Referencing an Iron Age burial site in the north of England, Francis Upritchard’s impressive exhibition, “Wetwang Slack,” announced from the outset that archaeology would be an underlying theme. But this was no dry, bleached-out display of indistinguishable artifacts such as have tried the patience of school children for generations. The New Zealand-born artist served up an entire civilization, excavated from her imagination, consisting of outlandish figures, body parts, bones, jewelry, hats, jars, and sculptural reliefs, all drawn from myth, science fiction, and popular culture. Above all, “Wetwang Slack” was a celebration of craft, demonstrating Upritchard’s extraordinary versatility across a range of materials, from textiles, plastic, bronze, glass, and ceramics to Balata rubber, harvested in Brazil.
At the entrance, one encountered a motley parade of diminutive polymer clay figures posed on mauve plinths, their colorful attire suggesting a hodgepodge of styles from Asia, South America, and Western hippie culture. Of indeterminate gender, they defied categorization: one sported multiple limbs, another alien-green hands, and yet another in bright yellow garb had a face painted half blue, half silver. These otherworldly beings were succeeded by small bronze sculptures of prehistoric creatures alongside misshapen hands and fingers, arrayed like macabre relics. Before one’s inner paleontologist could be tempted to trace them back in history, the next vitrine shifted swiftly back to the present with witty displays of lurid bangles, sunglasses with smiley faces in place of lenses, and polymer clay ears adorned with earrings. Next came hanging industrial racks of quirky miniature hats (2014–18) including fezzes, fuzzy hats, a peacenik baseball cap, and hats with hands sewn on and funny titles like Inky Inca Hats and Sozzled Hat.
The Barbican Curve is a tricky space, with no natural light and austere walls curving in a backwards “C” shape, which makes it impossible to view an entire exhibition from any vantage point. Yet Upritchard exploited the layout to offer a teasing unfolding of her endlessly inventive exhibits. Epochs and geographies were collapsed in startling ways. The hats, for instance, led to an assortment of beautifully crafted ceramic urns, which might be mistaken for original versions from diverse cultures were it not for their carved faces. Nearby, a cabinet contained glass vessels decorated with sea creatures and Greek mythological beings; another displayed rows of bronze trinkets. Everything was displayed in keeping with ethnographic museum conventions, inviting reflection about how we convey information about culture and history.
The final, and most intriguing, section of the show featured several sculptural reliefs of centaurs, inspired by the Parthenon, and two freestanding sculptures, all made from Balata rubber, which is boiled and then molded underwater. This leathery material, with its knots, gnarls, and tendon-like shoots, has a wonderfully elastic quality. In Upritchard’s works, its peculiar texture evoked the bark-like flesh of preserved bodies while producing the effect of motion, especially in the sinewy legs of the centaurs, which appeared ready to gallop off their friezes. The two sculptures, which depicted entwined bodies, called to mind Giacometti in their elongated proportions, although they were, in fact, influenced by the folkloric Japanese figures Ashinaga and Tenaga (translated as “Long legs, Long arms”). Clinging to each other, these emaciated figures exuded desperation as if they were the sole survivors in a Beckett play.
Upritchard countered such existential musings with playful titles such as Big Brute and Butter Fingers (in the case of the centaur reliefs), and the works deliberately eschewed political readings. Yet at this time of nationalism and strife, “Wetwang Slack” inevitably prompted questions about tribalism, identity, our origins, and our future. Offering a brilliantly imaginative metaphor for human civilization through the ages, the exhibition seemed to say: we might rage and fret now, but ultimately all that will remain of us is a memory gracing a pot—if we’re lucky.