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Down-to-Earth Art From a Family of Four

By Christopher Andreae / July 29, 1991

THE Boyle Family observes, selects, and then recreates what other people either simply don't notice at all or what other artists do notice and relish but don't ever actually turn into their art. After all, what could be further below serious attention than the mess on a building site or the fragmented chaos that accrues when street repairs are underway? Yet to "Boyle Family as these British artists call themselves, without the definite article - such things are a matter of passionate commitment, materialfor art of a particularly dedicated realism that actually amounts to a kind of love. Of course there is a context, in the history of modern art, for what the Boyle Family do. (Parents Mark and Joan and their children Sebastian and Georgia work together as a close-knit artistic unit.) The idea is essentially "all-inclusivity that nothing is unusable material for the artist. Picasso and Braque introduced real rope, newspaper, and other found objects into their collages, and from then on, a whole world of "non-art" art materials became possible or even downright desirable. They offered an e scape from the preciousness of traditional oil paint, pastel, watercolor, and bronze or marble in sculpture. What seems now to have been in question was the notion that the value of art was somehow bound up with the value of materials. Since this limitation was exploded, artists have simply taken for granted that anything can be used to make art. This freedom has itself, by now, virtually become a cliche - though occasionally someone comes along who finds a new vitality in the idea, and even uses materials no one thought of using before. The Boyle Family has developed along this line, but have arrived now at a surprisingly conventional way of producing their unconventional effects. They have turned what was once revolutionary on its head. It is clear that what they make is consciously "art though no doubt they might subscribe to the philosophy of the German assemblage artist Kurt Schwitters: "Art is ... indefinable, and without purpose. The work of art is created by an artistic evaluation of its elements. I know only how I do it; I know only my material, from which I derive, to what end I know not." The Boyle Family, perhaps realizing that it is by 1990 scarcely radical any more to make "pictures" out of garbage and detritus, instead now represents these things scattered at random on the neglected or disrupted surfaces of cities. They do so by means of sculpted forms, which they then paint. Their modeled forms are made of fiberglass, a material accepted by sculptors for at least the last 30 years. Instead of incorporating actual pieces of charred wood, twisted and rusting iron girders, or flattened oil drums into the surface of their works, they represent them. They represent them with a quite remarkable verisimilitude - and, in fact, the viewer may well find the primary fascination of their work lies in the sheer skill with which they achieve such authenticity. There is a rather breathtaking trompe l'oeil aspect to their exhibited artifacts; but this is paradoxical. Presumably, their intention is not at all like that of the old illusionist painters, to trick the eye into believing what it sees is the real thing. Or at least that seems unlikely to be their main preoccupation. And yet they are so very good at contriving the appearance and texture of broken-up tarmac, cracked earth, dirt, gravel, cobblestones, broken bricks, fragmented concrete - that admiration s eems inevitably called for. This said, however, the represented materials do very quickly reassert themselves as the materials themselves - as the substance as well as the subject of their pictures. The Boyle Family's most recently exhibited work is from its Docklands series. Working in London's East End docklands forms a link to past activities. Mark Boyle describes the series as follows: "This new demolition/construction site where we've made the Docklands series takes us all back to the bomb sites we spent most of our waking hours on in the late '50s and early '60s. Only this site is on a totally different scale." (It is, indeed, a major and much-criticized devastation by planners of an entire a rea of London, undergoing almost total redevelopment.) He goes on: Now we're talking about an urban wasteland. A vast area of mud littered with major industrial debris.... And whereas 30 years ago, on the other side of London, we were making junk sculptures, assemblages of all the debris with 'symbolic content,significance,' and so on, now we hardly use any real material from the site, these are just pictures of the surface of the earth in all its glory, relief sculptures made with painted fiberglass." Doubtless their works affect people in different ways. Some might find them absurd, perhaps those who work on building sites or roads. There is something innately strange about giving so much effort, time, and ingenuity to recreating the minutiae of a framed segment of "the surface of the earth," which most people would either find simply evidence of destruction or at least massive untidiness. Others may well be struck by the unexpected beauty of man-made structures loosened, disintegrated, and chaotic, by the cracked surface of the elemental earth reclaiming its own, welcoming back the substances borrowed for a period by man-the-builder. Still others may have a feeling of excitement that they haven't had since childhood - when, after all, they were a lot closer to the ground than in adulthood. IT has been observed that some children during wartime derive a special sense of adventure from bombed-out buildings. The Boyles confess to having sunbathed and had picnics in such postwar places in London. That the two younger members of this art family cannot remember when they didn't take part in the making of the art their parents developed confirms the suspicion that art is there to keep vital and alert the child in us. Considerable lengths have been gone to by the Boyle Family to make its choice of site, and even its choice of earth segment, a matter of chance. They noticed that a chance framing of objects haphazardly placed on the ground worked better than deliberate selection. All the same, a similarity of angled composition is apparent in their works. Chance has long been one of the essential dogmas of much modern art, but it is in many ways a kind of self-deception. The works in the Docklands series are, in truth, highly selective: There is little hint in them, for instance, of either the animal or the vegetable. The lengths of charred timber have long since been removed from any relationship to a growing tree. The weeds and grass that spring up within weeks in most building sites, even in deeply urban places, do not seem to be included in the Boyles' range of vision. Their chosen "earth" is as man's depredations have left it, at least temporarily - the waste, decay , and deconstructivism of man-made materials. Faced with such detailed and sectioned-off evidence presented in the context of gallery or museum (which therefore demands a special kind of consideration), it is difficult to accept at face value Mark Boyle's assertion that there is no symbolic or political intention here. At the very least, environmentalists can hardly avoid the significance of the dehumanized left-overs that strew the mud after humans have built and destroyed and are about to build again.

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