Planet Earth as seen from space, surrounded by debris. A cardboard box. Stonehenge. A stone wall. The subjects of Siobhan Liddell’s most recent body of paintings, which will be on display as part of Gordon Robichaux’s Independent presentation and concurrently as a solo exhibition at the gallery’s Union Square headquarters, connect the eternal and the everyday.
Crucially, each artwork has a sculptural component. The painting of Earth is gripped by a ceramic hand with a used banknote–that one is titled Untitled–while Listen In sees a cardboard box foregrounded with somewhat precarious strips of wire and plastic drinking straws. The latter painting was the one of the first the artist completed while working in this new hybrid mode. “Those straws become really formal drawing aspects to me,” Liddell recently told me over FaceTime from her studio in Kingston, New York. “But then they’re spatial–you see them, they might wobble when you get near them because they’re on very fine wire. Which is like the old work,” she continued. “There’s a sort of coming together.”
About that old work. The artist was born in Worksop, a town in the East Midlands region of England. She graduated from London’s Saint Martins School of Art in 1986. Liddell first burst into the consciousness of the New York art world in the early 1990s with a series of exhibitions that utilized humble materials–things like bits of string, cardboard and thread–and presented them in a matter that was subtle, mysterious and almost punk. For her participation in the 1995 Whitney Biennial, she displayed small paper-maché forms affixed to the wall with pins and white sheets of paper that reflected green from the back. “This idea of impermanence, that was interesting to me,” Liddell said, of her early work. “Taking up a lot of space with small materials and feeling like presence is so fleeting and things are so vast and we’re so tiny, that was a sort of place for me.”
In the time since then, Liddell, who has been on the faculty at Yale School of Art and was the recipient of the Rome Prize: Vera List Fellowship 2011-12, has built a slippery body of work that defies easy categorization. Her 2004 piece Spiral Pile used paper, paint and wire to construct a self-contained vortex at a modest scale. One piece from her 2006 CRG Gallery show “Liminal” consisted of 253 clear plastic push pins across two walls–the pins spelled out the words False Sense of Security, which also happened to be the title of the work. In a 2018 sculpture called This Century, Liddell placed a digital print of a seashell in a glazed ceramic sculpture of a wave, which suggested a vernacular language shared by seaside craft shops from Brighton to Barnstable. If one thing connects this work, it is a casual mastery of mostly modest materials. In the artist’s hands, the quotidian is made special. The fact that one of Liddell’s exhibitions was named “Ordinary Magic” is fitting. “That idea of impermanence gets closer and I lost a lot of people of late,” Liddell said, when talking about changes in her work over the decades. “Now, my work is like, Oh I have a strange kind of, I’m not endowed of it, I’m just doing it. It’s a very different position to be in."
"If one thing connects this work, it is a casual mastery of mostly modest materials. In the artist’s hands, the quotidian is made special."
Liddell’s coming exhibitions have their roots in a 2021 residency at Steep Rock Arts, a 100-acre estate in Western Connecticut. In preparation for the stay, she had 20 stretchers made in two different sizes with linen and canvas. Liddell told me that the stretchers acted as her “slate to start from” when crafting works that combine elements of painting and sculpture. “I have been doing a lot of ceramics over the years, for sure, and I knew that I wanted to put these two things together,” Liddell said. “And I had not had a studio in a long time, so when I got to this residency it was just like I had all this stuff to download, and literally like ‘boom boom boom,’ I was working like a very focused person.”
That hot streak continued long after the artist left the residency and returned to Kingston. Liddell told me the work got more autobiographical as it developed. One painting she showed me, of a London apartment tower block she used to live in, was foregrounded with a wire loop and would later include a sculptural block to mark the 15th floor of the building–the floor where she once resided. Another piece shared with me was a gestural oil-on-linen painting that depicted the entrance to a cave. On top of the stretcher: a cozy-looking ceramic cat. “Everything’s getting a bit of an adornment,” Liddell said. “And, if it doesn’t get an adornment, it’s kind of left out.” Other subjects include an ancient amphitheater, the early morning moon on the Hudson River and the aforementioned Stonehenge. “Yeah, it is the big stuff, right? It’s like, Stone fucking Henge,” Liddell said, when discussing the piece Togethering. “But it’s behind a scrim, which makes it kind of look like a photograph or something, and then there’s the paper around it and there’s a shell in the front.”
Liddell’s new paintings zoom in and then they zoom out again. They make connections between thousands of years of culture and nature and disparate artistic modes. Like much of the artist’s work, they follow a singular internal logic, one that often lives beyond the confines of language. So it should be no shock that when Liddell was trying to think up a title for her current exhibition, her ideas ended up falling into a fairly abstracted, metaphysical space. “Going beyond beyond,” Liddell said, of one possible idea. “It was all like that. Not knowing. All these [titles] about, you know, things are magical and mysterious,” she continued. “I do still believe that.”