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First Major Institutional Exhibition Outside of Great Britain by Lucy Skaer at Kunsthalle Basel
Lucy Skaer, The Great Wave (Expanded), 2007. Permanent marker and pencil on paper. Installation view, Scotland and Venice 2007, Palazzo Zenobio, Venice. Photo: Polly Braden. The Arts Council Collection.

BASEL.- Kunsthalle Basel presents the first major institutional exhibition outside of Great Britain by Lucy Skaer (b. 1975, Cambridge).

The play on words in the title rests on the formal and functional correspondence of the two nouns. The title reveals the multilayered process of naming and attributing meaning: while a boat can both literally be a vessel, it also becomes the vessel to hold the meaning of the title. This play on the ambivalent legibility of signs and their construction is the point of departure in Lucy Skaer’s exhibition, which shows real objects variously abstracted into pictures and symbols.

Skaer makes sculptures, films and drawings mainly based on photographs sourced from newspapers and books as well as pictures taken off the Internet, and assembles them in installations. The transformation of her found material into pictures and objects is an elaborate, often manual process that also involves the collaboration of craftsmen. What results is a push and pull between representation and the still recognizable meaning and physical shape of the original subject matter. The artist often begins with disturbing conditions or extreme situations as in Cells (With Rules and Exceptions), 2005, a series of drawings that converts photographs of empty prison cells into a geometrical structure of multiple lines and marks. It is only upon closer study that we see the subject matter underlying the ornamental exuberance of the picture plane, as in The Great Wave (Expanded), 2007 (after a Hokusai woodcut). The sourced image is like a condensed diagram, transformed on the picture plane into an internalized image or feeling. By using abstract forms and by enhancing the work with such materials as gold leaf, mother of pearl or silver, Skaer alters not only the meaning of the represented things but also their cultural and economic value.

On the ground floor of the Kunsthalle Basel, Skaer is presenting three installations created specially for the exhibition as well as existing works, including her 16 mm film The Joker, 2006 and a recent installation, The Siege, (commissioned by Chisenhale Gallery in London in 2008).

For the installation The Table and Lies about It, 2009, the artist converted an antique table into a block for large-format monoprints. The prints show the scratches and other marks on the tabletop, thus representing the history of the object in a series of abstract linguistic forms. Another new project consists of prints that Skaer produced with specialists who normally print official documents such as banknotes or passports. Unfalsifiable ornaments of lines cover the motifs with a grid that evokes a variety of new pictorial configurations. This conversion locates the prints in an ambiguous field, in which different referential systems (as art and money) are intermingled. One of the motifs Skaer has selected is a woodcut after the book Daß Narrenschyff ad Narragoniam by Sebastian Brant (1457-1521). The picture shows fools crowded together in a boat shaped like half a nutshell, sailing to the land of ‘Narragonia’. The group, isolated and confined to a boat in pursuit of their fantasy destination, reads as an allegory as relevant today as it ever was.

In a new installation, Skaer shows large-scale drawings of whale skeletons in combination with a genuine skeleton from the Basel Museum of Natural History. The depiction of the bone structure is undermined in Skaer’s drawings by various superimposed grids: this movable arrangement of surfaces creates the irrational feeling ‘of the whale moving beneath you’. (Lucy Skaer)

Skaer’s exhibition follows different routes in subjecting the conventional classification of real objects to scrutiny and transferring them to the realm of imaginary images. Just as archaeology examines the buried remains of civilizations in order to find out more about the thoughts behind the things the humans create, Skaer’s work seeks to activate the power of the symbolic that lies beyond existing images.

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