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David Mach's latest solo exhibition at Anise brings the semiotics of the Bible into the age of industry with all the power and elegance of New British Sculpture. writes Victoria Comstock-Kershaw.

Installation photography courtesy of Anise Gallery

David Mach has been on my mind recently. In all the current hub-bub surrounding public art protests, I have been reminded of his 1983 sculpture Polaris: erected behind the Royal Festival Hall, the work consisted of 6,000 rubber tyres in the shape of a life-sized Polaris submarine (the UK's first foray into submarine-based nuclear weapons systems). The sculpture is a stupendous work of New British Sculpture and the very best of what public art has to offer. However, not everybody seemed to think so: in August of 1983, a man poured petrol over Polaris and set himself on fire in the process. In an age where public protest art has been reduced to chucking paint at nineteenth-century oil paintings and taping Wallace and Gromit stickers to royal portraits, you can't help but admire any artist whose work manages to elicit strong enough emotion to put your life on the line.

Mach's genius has not dimmed over the decades. His latest solo show, Materialism and Mach at Anise Gallery, is a glorious parade of his collage works: just as his sculptural works in the 80s were made of pre-existing elements or fragments organised into larger structures, Mach’s collages make exquisite use of printed materials to create dioramas and scenes from the Bible. They are accompanied by one third of his Golgotha series (named after the hill on which Christ was crucified), a stupendous nine-foot depiction of one of two robbers killed beside Jesus made entirely of coat-hangers (officially named The Thief, but also affectionately known as Gordon).

Photography courtesy of Fetch

Material is, as suggested by the exhibition’s title, the beating heart of them show. The Thief in particular shows Mach's ability to transform both in terms of technique and narrative; I regret not asking the artist which of the two thieves it represents. According to the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, both thieves mocked Jesus — Luke, however, suggests that one of them defended Christ. Artistic representations of Dismas, also known as the Penitent Thief, have always held a precarious place in art history: without getting too deep into the nitty gritty of it, placing Dismas on the left or the right of Jesus would often say a whole lot about the various microcosmic upbringings of whoever was painting him and would often get artists in a lot of trouble, especially during times of religious oppression (one famous example being the dutch painter Heregnikker, whose depiction of Dismas landed him on the chopping block after accidentally revealed his Coptic upbringing under Charles I). To see this historical figure devoid of this context, sans-Jesus, is a fantastic revision of the figure in and of itself, but it’s the material that really elevates the work.

The metal coat hanger, dual-symbol of industry and domesticity, is a gorgeously humanistic building block. Mach’s Fife upbringing, where he witnessed the active oil and mining industry take over the Scottish Riviera, is on full display here: there is something hulking and machine-like about the sculpture, a polished factory-steel sheen. The thousands of arrow-like extrusions are reminiscent of the Mach Perle cave paintings, which used the depiction of spears as a way of marking experience. Piercing is clearly an artistic motif as old as time, but The Thief brings the semiotics of Lance of Longinus into the industrial age with unprecedented power and elegance.

David Mach, The City of God at Anise Gallery, photography courtesy of FAD Magazine

Anise, too, is a fantastic space in its own right: a converted nineteenth-century Zionist chapel in Forest Hill with spectacularly high ceilings and Victorian windows (and a proper garage chockfull of stonking vintage specimens, including a glorious Lotus Elan Plus 2 in deep purple). There's been a real resurgence of contemporary art being displayed in places of worship this year, from The Future is Female sculpture exhibit at the Garrison Chapel in the Chelsea Barracks to Miwa Komatsu's live painting in Fitzrovia Chapel. The curation at Anise, however, is some of the best of the best.

It is impossible to overstate the importance of churches and chapels in the propagation of art; throughout the vast majority of Western history these were the only places most people got to see it at all. Anise takes full advantage of the curatorial legacy of its own environment: the two central Christ-figures of The Thief and City of God hang across from each other, and we are caught in the Promethean crossfire of eternal, holy pain. The individual collages that make up the chest cavity of City of God are hung like medieval tabernacles around the central artwork, autonomous reliquaries of the holy body detached from their primogenitor. Even the interior of the modified Millman Imp that houses the VR simulation of The Destruction of Jericho feels like a confessional booth - private yet communal, introspective yet fettered.

David Mach, The Destruction of Jericho, 2011

As noted by John Walker in his chapter on Mach in Art & Outrage, more than one art critic has commented on Mach's moral ambiguity. Polaris was not an anti-nuclear statement; and it's just as difficult to attribute a warning - if there is one - the apocalyptic collage of The Destruction of Jericho (2011). Re-interpreted alongside some very well-done VR work in the back of a gutted Hillman Imp, the collage places the viewer in the back of a people-carrier as the city collapses around them, bloodstained handprints smearing the windows and panicked parents in the foreground. I've written before about the rise in popularity of post-apocalyptic media in 2024, but rarely do we get to see art that lets us witness the end times as they are happening. 

The work is taken from Mach's Precious Light series, a ten-year project illustrating the King James Bible. The Destruction of Jericho reminds me of the final scene of the 2021 film Don't Look Up: a family having dinner as the planet explodes, passing the potatoes while the world ends, domesticity interrupted. It’s impossible to tell if the family are escaping the destruction or driving towards it; if they are victims or harbingers. The figure of the young girl in particular opposes the panic of the father and son: she raises her eyes in something approaching reverence towards the chaos. The original biblical story of Jericho mentions that only the landlady Rahab was to be spared the collapse of the city's walls— is this her progenitress, the mitochondrial Eve?

In my review of London Gallery Weekend I praised the current curatorial ethos of thinking a bit harder about how and where contemporary art is displayed, and this entire exhibit left me beaming. Mach's work is fantastic - collage can fall very rapidly into the pastiche, which he avoids consistently through his attention to detail - but it's also so incredibly well suited to the environment that it's being displayed in. There are the obvious Biblical connections, and it would have been forgivably easy to have forgone narrative entirely and rely on the the fact that these are works inspired by and based on Christianity being displayed in a chapel. But there is still a story being told across the gallery space: the viewer is dragged from hell to purgatory to paradise in the space of a few artworks, constantly under the watchful eye of the Thief. If he is, as I suspect, the Penitent Thief, he is also arbiter elegantiarum of our own secular reaction to Mach’s other works: did Dismas not die in the same way as Christ, for sins far lesser? The coathanger-spears certainly suggest offences punished a thousand times over, a damning indictment of the capitalist ethos of material. Mach’s materials are ultimately a bridge between the holy and the mundane, the sacred and the industrial, the past and the present, the beating heart of worship and industry.


Victoria Comstock-Kershaw is a London-based critic and contemporary arts writer.


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