Alex Vivian @ Sandy Brown reviewed

, 1 June 2015

The first time I see images of Vivian’s ‘An afternoon, rain, open door’ (2013) a vaseline-smeared highchair. My synapses go berserk making new connections, or running lengths over those connections that I wasn’t presently aware of. The effect is immediate and there is something simple about it, yet I don’t quite know how to articulate just how true this feels or why. It just is, it feels real, the proximity is spot on.

Scenes is the first European solo exhibition for Melbourne-based artist Alex Vivian. Opening on April 29, at Sandy Brown (and running to May 23) it joined the likes of Windowlicker at Center and Drawings and Windows at Spike Art Quarterly as a favoured harbinger to Gallery weekend Berlin.

Alex Vivian, ‘An afternoon, rain, open door’ (2013).
Alex Vivian, ‘An afternoon, rain, open door’ (2013).

Working across sculpture, installation and text, Vivian demonstrates a certain mastery when it comes to turning suburban filth and shredded remnants of cheap household discards into immaculate art objects. Typically featuring clean lines and smooth forms with impeccable tidiness, each work’s title and its often long list of materials – which Vivian threads into each piece with a raw and gentle, tactile poetry – forms a kind of aura, imbuing it with the sticky truth of its humble origins. In an opposite and gibbous transformation, Vivian is just as likely to adorn a mass-produced commodity with something uncanny, rendering it unique. Maintaining always a tension between the object’s content and its form, he pokes at the flimsiness of learned or conditioned associations and very quickly urges the viewer towards an alternative understanding, one that is wavering and obvious, yet deep.

At Berlin’s Sandy Brown, a small white-cube set flush with the sidewalk of one the city’s more hectic roads, Vivian’s show comprises four wall-mounted sculptural-objects and an amorphous-seeming floor installation. Typical of his work, the materials are as important as the objects, as important as the names Vivian has given the objects, as important as the verbs and adjectives that form the prose on the exhibition hand-out. ‘Newspaper headline (Men, Boys, teenagers, etc come across as mere fodder in comparison to Tom of Finland)’ (2015) adorns one wall like a museum parchment. On the same stretch of white hangs ‘Wall from a men’s club… familiar anyone????’ (2014-15). The two pieces spread out like a stain of gammy yellows, as if they were chapters in the same lively work. Considering the materials lists —“filthy pillowcases, thread, vaseline, butter, saliva, acrylic paint, safety pin, filthy bed sheets, hair, towel” —the wall starts to crawl. Though in their current context the illustrative works look clean and slick, each is a bedroom/sex club palimpsest, born of layers of sweat and scalp grease, intimacy and estrangement. Yet their resonance is subtle.

On the opposite wall hangs ‘Noxious Chaps’ (2015), a flat 3D sculpture. The title cuts into a meaty construction of “men’s flannelette shirt, PVA glue, cardboard”. Across the room on the same wall is ‘Nursery wall hanging (well on its way to becoming something else entirely.)’ (2015). The materials sounds like the ingredients of normativity: “Men’s polar fleece, polyester fibres, spray adhesive, infants clothing, towel, woolen scarf, stretched canvas, styrofoam, hair, dirt, women’s clothing.” A spongy-looking square of patchworked felts billows prudishly over two perfect spheres, protruding pneumatically, like two lopsided and disaffected, nippleless tits. The piece is both neat and manky, sprayed with the tacky-ness of adhesive foam, I’m reminded of the clumpiness of the rotting insides of my childhood toys, filled with yellow foam. On the floor, over-powering everything, is Vivian’s installation ‘Something, happening… happened?’ (2015). “Toy baby, toaster, towel, safety pins, flannelette, wooden box, polar fleece, magazine pages, permanent marker, stuffing, comic clipping, plastic packaging, toy ballerina show, toy fluff, hand-held juicer, hair, cutlery tray, stuffed toys, plastic bag, dirt.” It looks like suburban glut, a whitebread evisceration, a kind of bland crime scene. The title seems ironic, for the primary violence of suburbia, is that nothing ever happens.

Out on the pavement in front of the gallery I overhear a man speaking about a reality cooking show. He mimics the master-chef screeching, “don’t put things you can’t eat on the plate.” Quite unintentionally, I eavesdrop one possible reading of Vivian’s show. Amongst all these beautiful, perfect, saleable objects, the artist’s installation, ‘Something, happening… happened?’, could be a kindred of that sad sprig of plastic parsley skulking uselessly on a plate. Another possibility presents itself, as I am reminded of an anecdote told to me by artist/writer Holly Childs about her older sister, who, dressing in front of her said, “you always have to add something totally fucked”, before tying a denim shirt around her waist, completing her outfit.

The strength of this show isn’t it’s concept, nor its meta narrative, it is the beautiful objects on the walls through which Vivian tells stories like sullied poetry. **

Alex Vivian’s Scenes is on at Berlin’s Sandy Brown, running from April 29 to May 23, 2015.

Header image: Alex Vivian, ‘Scenes’ (2015) @ Sandy Brown press image. 

Dæmon & Endgame’s ‘530I’ closes a punishing bass & dance hall collaboration on EP DXE with an alluring metal aesthetic

29 October 2020

Total Spiritual Processing: Post-industrial pioneer Drew McDowall & Caterina Barbieri on elegy, transference, & the psychedelia of Agalma

Matt Dell, 28 October 2020

Holly Childs & Gediminas Žygus navigate memory, illusion, & the tragicomedy of misinformation on the Metahaven-produced lyric video for ‘A Circle, A Spiral’

28 October 2020

“How does your garden grow?” 3hd 2020’s ‘UNHUMANITY’ edition still thrives despite a relentless year of adverse conditions for festivals


Erotic consumerism & pop cultural debris in the silicon sculptural imaginings of Cajsa von Zeipel at New York’s Company Gallery


Cultivating cross-genre utopias: Los Angeles heavy synth duo S. Product talks speculative nostalgia & reclaiming community

Isabelle Harada, Thursday

Post-Traumatic Everything: Jonnine Standish on her changing relationship to life, music & therapy on AQNB’s latest Artist Statement podcast

21 October 2020

Strengthening community outside of artworld constraints with the salon style Drawing a Blank group exhibition in Paris

19 October 2020

Gian Manik’s contrastive ‘Knock on the Door’ mix follows spooky paths & portals that scare off anything unseen in the distance

aqnb, 15 October 2020

BLOODZ BOI 血男孩 enlists bod [包家巷] & Tohji on the solemn pop ballad ‘across the sea my dreams are born in silence’ that provokes shared introspection

aqnb, 15 October 2020

Queer transformational states & the emotional edges of metal in the dance & digital collage of Eve Stainton’s Rubby Sucky Forge in London

15 October 2020

“Liquid is everywhere.” On reckoning with our own seepages in response to pandemic & June Lam’s Squeeze series created during lockdown

Rebecca Jagoe, 13 October 2020

Entering a post-industrial dreamscape in the urban waterways of LA with the From Dallas to Baum Bridge offsite exhibition curated by Anna Frost

12 October 2020

aircode’s ‘Dry my Face’ mediates on sleeplessness through the surreal in a granular electroacoustic exercise that tests the boundaries of isolation

9 October 2020

Peruvian duo Dengue Dengue Dengue take their seasoned cumbia & bass music melt to Mexico’s NAAFI label with ‘Menestra’

aqnb, 9 October 2020