Neil McNally: Death is colder than love

16 February - 15 March 2008

Neil McNally is a cross-disciplinary artist. Within much of his recent work is an interrogation of the accepted histories of the ‘Art World’, often subverting art references in a deadpan manner. Working with painting, film, photography, text, performance, he has an ambivalent engagement towards the narratives of cultural and artistic production. The work itself is a mixture of knowing irony, naivety and playfulness. Loaded with references, the work mimics other artists and in the process of production reveals affection for contemporary work while mocking the gallery conventions and expectations of art audiences.

McNally’s title nods its head to the 1969 film Liebe ist kälter als der Tod (Love is Colder than Death) directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Fassbinder’s first film is a deconstruction of the gangster movie. At one point, Franz (played by Fassbinder) demands a pair of sunglasses just like the ones the cop wore in Psycho.

On the ground floor we are overwhelmed by his ‘wall painting’. McNally pokes fun at the site specificity of wall painted works by commissioning a painting of a wall to be painted onto a wall. He alludes both to the cave paintings at Lascaux, and to Sol LeWitt, whose wall drawings are usually executed by people other than the artist himself. LeWitt’s practice is founded on the notion that the idea itself is the art, not the execution, passing specific instructions on to gallery technicians for complicated wall-based works. McNally has delivered a set of instructions to the gallery to be passed on to other artists, but the result opens out this question even further. The instructions were as brief as ‘paint an old wall in ruins, use only the colours provided, no words’ but there followed a series of references, as broad as ‘mould on bread, a castle in ruins, the Marquis de Sade and Phil Spector’. The instructions encourage freedom and experimentation and the idea is subverted; the artists who carried out the work had to navigate vague and emotive directions that made the delivery of the artist’s ‘vision’ virtually impossible. The final result resembles a community project rather than a renaissance fresco. There is something wilfully dumb in allowing this wall, the introduction to the rest of the show, to be left to chance, but it is an indication of the artist’s process.

Balancing this mural-graffiti-painting is a series of drawings on paper. Playing out like a short narrative strip we struggle to make sense of these images, as disparate as a ghost getting a piggy back, a woman whose armpit hair is shared by another woman and a lion mauling a rabbit. Coincidentally, the drawings and the wall painting resonate, they look as if the same person could have executed them. McNally is not an easy artist to analyse. Known widely for this style of painting he jumps from media to media, though never quite fitting the term ‘multi-media’ artist which suggests a slick jack of all trades. For McNally nothing is off limits however abject or disappointing the results.

For example, by contrast, the first floor shows a re-working of Douglas Gordon’s 24 Hour Psycho. McNally’s version, however, is made with Gus Van Sant’s much-derided 1998 remake, rather than with Hitchcock’s original. Authorship is twice removed. Van Sant’s shot by shot copy was publicly condemned as the worst remake in film history (although Slavoj Zizek has called it a failed masterpiece, rather than a simple failure). Christopher Doyle (Psycho’s cinematographer) has given credit to Van Sant for f--king Hollywood for $20 million to make an MFA thesis about originality. Like Hitchcock’s Psycho, it’s a remake that people are aware of even though they might not have seen it. McNally is interested in the social function of film and its entanglement with personal memory, shown in the now lo-fi look of videotape the film is a grainy re-examination of a much-derided original.

The top floor changes stance again, as we are confronted with a sculpted pile of human hair, smelling faintly of salon floors and soap. Tangled and grimy with glue and dirt this looks more pubic than lustrous, more morgue than muppet. An email transcript on the wall gives us a clue to its origin. It appears that in the absence of enough money for the ultimate vanity project, McNally has made his own start. Here at our feet is a peculiar looking ball of human waste. As we turn to descend, the final red herring makes us wonder what it is we have been experiencing - a fifties captioned glamour shot of two forgotten starlets reminds us once more of the drawings on the ground floor.

With thanks to Jess Hunziger, Ben Glencross and Hattie Greinig.