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The development of Martin Boyce’s sculptural vocabulary

After representing Scotland at the 2009 Venice Biennale, Martin Boyce has firmly established his standing in the international art world. The Hamilton-born artist graduated from Glasgow School of Art's celebrated Environmental Art course in 1990. His distinct awareness of space and its effect on the viewer, which is particularly prevalent in his installation-based work, was honed through the degree's focus on art for the public realm. Boyce's time at the Californian Institute for the Arts in 1996 also proved hugely influential. His tutor, the American conceptual artist Michael Asher, promoted the importance of critique in his students' work and Boyce was encouraged to analyse everything. From this stemmed his exploration of modernist design and, specifically, an interest in how time has affected these objects.

Now I've got real worry (Mask and L-bar), Martin Boyce, 1998 − © Martin Boyce

Now I've got real worry (Mask and L-bar) from 1998-9 is an example of an early work in this vein in which Boyce has deconstructed two modernist objects by the iconic American designers, Charles and Ray Eames. In works such as this, Boyce compares the culture in which the objects were originally produced, in this case the optimism surrounding the post-war boom in manufacturing, to their role today as design icons for the bourgeoisie. As Boyce explained: "It seemed to me that as these objects travelled through time their original ethos had been stripped away and replaced by an ideology based on pecuniary notions of taste and specialist knowledge".

Boyce's interest in modernist design was cemented when he unearthed a photograph of the concrete trees created by Joël and Jan Martel for the 1925 Parisian exhibition of decorative arts. This marks the defining point for the artist's more recent work. According to Boyce these trees "represent a perfect collapse of architecture and nature"; the amalgamation of the opposing elements of the urban and natural world. From the Martels' distinctly cubist inspired interpretation of nature, Boyce extracted a grid based vocabulary of geometric shapes that he has since used as a basis for all aspects of his practice. Once familiar with this visual code it becomes identifiable ubiquitously, in everything from his photographic and print-based work, to his sculptures and installations.

Electric Trees and Telephone Booth Conversations, GMA 5022, alternate view 1, Martin Boyce

Collage with Climbing Frame, Martin Boyce − © Martin Boyce

Installation plays a significant role in Boyce's practice and although the artist has commented that they have a "hard, frozen quality", it is unquestionably the most captivating and immersive aspect of his work. Recalling familiar public spaces such as playgrounds, pedestrian walkways and abandoned or disused sites, Boyce's installations have a ghostly and somewhat disquieting characteristic. He deliberately creates a sense of human presence with the scale, proportion and familiarity of the pieces registering on a subconscious level. When taken along with the titles, which often intentionally incorporate words such as "we" or "you", Boyce invites the viewer to step into the work. These stage-sets shift attention towards an imagined world where the past, present and future mix. Boyce merges the natural and the constructed, the populated and the uninhabited, the real and the imaginary, to create a melancholic interpretation of an unnamed landscape.

Untitled (Concrete Trees repeat), Martin Boyce, 2006 − © Martin Boyce

A further derivative of the grid template that Boyce created from the concrete trees is his own modernist typography. These angular letters feature regularly in his work and allow Boyce to cultivate his interest in language and narrative - often continuing the narrative implied in the title of a work into the physical space it occupies.

With his expansive show at the Venice Biennale, Boyce continued to explore the themes of abandonment and loops of time. No Reflections, the title of his Venice exhibition, was a specific response to the derelict fifteenth-century Palazzo Pisani in which it was housed. Boyce interpreted its fading grandeur as a metaphor for an abandoned garden, with "the outside world blowing into the building" through open windows. He created an immersive series of rooms, which both complimented and contrasted the decaying environment of the palazzo and the city as a whole. Featuring modernist forms typical of Boyce's sculptural vocabulary, the visitor was confronted by an empty reflection pool with giant stepping stones, sculptural versions of autumnal leaves, text tumbling down the walls, and ominous, angular chandeliers. The effect was audacious, yet restrained in its minimalism - a perfect distillation of Boyce's career to date.