Art by syllables

Clearly, Paul Edmunds doesn’t get paid by the word. His past five exhibitions have been titled, variously, Scale, Houding, Phenomena, Array and Aggregate. And now we have Subtropicalia, at the Michael Stevenson Gallery.

He’s growing syllabically, at least, and euphonic growth is complemented by tectonic shift. The only piece in the new show that I’ve seen in the flesh, so to speak, is Weft, a video piece featuring a bifurcating image of a surfer (a longboarder, it looked like, which fits Edmunds’s old-school approach to sport—he rides a single-speed mountain bike).

I saw an earlier version of Weft when I fortuitously found myself at the Bank Gallery in Durban last year, for Aggregate, which was a collection of old pieces with two new works—the fine art equivalent of music’s “Best Of” albums. While the piece seemed to fit an idea of Durban, it didn’t fit my idea of Edmunds’s oeuvre.

Why waste our time with video tricks we can find in their thousands on any video-sharing platform on the net? But, as always with Edmunds, there’s a slow release of new ideas that lead you to a different understanding of his work. So Weft is actually a gift to the viewer, a way into what can sometimes be dense works that defy easy narrativising.

Surf, sea, flow, motion, nostalgia—these motifs make a work like 2001’s Reef hundreds of found polystyrene cups with an arrow motif cut into them, and then arranged into the shape of a wavy reef more than just an exercise in beautiful form and environmental intervention. The motifs allow us to engage with the artist and steer us from the cul-de-sac of the empirical down the road of explication.

Whether this pretty allegory works in terms of the new show is for you to judge. Do pieces such as Foam, a pavement parallelogram made out of used skateboard wheels, and Period, where, according to the Michael Stevenson website, “Edmunds employs a material similar to that used in the manufacture of bodyboards to create structures that embody a series of growing and contracting waves”, suffer from being thematically linked? And by suffer, I mean take some of the perplexing mystery out of the beauty of Edmunds’s work.

In his statement on the new show, the artist suggests not. And it must be irritating having critics continually harping on about the abstract nature of what you do and limiting your work to theoretical mumblings rather than visceral reactions. Undeniably, Edmunds’s work is as beautiful as it is sometimes baffling, and a visit to Subtropicalia will reward you in more ways than one.

Paul Edmunds’s Subtropicalia runs at the Michael Stevenson Gallery, Buchanan Building, 160 Sir Lowry Road, Woodstock, for the duration of the Spring Art Tour. It closes on November 21

Chris Roper