Jack Mottram, 'Wrapped with wonder' (The Herald, 14/09/2007)

Bandaged Heads, an exhibition of new work by Glasgow-based artist Claire Stephenson, is a very peculiar proposition. It’s the sort of show that raises and dashes expectations, proffers clues to winning the prize of understanding without revealing the rules of the game, and, in the end, offers nothing but uncertainty. In other words, if you like your art to leave you wanting more, and enjoy puzzling away at a problem for its own sake, it’s a fascinatingly twisty set of ultimately unknowable works. If, though, you like to leave a gallery sated and settled, with questions posed and happily resolved, disappointment could be in store, and the winking examination of performance, artifice and lives lived at the heart of this show might prove more irritant than balm. In the first gallery, there are four oval forms on the wall; the titular Bandaged Heads, if that’s what they are. Each has a surface of interlocking and layered wood and plywood fragments, presumably off-cuts or pieces prised from found furniture. This crude form of marquetry is, in Stephenson’s hands, remarkably eloquent. The gaps left between the thin slivers of wood conjure an urge to peel back the surface and look beneath. Faint suggestions of painted colour give the various forms, which at first glance seem blank, identical, a hint of character – a pink-tinged panel might well be hiding a bloodied mouth, a pockmarked surface suggests that some unspeakable substance is set to seep through, the fact that one oval is smaller than the rest even raises the possibility that the four are a family, sitting for a very unconventional portrait. If, that is, you take Stephenson at her word, and blithely assume that these works are, indeed, bandaged heads. An oblique hint in the rather excitable text written by Susannah Thomson to accompany the show raises the possibility that the ovals might be too regular to represent human faces hidden, and that the ‘bandages’ might be obscuring a set of mirrors. In which case, could Stephenson be bandaging the heads of her viewers? A third possibility (the prosaic truth, in fact): there is nothing behind the bandages, and Stephenson is, thanks to her apparently descriptive title, simply raising possibilities, expressing a tension between the representational and the abstract, with meaning left as an exercise for the reader. In the second, larger space next door there are two ore heads (or mirrors, or simply forms), much larger this time, and looming over two figures, which loom in turn over the viewer. The figures are Miss Verily-Existent and Miss Quite-Transcendent, a pair of ‘existential drag queens’. These cardboard cut-outs are, though flat as pancakes, distinctly sculptural. Each has the head of a porcelain doll, with ruched costumes – one calling to mind a clown, the other a little girl’s imagined queenly glamour after an afternoon at the dressing-up box – that are made up of repeated sections culled, apparently, from medieval church sculptures. The pair have appeared in past works by Stephenson, too. At Tender Scene, a group show at Stirling’s Changing Room gallery, they took the form of tiny, detailed collages, in glorious full colour, standing delicately beside sinister wooden machinery of unknown purpose. So, the artifice piles up in layers: crude representations of human faces are grafted to collaged bodies, and dressed in drag, only to be presented here at a further remove, photocopied, blown up beyond life-size and arranged in extravagantly camp poses. But how do these monstrous creatures relate to the blind and bandaged heads? It seems that Stephenson is on course to create a new kind of static theatre, or alternate world, in which she provides the players, and the audience too. In each of the two galleries at Sorcha Dallas, the sculptural works on show are accompanied by drawings bearing the titles of each installation, rendered in text reminiscent of woodblock printing or early type. At first these seem a little redundant, afterthoughts to the main event, but they might be more that that; playbills offering a whispered, winking invitation to observe unseeing eyes watching a private drag queen drama play out. If so, Stephenson has wrapped another, invisible, bandage around her work, putting viewers in the awkward position of being thrown into a performance they have not asked to take part in, lacking the artificial armour that Miss Verily-Existent and Miss Quite-Transcendent use to ward off the world. This is clever stuff (too clever by half, perhaps) and, ultimately, the strength in Stephenson’s work is down to he knack for presenting simple, seemingly slight pieces that slowly offer up a tangled set of unresolved philosophical arguments. If nothing else, it seems safe to say that this will be the only show this year in which 7ft drag queens will embody Heidegger’s tenet of ‘throwness’ and an unhealthy dose of Kierkegaardian anxiety.