Visual Transmitter No. 2, 1968, private collection, London
An exhibition of the conceptual artist’s early, design-influenced work includes some surprisingly appealing objects
In recent years the artist Stephen Willats has been conducting field work outside the gallery, in which he interviews residents of an area over time, asks them to describe where they live – often through film and photography – and compiles the results of his research into “data streams”. In his 1998 exhibition at the South London Gallery, for instance, he asked people on the North Peckham Estate to take the same 15-minute walk, photograph details on the route that were significant to them, and arrange the pictures into “mosaics”. He then displayed these grids of images interspersed with written observations in the gallery. In 2012 he updated this project by contrasting a data stream of Rye Lane, the main shopping street in Peckham – where there had been rioting the year before – with its retailing antithesis: Regent Street.
Control, the current show at Raven Row, focuses on Willats’ early work between 1962 to 1969. Its title is taken from the magazine of the same name that Willats has been editing and publishing roughly annually since 1965 – and it reflects Willats’ longstanding interest in cybernetics and information theory.
To introduce a 2013 exhibition of data streams, this time collected on two estates in Oxford, Willats speaks of how his work has changed “to demonstrate another model of culture, another model of art practice, which was based on people, instead of objects”. Control, on the other hand, takes us back to when he was still very interested in objects. As a teenager, Willats worked in a London gallery that introduced him to the work of the constructivists; it’s not surprising that in 1965 he declared himself “a conceptual designer”.
The show begins with his ideas for “Multiple Clothing”, which he designed with Felicity Oliver. Their most striking creation is a dress consisting of a black upper section – the frame – on to which you can zip sixteen different coloured PVC panels. In the same room, are the white plastic helmets that are designed to be worn with the dress and come with a red, green or blue acetate visor. (The helmets perch on a windowsill, where visitors can try them on and look out on to the street – to the amusement of passers-by on my visit.) Willats also designed furniture during this period: there’s a prototype modular armchair with a hidden panel, which can be extended into a bed, a table or a shelf. It never went into production, but several London boutiques stocked the dress – and sold a matching transparent plastic bag with rather more success.
Elsewhere, the exhibition shows the influence of the artist’s numerous day jobs until he began teaching at an art college. The earliest and most significant of these, after being a gallery attendant, was his stint as a machine operator at Gordon Pask’s famous cybernetics research centre in Richmond. Here Willats met engineers and information theorists who would give him practical help in making a series of kinetic and light sculptures, and influence his later thinking. Part of Raven Row’s largest gallery has been turned into a dark maze to show some of the works exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in Oxford in 1968. The most complicated and appealing of these machines is Visual Transmitter 2, a colourful wooden trapezoid structure, covered in cogs and lights that gently turn and bleep in the dark. It’s good company: half Froebel toy, half Tinguely machine. The upper rooms contain sketches of control systems, plans for new developments and sculptures with moveable parts, now too “elderly” to touch. Manual Variable No. 2 is an angular copper structure, rather like a mini-Serra, with planes that could once be folded and rearranged.
It’s hard to tell if this is the curator’s intention but, at times, it’s difficult not to skip the dry, research-based work, which anticipates Willats’ later books of surveys, to spend more time with the playful three-dimensional works he was soon to abandon entirely.
Visual Automatic No. 2, 1965 Background: Visual Field Automatic No. 1, 1964; courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro, London; Tate
Manual Variable No. 2, 1963; Optical Shift Construction, 1964; Manual Variable No. 1, 1963; Courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro, London; Private collection, Düsseldorf
Marcus J Leith
Control. Stephen Willats. Work 1962-69, Raven Row, London, Until 30 March 2014