At a first glance, Tim Noble and Sue Webster’s current exhibition at Blain|Southern (London) evokes a surprising feeling of nostalgia. The large twisted bronze sculptures remind me of summer evenings spent with my family on holiday in Croatia. My favourite pastime was to wander through markets filled with hand-made goods crafted by the locals. I always found watching the artists sitting at their stalls and contorting thin strands of wire into a menagerie of animals and human figures rather extraordinary and strangely soothing. However, the feeling of nostalgia fades as fast as it emerges, as does the dense blue Adriatic Sea and its warm glow reflecting the summer sun. It is the end of February, it’s freezing cold outside, and I am surrounded by the sterile whiteness of Blain|Southern. The title Sticks with Dicks and Slits could hardly get more literal: the exhibition consists of pairs of gigantic stick figures endowed with humorous genitalia, engaging in actions such as lactating and urinating. This new series of work might seem raw and crude –because, quite frankly, it is—, but it can also be seen as toys with a more playful and whimsical side, its naivety lending a certain charm and innocence to these clumsy figures.
The duo met while studying together at Nottingham Trent University and became friends due to their shared love of music. They have been creating together, as a couple, since then, and have challenged the notion of self-portrait and portraiture throughout their series of well-known light and shadow sculptures. Just as their previous works, these double portraits explore the nature of relationships and identity, but they seem to open up a new chapter which allows us to see a different side of the artists.
In comparison to their self-portraits built from trash and waste, these stick figures are surprisingly light-hearted. Earlier works, such as Wild Mood Swings (2009-2010), Masters of the Universe (2000), and Dirty White Trash (1998) scrutinize certain aspects of human relations, from anger and rejection to pleasure and desire. Dicks and Slits focuses on the cheerful, comical side of Noble and Webster. A lovely Pair (Standing) portrays stick-Noble chasing stick-Webster with an erection, while another figure seems to be urinating on the viewer. While sex and bodily fluids are returning elements in the duo’s work, in this case they are paired with the charm of immaturity. The large stick-figures are celebrating our inner child, and act as a reminder of the joy of not taking ourselves too seriously. Childishness is still often considered an undesirable personality trait, and to portray vulnerability and flaws is rare in a world where the artist is still so often seen as an impeccable genius. Noble and Webster, once again, go against the notion of immaculateness to explore natural human attributes so often condemned.
It is refreshing to see the duo stepping away from their usual light/shadow technique to experiment with new materials and methods. The bronze sculptures seem weightless and spontaneous, and it’s interesting to learn that they use the old and difficult method of lost wax casting to create them. Sprezzatura, to conceal the difficulty of production, was considered as an art form in the Renaissance and it was essential to possess it in order to be acknowledged as a great artist. Noble and Webster have been considered the power couple of the art world, but they divorced in 2013, they said, for the sake of their work. As I see it, these sculptures could be the results of an emotionally exhausting period. It might not be wrong to assume that there’s a parallel between the choice of using the troublesome wax casting technique and the hardships experienced in personal life, which are both being concealed by the overall carefree appearance of the figures. This exhibition marks a new period in their relationship, just as in their professional life. Stick with Dicks and Slits portrays two people co-existing in a harmonious and joyful manner, which is a kind of revelation after the intensity and violence that characterizes most of their earlier works.
I can’t tell whether this exhibition has left a deeper impression on me than the market artists sculpting their wire pieces or not. It is fun, yet I find it a bit superficial. The figures seem to get lost in the sterile whitewash of Blain|Southern gallery. The antiseptic environment doesn’t do justice to the works’ potential, as the figures seem awkwardly out of place. On the one hand, the repetition of the same motifs, although it serves as a link between this new body of works and Noble and Webster’s oeuvre, it also makes things predictable. On the other hand, this exhibition might be just the start of a progress through which we will be able to see the pair’s work developing into something very different.
Tim Noble and Sue Webster’s Sticks with Dicks and Slits is on view at Blain|Southern, London until 25 March 2017.