Declan Long on Anne Tallentire

Bright lines of yellow builders’ string, rolls of primary-colored packing tape, flat-head screws tagged with tiny strips of pastel-toned paper: Anne Tallentire’s sculptural materials can be both rudimentary—practical nonprecious items, often associated with different stages of an architectural process, from preliminary drawing to actual on-site construction—and, in their unorthodox configurations, tidily decorative. Her artworks involve careful measuring, precise mapping, methodical assembly; she reflects on the physical, social, and sensory conditions of built environments, scrutinizing small details of domestic interiors or gesturing toward larger histories of public space. But these are not purely analytical endeavors. Across the range of her sculptures and installations, whether bulky or barely present, she maintains an ethos of controlled tenderness. Assembling combinations of loose materials—or capturing related scenes of assembly in meditative videos—Tallentire takes restrained aesthetic pleasure in calmly exalting inci-dental components of construction projects. She poetically repurposes the utilitarian pieces used in the creation of designed spaces, while also hinting at the intimate politics of architectural space making, highlighting the ways in which ideology resides in surface textures, room sizes, color choices.

In her recent exhibition “But This Material . . .” the artist assembled works made over the past half decade, some newly adapted for the occasion. Tallentire is based in London but grew up in County Armagh, not far from Northern Ireland’s border with the Republic of Ireland—and her intuitive alertness to the micropolitical pressures of shared places begins in the social and geographical tensions of this background. (An early performance, The Gap of Two Birds, 1988, made during a fraught period of Northern Ireland’s Troubles, involved Tallentire shuttling between signs reading NORTH and SOUTH, in response to audience prompts.) Other biographical factors—on an alternate, east-west axis—are worth acknowledging: her studies at New York’s School of Visual Arts in the early 1980s, a postgraduate degree at London’s Slade School of Fine Art soon after. In both contexts, Tallentire found allies who shared her emerging commitment to conceptual and performative experimentation—crucial among these being John Seth, with whom she has frequently collaborated under the nuts-and-bolts moniker work-seth/tallentire. The aesthetic discipline and political devotion that characterize Tallentire’s oeuvre have evolved from who she is and where she has lived, but also from how she has worked with others.

Though “But This Material . . .” was a solo endeavor for Tallentire, her enthusiasm for extrovert connections was nonetheless evident. In a downstairs space called the Sunken Gallery, a fixed-camera film, Morning Lane, 2016, focused on structural features of a stalled construction site, introducing her patient, inquisitive, public gaze. Upstairs in the Tall Gallery, a series of minimal sculptures responded to various building designs and construction practices: The rolls of tape squeezed into Perspex boxes for House, 2018–, encoded in their different sizes the room dimensions of an environmentally sustainable social housing development in Graz, Austria; the lengths of string screwed to the wall in Setting Out 3, 2021, corresponded to the spatial arrangement of now-demolished workers’ homes in Belfast. The success—and challenge—of these spare, compact assemblages comes in part from their counterposing of visual lightness with conceptual weight, openness with intensity. In the Upper Gallery, the grandest and airiest of the MAC’s spaces, Tallentire edged closer to dematerialization. On the floor, Ground Work, 2021, the footprint of an average-size public housing apartment lined out with builders’ string, filled the space with emptiness. On one wall, Area, 2021, a suite of twenty-eight laminated MDF panels, archived the furniture and appliances found in a social-housing common space, each item distilled and standardized as a single color and simple rectangular shape. These elegant reductions read, like much of Tallentire’s oblique, absorbing art, as ambiguous declarations: material expressions of belief in the democratic possibility of decent housing for all, and melancholic tributes to a now-disappearing modern ideal.

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