Deb Mansfield’s artworks are little puzzles to be solved. In this she is not alone. Most art, or at least good art, makes viewers into cryptographers. Using form, content, materials and context, an artist encodes messages in their work. It is up to us to read the signs. Looking for clues, most of us first turn to titles, an opportunity for the artist to spell it out. Or not…
In her solo show, The Last Vestiges of Instinct, Mansfield presented a painting titled A subtle beast, 2017. The room sheet described it as a “commissioned American oil painting on canvas of a snarling dog, with a hand cast white metal bison screwed into its mouth.” Was the client American? The painter? Or the oil paint? Maybe all of the above? And does nationality really have anything to do with reading the work?
Feeling confused rather than illuminated by this excess of information, I noticed that the exhibition included two sculptures in the form of large hand-carved wooden G-clamps, with cast white metal screws through the middle. Important enough to repeat, I thought perhaps these works held the key to decoding the show. One was titled The trouble with cowardice and sported pale turquoise paint on the threaded rod. The other, painted bright yellow, was called We have our effect and we have our ransom. The turquoise screw had a large slice cut out of it, but the works were near identical, despite their very different titles. I decided to put aside the room sheet (and its deliberately obtuse strategy of oversharing) and let the work speak for itself.
Suddenly Mansfield’s message became clearer. The artist presented three small monochromatic tapestries, each one based on a photo in which animals (a dog, an elephant, and a trio of cows) were suspended from harnesses. Sans titles, interpreting these images was simple. They evoked the seemingly endless capacity humans have for cruelty to animals, and, by extension, to other humans. (After all, we are just animals that can count a facility for technology, viciousness and self-destruction among our many and varied talents.)
Diminutive fetishes of goats, horses and bears lined the gallery walls. Roughly cast in white metal from children’s plastic toys, many of these little animals were missing limbs and loosely daubed with paint. While the amputations might be evidence of flaws in the casting process, some bore the scars of more deliberate human violence, both literal and metaphorical.
The small goat perched on a shelf in A saccharine undercut (a shrink and shudder at the guise of view), 2017, was subjected to the grinding wheel. Its body had been abraded away to reveal a swathe of metal; smooth and shiny like a wound that won’t heal.
Elsewhere a tiny metal polar bear balanced on a precariously thin metal outcrop. Positioned between the wall and a perilous plunge to the floor it could neither move forward nor back. It was utterly trapped, hopelessly doomed. Forget the titles. Left to their own devices Deb Mansfield’s works speak eloquently.