Magali Reus’s video and object-based works combine some of the qualities that she attributes to her material of choice. Aluminium has the coolness of metal and yet a paradoxical lightness one would not necessarily associate with a metallic substance; it’s a new, modern and eminently practical material, much softer than steel and thus more malleable. Reus has been using aluminium in its different guises – brushed, cast, powder-coated or mirror-polished – for ten years now, which is roughly the span of her career. After she had completed an Art Foundation course at the Gerrit Rietveld Academie in Amsterdam in 2002, Reus moved to London to do a BA followed by an MFA in Fine Art at Goldsmiths College. I visited the 31-years-old Dutch artist, who divides her time between Amsterdam and London, at a temporary workspace in East London, ahead of her upcoming exhibition at Fons Welters.
Reus has a gift for finding punchy titles, disarming in their simplicity, both for individual works and entire shows. ‘Highly Liquid’, the title she came up with for her third solo exhibition with Fons Welters, is no exception. Liquid matter and imagery percolates through much of Reus’s recent and not so recent output. One of the first things we looked at together in the studio was an artist’s book made back in 2009 to accompany an exhibition at La Salle de bains gallery in Lyon. Somewhere between a glossy magazine and a coffee book (it bears mock coffee mug stains on a couple of pages to give it the appearance of a used object), Surfer is a collection of digital and scanned double-spread photographic images featuring diminutive surfer figures pitted against giant, consistently blue, waves.
The book is blue (though with slight variations of colour) practically all the way through, except for the cover, black-and-white on the inside and on the back a marbled yellow-orange – a fragment from a series of polyester resin sculptures, Sheet Section (Saturation) (2009), that bespeak John McCracken’s influence, from the way they lean against the wall at an angle to their surface patterns which evoke the flow of molten lava. Reus is interested in how colours are used to package ideas, such as the economy of leisure gestured at in some of the earliest works she got noticed for: Fire Storms (2007) with its reflective coloured sunglasses lenses strung on a ball chain, or Liquid Assets (2007), in which polished aluminium pebbles appear on a tiny heap of sawdust imitating sand (both were presented as part of her degree show at Goldsmiths).
Beaches, sea water and sporty young men, though not of the Californian variety, also feature in some of her more recent video works, Finish (2010) and Offshore (2011), among them. The long stretch of sand on which four men run together in Finish looks like the one in the British classic Chariots of Fire (1981), filmed in St Andrews, Scotland; in fact, it was shot on a beach in Holland, as was Offshore. Cast – a DVD loop made in 2007 – shows a man reclining against a water container floating on water; likewise in Offshore blue oil barrels used to hold all kinds of liquid material, not just oil, are used as props by three men we see swimming in the sea. The three different elements (sea water, oil barrels, men) have equal weight in the video. As elsewhere in Reus’s work, colour is a formal device used to tie things together: the blue of the barrels reflects the colour of the sea and the blue-grey outfits the men sport.
For Reus, the barrels have the same, almost bodily presence as a human being, not unlike the yoga mats that are a recurrent form in her body of work. A glossy blue mat thus curves round an oil drum that lies on its side, next to another drum placed atop a spread out mat and another one standing upright in Heat Treatment (2010), included in her last show at Fons Welters, titled ‘Weekend’ (2010). If the barrel and the mat carry the suggestion of the human presence, the male body is conversely reified. Lingering close-ups of wet T-shirt-clad torsos, as the men heave the barrels up onto their shoulders, invite comparisons with classical sculpture. Reus readily admits she considers the men she works with to be materials on a par with the water and the barrels. She goes as far as to suggest that her actors may be readymades in the same way that the barrels are.
That’s not the same as objectifying them but, coming from a young female artist whose clean, minimalist sculptures have a certain aggressiveness and a macho feel to them, one cannot help but feel that some sort of gender role reversal is at work here. Reus works exclusively with male actors who all have toned, muscular bodies. She has thought about working with women but the male body strikes her as a more neutral territory, precisely on account of its sculptural quality. To find her men, the artist does castings or sometimes goes through modelling agencies; while the actors she uses come from a variety of backgrounds, they tend to have a generic look. Their bodies have to be perfect because as soon as one sees a flaw or something a little out of the ordinary, one wants to know more about the person, the character behind it.
And yet that something a little out of the ordinary is precisely what Reus’s sculptural works thrive on, for all their precision and the perfection of their industrial finish: the odd detail, the occasional flourish, ribbon-like shape, the splash of colour disrupting the monotony of the neutral backgrounds and grid-like structures redolent of Donald Judd or Sol LeWitt. Fossilized watches in Delay (2012), squashed soft drink cans in Tonic (2012), digital cameras in Lead and Auto-timer (2011), strapped round, welded into and rested on aluminium bars, or the diminutive blue bottle perched on a pole in Fatigue (2009), all bring the human back into the picture. They work against the corporate element, the rigidity of the grid or the scaffold sculpture. Colour, when it is used, procures a moment of pleasure, of letting go and forgetting oneself that the artist likens to a kind of amnesia.
For the work she is currently making in the context of ‘Highly Liquid’, Reus is looking to abandon her wonted palette of synthetic blues, oranges and greens. She has tried out some 500 different colour configurations to come up with the right match – neither too institutional nor too cool and seductive – for the folding stadium seats built from a digital image. A new presence in Reus’s work, the chairs will be dotted around the gallery walls, all at the same height, some closed, others propped up with perforated aluminium tubes to create a waiting room atmosphere, an environment in which people are temporarily being held up, such as the airport security check-in that she explored in ‘ON’, her recent show at The Approach gallery in London.
Most of Magali Reus’s latest solo shows have tended to feature a single HD video work displayed alongside her sculptural pieces. Her videos, starting with Background in 2009, provide a context for the sculptures, which they reference without making any direct connections between them. They add a dynamic to the space that the sculptures on their own do not have. While there is nothing obvious about the way they connect up the different elements of a show, ‘Highly Liquid’ promises to complicate the dialogue between objects and video further still. A set of floppy silicon-cast watches is laid out before me on the table in her makeshift studio. The artist tells me she’ll build an aquarium in which these will be floating like dead fish in water made with a resin substitute. She is gearing up to shoot a video of a man taking a shower against an emptied-out, grey photographic backdrop in a studio in London. Titled ‘Highly Liquid’, like the rest of the show, it will feature extreme close-ups of the male body and of the water on the body, the textures and flow of the water, which holds no end of fascination for Reus.