The consequence of light
Abstract art was always called that for a reason, precisely because it is 'abstracted' from our surrounding physical reality, a reduced yet refined form of visual expression akin perhaps to poetry's relation to everyday language.
In this sense the work of Nathaniel Rackowe is classic 'abstraction', one closely tied to the very forms of actuality, as opposed to 'non-representational' art which attempts to be nothing but a pure geometry of the mind.
This might sound pedantic but it is an important distinction because Rackowe's oeuvre is one signally alive to the pleasure and excitement, the tang and dazzle of the tangible world through which he moves in a state of wonder, and it should be appreciated more as freighted summation of what the artist sees and senses than as an exercise in form for form's sake. Rackowe gives us back some of the delight, the glory even, that we sometime glimpse in even the most ordinary circumstance, and gives it back in a sharper, purer shape so that we can appreciate it anew, marvel as if for the first time. This is very much an art of the city, of the Modernist metropolis, a place so post-modern it is now more modern than ever, an art of streets and shop windows, of trams, buses, trains, of something seen gleaming from the corner of an eye from a taxi at the corner of dawn, as God's dimmer brings up day.
Thus Rackowe's work partly belongs to the long Modernist heritage, perhaps even making him an 'impressionist' in so much as he captures his impressions of the city and translates them, abstracts them indeed, into singular forms, and like the original, radical 'Impressionists' he is interested in isolating and exaggerating the essence of the contemporary city. Equally Rackowe could stand comparison with the Imagist poets, those like Pound and Eliot who summed up city life, and specifically that of London, and more specifically its poorer areas, it's street light and reflections, its rain and electricity, in a single 'image' to encapsulate all of its energy, curious romance. Thus Rackowe's work which might appear austere, yes, 'minimal' is in fact rich in romance, in drama, with a generosity of spirit and effect which belies its modest means.
Take the central work of this exhibition, the eponymous 'Consequence of Light'; here Rackowe deploys an industrial metal rack and the most basic breeze blocks, to create a magical spectacle. Here we are granted a shifting shadow cityscape, a Manhattan grid of gorgeous colour, bleak Bauhaus housing, war memorial, German Expressionist movie set, a tonal stadium rally, a splayed palette, some perverse machinery worthy of Poe's low-swinging axe which only ever brushes its floor-bound victim, a piece of theatre that needs no other actor. Michael Fried's musings on the threat of 'theatricality' to sculpture are here subverted and celebrated by a device, a deus-ex-machina worthy of some Brutalist court ceremony. But what is important is that Rackowe's piece absolutely is not any of the above. It is not an illusionistic version of anything else, it just is what it is, remaining true to a formalist sculptural integrity, whilst throwing out, like beams of light, these implications and imaginings, these gleanings, all of which it also denies. It is a welded metal rack attached with standard-issue T8 fluorescent tubing, accompanied by the most ordinary building blocks and industrial paint, no, nothing more at all.
Rackowe retains a strong sense of the credo of 'truth to materials' whilst tweaking such dogma with a sly sense of play, an acute awareness of the shift that just a thin inch of fluorescent paint can make, or the brightness of bright yellow electrical cord, the details that make the difference. It's like the wheelbarrow of William Carlos Williams, 'so much depends upon a red wheel barrow glazed with rain water,' where the poetry is all precisely in that red, as in Rackowe's own poetic alignment of a single red line. Rackowe has taken something that was always present in the soi-disant 'minimalist' artists (those for whom he has no shame in admitting his admiration and thereby proving his own assurance), a certain cunning flamboyance, a discrete dramatic flourish, and bringing it out further, giving it space, letting it shine forth fully. Thus whilst Judd or Flavin would only reluctantly acknowledge the sheer luxury, the grandeur, of their tonal effects, the unexpected richness of their ultimate visual punch, Rackowe boldly racks it up, grants such spectacle full play.
And as with these 'Minimalists' this is achieved with the simplest means, with a single tube of bent neon, with ordinary scaffolding pipes and clamps, a wooden shed, things we walk past every day, the same fluorescent strips that stutter across the ceiling of every office or bus stop. Taking these basic elements Rackowe heightens, spotlights, their elemental form, with the attention to detail of a master craftsman working with the most precious material; thus in the central glass box of this current exhibition he has deployed standard aluminium I-beams but powder coated black and with their inner-channels painted an acid yellow and warmer red, entirely transforming them into fetishistic high-finish objets d'art of rare tactile refinement. As such Rackowe has a highly refined sensitivity to the innate possibility of the most ordinary materials, an aesthetic eye combined with the bricoleur's DIY sensibility that makes him as much an 'industrial' designer, in the true sense of that term, as a successful practising furniture designer.
But Rackowe is as much the architect, if not the urbanist, the town planner, not only in his ability to transform a gallery's nature by the installation of his own work but also in his understanding of the way we navigate the physical city around us. All his work is predicated on how our bearing, being, is altered and influenced by the buildings, the spaces, the shapes that frame us, to quote Churchill's memorable phrase, 'we shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.' And if Rackowe is known primarily as a 'light' artist it is vital to remember that he only uses this material because of the way in which it structures space, the manner in which it delineates and defines, limits and outlines, limns the corners, walls, rooms, buildings, city blocks and streets through which it radiates, a liquid architecture spreading its own definition, its own intangible geometry, against the encroaching night and up to the very limits of our sight.
ADRIAN DANNATT is a curator, artist, critic and collector currently based between London and Paris. His most recent exhibition and publication is 'Alexander the Great: The Iolas Gallery 1955-1987' at Paul Kasmin in New York. He is a contributor to the forthcoming book on the light artist Adam Barker-Mill.