David Batchelor – ‘Flatlands’ at Spike Island, Bristol

IMG_2701Written by Hannah Bailey – David Batchelor’s obsession with bright and shocking neon could just seem like the work of a man revelling in the colours of 90’s rave culture. But beneath the rather beautiful surfaces of his work in this exhibition, which includes paint, collage, sculpture and an installation featuring thousands of pairs of cheap plastic sunglasses, he is making a rather more interesting point about our experience of, and assumptions about, colours. The title comes from maths tutor Edwin A Abbott’s satirical book Flatland (1884) about a square which lives in two dimensions and explores one and three dimensions to understand how these differ from his own experiences. Having already dealt with the fear of colour in some parts of Western culture through his book Chromophobia (2000), where he directly attacked the snobbery surrounding the use of monochrome in so-called minimalism, the works on display can be seen to embrace synthetic colours and found materials in order to examine the man-made head on. The opening selection of abstract collages – ‘atomic drawings’ – feature everyday items: gaffer tape, spray paint, highlighter pens and notebook pages with intense splats, blocks and sprays of neon yellow, orange, pink and green. These are hung along the same base line which draws the eye along the set and around the corner. Although now very familiar, neon is designed to be shocking and to serve as a visual poke in the eye. These collages show Batchelor playing around with the colour to see how this shock value works, turning the familiar into something unfamiliar. They are also very beautiful images in their own right, particularly the spray paint blobs of different colour and the strange, blocky abstract forms. His playfulness and what seems like a desire to puncture the pomposity of the art world continues in a small side room with a series of doodles across an entire issue of art theory journal October, which famously contains no colour illustrations. These doodles cover or part-cover each page with black and/or art deco style sunburst designs. They are determinedly fun and almost like fairground signs in their simplicity and bright colours, and they make a non-too-subtle point about an art magazine which refuses to use colour in its pages. IMG_2685 Elsewhere, there are large patches of gloss paint, poured into uneven circular shapes and slowly left to dry before being ‘mounted’ using a 2D box shape below the dried paint patch. The bold colours are the star of the show. But for me, the two most interesting pieces are two very different but intensely complementary installations. First, those fabulous sunglasses, (‘Disco Mecanique’) which are arranged in patterned ball shapes and hung on wires like a giant child’s bedroom mobile – you realise after a time that these are slowly and mesmerisingly rotating, not just moving in the breeze. Each pair of glasses probably costs pence to produce, but tied together they make new and rather beautiful shapes. In direct contrast, a darkened room to the side slowly flips through a loop of projected images of posters, notices and advertising boards which Batchelor collected around the world over many years (‘Found Monochromes’). All of these are blank for some reason, whether temporarily or permanently. It makes you realise how many messages we are subjected to during everyday life, and how unsettling it can be to see a notice without a message, especially one after another. The darkness and the ‘everydayness’ of these images is a foil to the fun and colour of the glasses, bringing both into greater visual and emotional relief. Shocking neon might not be for everyone, but Batchelor sure knows how to use it to make a powerful point about our experience of everyday visual culture and perception. Find out more about Spike Island and this exhibition by visiting www.spikeisland.org.uk – and here’s the address and telephone digits: 133 Cumberland Road, Bristol, BS1 6UX – 0117 929 2266