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An Essay Intended To Update You About Brad Lay’s Art Up Until Now And To Mull Over What It All Might Mean.

Brad Lay’s work is about the sea. That is exactly the kind of reductive explanation I try to avoid, but there you have it – Brad Lay and the big, blue/green/gray/black water. If you wanted to know what the art is about, that is it.

Casual observers of Lay’s practice might have noticed that aside from his long-standing de-facto relationship with the sea, he offers little else that can be solidly relied upon. His work doesn’t adhere to a consistent form or scale. He wanders between representation and abstraction – sometimes even dressing one up in another’s clothing – when it suits him. And the bald-faced adoption of The Sea as The Theme seems to belie a deeper desire to be conceptually and formally unanchored(1) – to make things that, like the ocean, can never be wholly understood.

A few years ago Lay presented a piece in a dark, echoey corner of the hollowed-out Queen’s Theatre. It consisted of a light bulb attached to the head of a pedestal fan. The light bulb projected a delicate image onto the crumbling wall. As the fan clunkily moved back and forth, the image was dragged across the wall – a pirate dissolving into a softly painted wave. The whole thing had a playful insubstantiality about it – like shadow puppets on the wall of a cave. Rather than being an absurdist folly, the unwieldy homemade projector was a gentle trope on the search for beauty in a world that seems more complicated than it should be; we tinker in a dark basement, awkwardly sticking things together with greasy tape, finding only brittle truths.

It isn’t all ether and poetry though(2). In a recent group show at Magazine Gallery, Lay exhibited a vertebra from a whale’s spine; constructed from layers of expanding foam then carved back into a greyish-white life- sized replica. Lit dramatically from below – like a shipwreck contriving to be ancient in an Attenborough doco – Surface to Air imposed itself on the room. While other pieces might skirt around the abyss,(3) here Lay has given us a brutally direct fabrication. Its big presence hints at a void – an absence of something even bigger(4). On paper Surface to Air sounds like straightforward representation. The porous, bubbliness of expanding foam had an uncanny affinity with the honeycombed texture of bone marrow. Then again, the sheer strength of expanding foam’s voice as a material refused to be absolutely subjugated to the task of Being A Whale Bone – even after being hand-carved and spray-painted. The result was a subtle smudging of the line between verisimilitude and expression. ‘Representation vs. abstraction’ is hardly the first thing that springs to mind when you see Surface to Air, but if you mull it over later in bed it is something that might float to the top. Which is nice.

Lay’s 2011 installation in the aEaf’s odradek space presented its duplicity a little more bluntly. Wave Data had two parts: a drawing on a canvas made up of jagged, jerky lines and a video of Lay operating a pen rigged up to a buoy, visually capturing the motion of the waves. When an artist presents ‘data’ we can analyse it for the phenomena it is intended to measure. Inevitably in a gallery context we also find ourselves dwelling on the aesthetic forms the data takes. For Lay, one way of understanding the world is never enough. Two ways barely covers the basics.

Look out to sea and there is the horizontal line that stretches around you, barely delineating the difference between sea and sky. The line is fuzzy and it isn’t straight – it curls itself around the world. When we stand on the edge of the beach and look at the ocean we see so much space, visually unmediated by human systems. The water seems to have its own maths, something to do with the moon. It’s hard not to ask, ‘what is nature?’ And, ‘what is my nature?’

Chloe Langford June 2011

1. If Brad can call an exhibition Self Kelp for the Shellfish, I’m taking that as permission to use all the cheap ocean-related metaphors I like.

2. Phew.

3. Not an intentional reference but now that I think about it, one of Lay’s more well-known pieces is a mirror trick called The Abyss and Other Reasons to be Cheerful, which my poor-sighted boyfriend thought was a real abyss.

4. A whale! An ocean! And much more! You can get it all, right here in The Void!