The late British Modernist sculptor Anthony Caro is a conspicuous presence in Virginia Overton’s exhibition “Animal Magnetism” (on view through July 31, 2022). Much of the steel in the show was sourced from off-cuts donated by Caro to Yorkshire Sculpture Park for use by future generations of artists. Overton takes on Caro and other heavyweights of this traditionally masculine domain with aplomb, and on her own terms; her new works feature welded steel and hefty brass tubes alongside aromatic red cedar, mirrored disco tiles, and sheepskin, demonstrating a lightness of touch and material playfulness.
The architecture of CCA—a former Victorian bathhouse, which was converted in 2018 and retains many original features—must have been a dream for Overton, who is known for her responsiveness to site and her penchant for repurposing. Everywhere one looks, her materials fuse harmoniously with their surroundings. In the basement, a small room dominated by exposed horizontal and vertical pipes enters into natural dialogue with a sculpture combining a marble Arco lamp base with a zig-zagging copper and steel pipe scavenged from the street. Nearby, a giant wave of whitewood slats rises overhead, revealing the building’s beams through gaps.
The CCA’s distinctive white-tiled central chamber, which rises two stories from the basement, poses a particular challenge for artists. Overton placed a marvelous interactive sonic sculpture there—Untitled (chime for Caro) (2022), something of a cross between wind chimes and a homemade organ. From a blue gantry that matches the blue window railings on the upper floor, she hung ascending lengths of aluminum pipe parallel with a motley selection of Caro’s rusted steel cast-offs of corresponding weight. When “rung,” the aluminum emits a light tinny sound in contrast to the warm, rich tones of the steel; this sonic dimension injects an air of exuberance into the room, countering the forlorn tone of three other rusted sculptures composed from Caro’s rejects. A totem made from stacked steel tracks recalls a signpost to a distant past, while a tight arrangement of implements and parts on a blue felt triangle conjures a miniature abandoned city. A towel printed with Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, draped in a high alcove, offers bathos and a witty nod to the hall’s previous incarnation as a public bath.
Caro’s off-cuts crop up again in a series of attractive welded sculptures that Overton placed on the floor and on plinths left over from previous CCA exhibitions. These forms call to mind relics of heavy machinery, as well as the hallowed Modernist sculptural canon, but Overton frames them within a personal material context, in dialogue with planks of red cedar cut from the family farm in Tennessee where she grew up. She constructed an entire wall of the handsome red and white wood, which permeates the space with its fragrance; she also used the cedar to top plinths and benches, blurring the boundaries between nature and industry, interior and exterior.
These oppositions continue upstairs in the sunlit rooftop gallery. Caro’s metal, welded into a form reminiscent of a bird or weathervane, rests on a wooly sheepskin, conjuring YSP’s pastoral setting. A monumental sculpture consisting of rows of brass tubes from a previous commission for the Storm King Art Center in New York takes up one wall; at first glance, the tubes seem to be painted with gestural markings, but a closer look shows them to be bird droppings.
The mood feels quite different in the iron-clad water tanks that once supplied the pools. Overton has darkened the space with a hanging mirror-tiled pipe fragment that rotates and casts a flowing circle of refracted light around the room. Instead of disco music, however, a reworked version of Richard Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra, immortalized in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, provides a foreboding accompaniment. Overton cements the Kubrick reference with a futuristic mirrored steel monolith that turns on a spotlit platform, lost in its lone dance. A third sculpture—a brooch that had belonged to Overton’s great-grandmother—is suspended high up in the rafters, similarly evoking the passage of time yet in a very real, human way.
The show’s title, “Animal Magnetism,” seems to allude, somewhat cryptically, to an 18th-century theory that all living things are inhabited by a healing, invisible force. Overton’s thinking, explained in the gallery handout, was that her process results from “happy unknowingness.” This is clear in the exhibition. Full of surprises, challenging our senses, it demonstrates Overton’s real talent for weaving magic from unlikely material pairings.