. Some of us like big, pricey installations; others prefer the skills that can fit on the face of a postcard. Terry gives us a little of both. And his Parallax lives up to its name. It’s as deep and as shallow as you want it to be.