Brightly-hued floating figures, disembodied heads and naked forms in states of relaxation and recline are the subject of fascination for Marlon Wobst in his latest solo exhibition currently on view (by appointment) at Schwarz contemporary. A continuation from a previous body of work, which centred around physical exercise and more active forms of recreation, ‘SPA’ is an exploration of relaxation for the body and mind that takes Wobst’s formal vocabulary of painting and transplants it into the medium of felt.
Felting is a practice with a long and diverse history, dating back to prehistoric times. It is thought to be the oldest known textile. Made of the hair of sheep, camel or goat, the fluffy fibres are moistened, compressed and agitated by rolling, rubbing or beating: the minuscule scales on the fibres tangle together forming a dense versatile fabric. Although it’s exact origins remain unknown, the practice was undoubtedly born of necessity, it being a material used purely for utility. That is, until much later, when it became a craft exercised to quell the boredom that comes with an excess of time.
It seems fitting, then, that downtime and leisure is the focus of ‘SPA,’ as bodies gather and slump in shapes of ease. Scenes of Matisse-style dancing and downward-dogging are interspersed with figures caught mid-action: lazily bare-clad or dressing post-spa session. Rendered in the prescribed palette of the wool manufacturer, these works have been painstakingly felted in a large-scale format that far exceeds the material’s conventional utility.
Whether in relief form or flat, the works have a tactility and playful naivety to them that makes you feel as though you should be able to interact with them. They’re reminiscent of the felt dress-up play sets of childhood, but on a larger-than-life scale. The size of these works exacerbates the material’s kitsch-associations, felt never having been known for its precision or detailed quality. The figures have a wobbly, block-like composition that immediately endears.
The unsophisticated tendencies of felt may lead you to underestimate the labour in mastering the material. Anyone who has accidentally shrunk a wool jumper knows the unpredictability of the process. At once fickle and fiddly and endlessly versatile, the practice of felting takes on a life of its own as the fibres mesh and meld together in ways beyond control. The edges of Wobst’s sprawling artworks curl and thin, as though the material could extend infinitely, the scene to be continued off the edge of the plane.
The experience of viewing ‘SPA’ is an uncanny one as a lone visitor in a time of enforced isolation. A particular artwork seemingly preempts scenes now common to our socially-distant life: two neighbours chatting from the windows of their apartment buildings. Throughout ‘SPA,’ we see bodies—naked and clothed, alone and in groups—engaging in forms of relaxation and self-care. This seems a prescient reminder of what should be at the fore for each of us as we move through this period of uncertainty. The obligatory slowing-down, an easing up of the usual acceleration of everyday life, an opportunity to be more mindful of ourselves and others and, perhaps, even an opportunity to take up a new craft.