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Sean Lynch at Modern Art Oxford

Daveen Koh

Sean Lynch: A blow by blow account of stonecarving in Oxford
12 April 2014 to 8 June 2014
Modern Art Oxford

A cheerful, tuxedoed chicken has taken over Modern Art Oxford’s shop and café. Chuckie is the friendly face of Favorite, the largest UK-owned fried chicken chain. Since the chain’s inception in 1986, Chuckie has graced all its store fronts and packaging. In the museum shop, he shares a wooden bookstand with a copy of “Art Licks” while Tim Head’s 2013 inkjet print, Displacement, hangs on the adjacent wall. Chuckie is expertly camouflaged amidst the boldly colored merchandise of the children’s section; he is flanked by a book starring a menacing cat and a paper model kit of endangered animals. Chuckie’s omnipresence extends to the café. He appears in a weathered plastic sign from Favorite’s South Lambeth branch—close to the site of The Ark, the Ashmolean Museum’s precursor. The sign overlooks a display case of methodically arranged diagrams of store fronts and logos from the Favorite business archive. Meanwhile, a nearby glass case contains a stone resembling a monkey’s head, which formerly shared a case with other “forms suggested by natural shapes” in the Pitt Rivers Museum.

The exhilarating hunt for Chuckie, juxtaposed with the displaced stone, epitomizes the enigmatic experience of Sean Lynch’s installation at Modern Art Oxford, A blow by blow account of stonecarving in Oxford. The show, the product of Lynch’s investigation into the history of museums in Oxford, is a series of puzzles within puzzles. In particular, Lynch focuses on the problematic nature of museum displays: “Whatever enters any museum is placed in an order of knowledge, and is fixed and identified and labeled. Objects and life, once free now conscripted, harden into institutional values that form the museum itself.” Of course, these puzzles are not new, as the rise of institutional critique and the ethnographic turn in contemporary art in the 1990s evidences—an iconic instance is Fred Wilson’s 1992 installation Mining the Museum, during which Wilson re-arranged artifacts at the Maryland Historical Society to vocalize alternative narratives of African American history. The Pitt Rivers Museum was subject to similar critique in 1968-9, through Lothar Baumgarten’s projection work Unsettled Objects, which featured 81 color slides of the museum’s displays. The museum retains General Pitt River’s typological arrangement of artifacts, which as anthropologist William Chapman has argued, reflects its founding donor’s view that “boomerangs and throwing sticks” could “serve the role of words” in establishing historical relationships among races. Pitt Rivers’ guiding metaphor, shared by Darwinians and ethnologists in the late 19th century, is understandably controversial today: the present races were twigs and foliage of a tree, whose main stem led to European man. Baumgartem felt that the museum had “displayed, imagined, classified, reinvented, generalized… obfuscated” objects.

Lynch’s work commendably allows these problems to resurface by excavating histories that are hidden in plain sight In the exhibition catalogue, Lynch superimposes the Chuckie logo on the Natural History Museum’s famed ‘Cat Window’. I say ‘famed’ with embarrassment, because I had to study the catalogue to identify the exquisitely carved window, even though I pass through the Natural History Museum several times a week. The cats, nestled among interlacing leaves, resemble monkeys; some are so lean their rib cages are protruding. The museum’s arched entrance is framed by a curve of parrots and owls; their partially evolved bodies remain a source of mystery: did university staff dismiss the carvers, James and John O’Shea, because the brothers had been carving Darwin’s theory of evolution? Lynch’s preoccupation with the O’Sheas’ story is unsurprising. As sculptor Stephen Burke points out, the O’Sheas—whose freewheeling carvings of nature also adorn the buildings of Trinity College Dublin—embraced texture and process, and were unafraid to leave their works ‘unfinished’. Lynch emulates their fearlessness in his attempts to recreate their carvings. His own, occupying wooden worktables at Modern Art Oxford’s entrance, have been arrested at assorted stages of development. One block bears the lively outline of an unrealized lion. Nearby, a sketch of a voluptuous dodo accompanies a carving of a fantastic creature, a conflation of a dodo and a turtle. Pulverized stone coats the tabletops, making it unclear where the sculptures end and their stands begin; stone fragments form a monumental pile on the dark floor. Black-and-white prints of the stone blocks, photographed at various points during the carving process, hang on the pine-colored walls.

While still trying to unravel Lynch’s puzzles, I ventured upstairs. In a small room off the museum’s main gallery, white paint slushed through copper pipes and dripped down white canvases through hand cut holes. I watched other visitors pause before the pregnant paintings. That installation, Natasha Kidd’s Inflate System (Automated), was part of TEST RUN, the museum’s exhibition of works-in-progress. Like Kidd’s automated painting system, Lynch’s installation fascinates because it displaces what appears to be set in stone and—to misquote an excellent song—makes keeping secrets a lost art.

Daveen Koh is reading for an MSc in Visual, Material and Museum Anthropology at Wolfson College, Oxford.