Visual Supremacy

In The Centrifugal Soul, Mat Collishaw draws on various forms of illusion in a series of new sculpture, installation and paintings. Heavily influenced by the artist’s work with evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller, whose theory is that the origins of art stem from natural instincts of courtship and reproduction, the exhibition explores ideas of superficial truth and the erosive effect of our primal urges for visual supremacy. The show’s namesake and centrepiece, The Centrifugal Soul, is a sculpture in the form of a zoetrope, which animates scenes of bowerbirds and birds of paradise as they perform mating rituals.

This eye-catching piece demonstrates how aesthetic diversity has evolved through sexual selection and also reflects the Collishaw’s ongoing examination of our insatiable appetite for visual stimulation. His sculpture also embodies Geoffrey Miller’s idea that evolution has created an inescapable drive to be noticed above the visual competition, feeding our need for self-promotion: “We put too much of ourselves into our product facades, spinning too much mass to our outer edges where we hope it is publicly visible and instantly lovable. One problem with this strategy is that it leaves too much blank space in the middle, so there’s not much of ourselves left for lovers or friends to discover in the long term. This could be called the centrifugal-soul effect.”

Elsewhere in the exhibition,12 trompe l’oeil paintings of British garden birds tethered to perches reference the 17th-century fashion for commissioning portraits of prestige pets, made popular through Carel Fabritius’ painting The Goldfinch (1654). The colourful graffiti-tagged walls against which the birds struggle to stand out provide a contemporary example of aesthetic boasting as a form of sexual signalling.

New installation Albion takes the mystical Major Oak in Sherwood Forest, Nottingham, as its subject. This centuries-old tree has at its core a hollow rotten trunk, and since the Victorian era its vast limbs have been supported by an elaborate system of scaffolding. Collishaw’s slowly rotating image of the oak is a ghost-like apparition generated by laser scanning. The piece represents a living object that is trapped in perpetuity to present the illusion of life. As with the tethered birds in his paintings, it presents a tension between the beautiful and the abject.

The Centrifugal Soul is accompanied by a catalogue with texts by art critic Waldemar Januszczak, evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller and an artist interview with writer James Parry. Collishaw’s new virtual reality installation Thresholds will be launched at Photo London, Somerset House on 18 May.

Mat Collishaw, The Centrifugal Soul, until 27 May, Blain and Southern, London.

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1. Mat Collishaw, The Centrifugal Soul, 2016. Courtesy of the artist and Blain & Southern.