I am always a little apprehensive about enjoying myself at an exhibition of contemporary art. Willingly dazzled by sparkly things, vivid colour and curious trinkets, I easily forget that proper art isn’t really meant to be happy. Artists are supposed to live in garrets and listen to Nick Drake and read George Orwell, producing work that is suitably melancholy at the core and subversive around the edges. In the same way that doctors have illegible handwriting and teachers marry other teachers, that’s just the way things are.
It would not surprise me if I discovered that Vanessa Donoso López lives in a cottage with roses round the door, listens to the Beach Boys and reads Harry Potter. Her second solo endeavour at the Stone Gallery is irresistibly light-hearted and mischievous from the moment you walk in. López is in no way ashamed of the childish tendencies in her paintings, drawings and undersized sculptures, even going so far as to describe her art-making as a form of play. Getting carried away, I think that if I had been allowed to title this show, it would be called Storage solutions for arks in the event of apocalyptic natural disaster. Noah appears to have run out of space and resorted to severing his animals down the middle, then reattaching each specimen to its appropriate companion so that they do not lose one another in the flood. The actual title of the show is Mysteries of contemporary inspiration and other wonders – arcane enough to absolve her of the obligation to explain the presence of so many two-headed animals. Instead, López questions aloud why esoteric forces lead us to be fascinated by one particular strange thing and not necessarily another.
While mystery, inspiration and wonder are all prominent and important aspects of the exhibition, the word ‘contemporary’ feels somewhat at odds here. López’s installation is distinctly old-fashioned in appearance. A beautiful wooden Singer sewing machine sits, for no apparent reason, against the wall upstairs. The manipulated figurines are Victorian in design, and the appliquéd wall-hanging in the room downstairs is reminiscent of Shaker quilting traditions.
Forcing myself to engage a darker frame of mind, I can conjure up subversive elements to the work without too much difficulty. The dusty Victorian ambience could suggest that the strange dolls and alien animals are artefacts brought back on ships by men with tall hats and pruned moustaches from hunting expeditions to the New World. Science is never far from the work, referenced through the apparatus employed for display purposes- bell jars and test tubes and such like. The previously cheery little ornaments suddenly transform into symbols for cloning and genetic engineering. Yet the overall installation, with its busy wallpaper and cosy carpet, varnished wood frames and a mantelpiece of knick-knacks, still feels more like a grandmother’s sittingroom than a laboratory, and the two-headed monsters more like endearingly misshapen family pets than futuristic mutations.
Probably my favourite thing about this exhibition is that there is no overbearing pressure to read between the lines for profound metaphors or socio-political references. If López is attempting to say something about history through her old style atmospherics, then I am afraid it is mercilessly smothered by the general niceness of everything. Instead of global statement, a no less significant warmth and sense of wonder radiates through the work. Upstairs a rainbow of glass test-tubes is affixed in an uneven line to the wall, each one containing a quantity of diluted ink with a strip of textured paper dipped into it. The vibrant liquid has absorbed upwards, forming rings of colour that reduce in intensity the higher they soak. With indefatigable marvel, López has extended the experiment to include paper cut-outs of trees and, of course, plenty of her signature two-headed animals. These things may not be important or philosophical, but they are especially enchanting and beautiful. And it is refreshing to be allowed, if only fleetingly, to unshackle our dormant childlike awe and rejoice in the tiny things – like ink splodges and rotating paper dancers – that are generally glossed over or dismissed as visual fluff within the high-brow canon of contemporary art.