For her new exhibition entitled Precious Mettle at London’s Fiumano Clase Gallery, British artist Nicole Wassall has created a series of works that serve both as aesthetic pieces in their own right and as metaphors for underlying themes prevalent in our society today. Thoughtful and thought-provoking, Wassall has managed to pull off the trick of using highly complex processes to create artworks that appear simple yet are anything but simplistic.
Symbolism is everywhere in her art. The boxes you see in the top shot, My Tree is not your Tree, signify aspects of the human mind. The outer one, made of brass, reflects the emotional boundaries that people generally respect. It has no glass in it. The inner one that appears to float but which is held by fine gold wires, is sealed and contains tags that label one’s innermost thoughts, the names of which you cannot read.
Wassall’s love of process and experimentation are exemplified in And Somehow we’re meant to be Perfect, pictured above. Like all her works, it’s multi-layered. It comprises three traditional icon boards with 24ct gold mirrors placed inside a golden frame. The mirrors, from left to right, represent Wassall’s progression in learning water gilding, a highly skilled art using rabbit-skin glue and gesso.
She has connected her efforts to the idea of how our society strives to achieve that elusive goal of perfection. So, her first try is good but flawed, the second shows improvement but, like life, throws up other aspects as a result. The third is affected by bubbles in the gesso for which she had no control, with the inference that not all of life’s problems are our fault.
What’s intriguing about this work is the gap where a fourth mirror should be. It links to Wassall’s study of neuroscience and the research findings that the brain doesn’t always act in the rational way you might think. There is no better example of this than in our current polarised political climate, as she explains.
“If you believe in one side, it doesn’t matter if the other side gives you a completely rational, well-reasoned, grounded, decent, honest, fair and proper contradiction to your beliefs. What will happen to you is the emotional part of your brain will challenge that and show it all up and you will turn it in terms of ‘well they would say that wouldn’t they’. And when you manage to get to that point when you convince yourself that what they said is wrong, even though it may be factually correct, then your body releases endorphins to reward you.”
So the missing mirror may not only refer to potential but also our need to fill in the gap subconsciously with whatever view we want.
While Wassall is careful not to make any partial political points here, her two-part exhibit, Thank You is a homage to the suffragette movement. She discovered in Kensington antiques market an old one penny copper coin from Edward VII’s reign with VOTES FOR WOMEN crudely stamped on it. No one knows how many of them were made nor who made them. She has updated the idea to EQUAL PAY on one side and WOMEN on the other, stamped using a lump hammer. She has used 2p coins from 1971, the year that decimal coinage was introduced and the year after the Equal Pay Act became law.
It was also the year that Queen Elizabeth II’s allowance was more than doubled with the suggestion that equal pay is easy to achieve, as long as you’re a queen. The image above is of a print she has made. The other part is of a handful of coins which she has cleaned and polished and emblazoned with the same message.
Mirror Mirror is a contemporary non-religious icon, again using the water gilding process with 20 layers of gesso painted on a board. In fact, she tells me there are 50 different layers and processes used here. On it is engraved a poem about a skimming stone thrown into water causing ripples. There’s ambiguity here about whether we are the stone or the stone thrower. The engraved, hand-drawn letters and the shimmering surface of the piece all add to the ripple effect which could be taken as a metaphor for the unplanned consequences that life can sometimes throw up.
You get different effects from this work as you move around the room. The same can be said of many of the pieces here particularly in the way Wassall uses shadow to create an extra dimension.
I Wish the Hand was Silver, for example, shows a sculpted black wooden hand that holds a silver marionette puppet on which hang symbols of the three Abrahamic religions. It’s an elegant piece in which the shadows and reflections dance around in the air. It’s overtly symbolic of how the world’s puppet-masters can manipulate religion or how religious zealots can affect the world, each impressing their “truth” on others. It’s not a judgment call yet it goes to the heart of Wassall’s struggle with the idea of what is truth. She sees truth, not in science or religion but in the arts.
“It’s beautiful when you can connect with a piece of work and you know that you and the artist have shared something which I have felt myself before with Rothko and Francis Bacon. So I’m trying to get that kind of truth because there is a truth captured and I suppose I’m reacting to this idea that there’s no such thing as truth because I think there is but not where we’re looking for it. I think there are emotional truths.”
Whether on a simple aesthetic level, a thematic level or on a neuroscience and psychological level, these exhibits offer plenty to grapple with, reflecting as they do on aspects of human nature both good and bad.
Precious Mettle is showing at Fiumano Clase, Unit 12, 21 Wren Street, London WC1X 0HF until 15 November 2019.
All images are courtesy of the artist and gallery.