Lee Machell: On Paper, December 11 2015 – February 13 2016, OBJECT / A, Friends’ Meeting House

There is something essayistic about the title of Lee Machell’s latest show at Manchester’s Object A gallery. On Paper sounds like the laconic lead-in to a short treatise on the notorious fear of the plain blank sheet that waits for all artists and writers to make their mark. Instead, his clean sheets of paper drawings contain no sense of creative dread but are full of associations made by the chance marks of lit matches. The three new works on display here were made by piling matches around found objects in an encompassing ring, which were then lit until the cartridge paper is eventually left with a singed pattern of black circles. Using the charcoal effects of the matches and the grey imprints left over from the smoke, Machell has made finished drawings; charred but calm, allusive.

In Hanimex (2015), the small chain of fire was set-off around a slide carousel so that the rising smoke was captured in between the slats like a tiny carbon capture device and impressed onto the page. Some of the plastic has melted off and minute clumps of it are stuck on the page as evidence of the performance. Even without the simple titles of his work, we can often work back from the negative traces and see what object acted as the effigy on the matchstick fire. In Reel VIII (2015) you can infer, though only just, from the gaps and spaces in the centre that a disused 16mm film reel has been used to great effect. Despite the fact there is no direct hand of a draughtsman in the works, the range of marks are just as impressive: pitch black burns, faint orange stripes left over from the wooden matchsticks and layers of grey curls.

The materials that form the basis of these smoked templates are taken from Machell’s studio. The final piece in the new trio, Lamp Black (2015), uses the screw cap from a tube of oil paint as the epicentre and the image is projected onto the gallery wall by the same Hanimex slide projector used in previous works.

Other artists have been interested in the unpredictable nature of fire, but none with Machell’s minimalist control. John Cage’s River Rocks and Smoke paintings use watercolour and rocks on cold press paper prepared by dampening a straw fire over the surface; the effect is one of the dying fumes of camp fires and storytelling. Yves Klein’s flair for showmanship resulted in his use of gas powered flame throwers, safely deployed in the environment of a destructive testing laboratory which he was allowed to use in the spring of 1961. He had naked women, bathed first in water, move their bodies over the surface of the canvas and then blasted the dry, combustible sections, leaving a patchwork of orange and black. His Fire Paintings series (1961) are supposed to be a type of alchemy, but Machell’s series is more like the simple black and white of early photography – recording rather than scorching.

Although Machell’s matchstick drawings are self-contained, their technique makes them suggestive and they hint at other mediums. His choice of found objects – the Hanimex carousel and film reels – has cinematic connotations and a latent nostalgia. In fact, he plays with the dangerous potential of old film reels, which were made from nitrocellulose and prone to harmful combustion. Another work dating from last year, Sleeve (2015), was made by his unique singeing process but on an old record sleeve. Hollywood Cinema reels, LP sleeves, an old Hanimex carousel are surrounded by a circle of fire, but the flickering of the lit match echoes the flicker fusion threshold of movie projection. The ‘white cube’ feeling of the modern art gallery is relieved by the atmosphere of an old-fashioned projection room.

Sadly, this exhibition is now closed but Machell does have more exhibitions planned for later this year. Look out for Nevertheless in Birmingham’s A3 Project Space and Transparent Things in Newcastle’s Vane Contemporary Art Gallery.
Ashley McGovern

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