I first saw Sara MacKillop’s work during a series of short presentations for EAST International in Spring 2003, a few months before the exhibition took place in Norwich. One work that took me by surprise was 10 in 12 (2002), which at first sight looks like a red square piece of card holding a broken vinyl record. Halfway through the afternoon, during MacKillop’s talk in the darkened auditorium, the work’s geometric pattern appeared on the screen. MacKillop paused for a moment before announcing nervously “I’m not sure if you can tell, but this is a ten inch record thrown into a twelve inch sleeve”. Perhaps because of the faux-naïf deadpan of her delivery, or the ‘doesn’t quite fit, but still makes sense-ness’ of the work (the centre hole of the ten-inch record sits precisely on the near corner of the twelve inch record sleeve’s circular aperture) this small declaration received the loudest laugh of the afternoon. It was as if the members of the audience recognised that their perception had been ever so slightly distorted by the work’s natural sense, and had momentarily gained empathy with the artist’s materials. Importantly, rather than any implication of withering irony or knowingness that may have turned people away, it’s this playful intelligibility in MacKillop’s works that renders us uncertain and confident of their purpose, at once playing with and elevating our expectations, while at the same time bringing us straight back down to earth.

Maybe we can even say that, for better or worse, it’s this very moment of misrecognition that identifies the ability of certain formal devices to constantly surprise us by showing us an unbalanced view of the world. For me this is the beauty in MacKillop’s practice; her dedication to unassuming found objects is so complete that her constructions point to a sophisticated visual aptitude, one that is used to explore the slight codes of the everyday.

Since ‘EAST’ Sara and I have stayed in touch, and from time to time I’ll receive something in the post. One of the most interesting things I’ve been given is a handmade booklet that consists of the artist’s collection of window envelopes. Obviously you could call the pastime of collecting stationery slightly eccentric, like ‘here’s my collection of French notepaper’, etc, the catch being that each example contains a slight nuance in its design that undermines any cynicism, perhaps because paradoxically, through an impossibly bureaucratic device, it affirms a less standardised view of the world. Consequently, as artworks, these copies disrupt and play with their status as ephemera, multiple objects, and also with the idea of mass production as a whole.

Two framed variations of this work, both titled Envelope (2006), were included in MacKillop’s solo exhibition ‘25 Days’ at Vane during October-November 2006. Again, the patterns in this work range slightly from spirals motifs to diagonal lines, and in their exhibition form were presented as inkjet prints in a grid, mounted in a black frame. Strangely, at first sight, the exhibition looked almost empty of content. Apart from a few small breaks of intense colour, the overwhelming visual impact was one of a subdued intensity. The majority of the wall-mounted works were held in small frames, which seemed to be a development, with each frame chosen for its visual quality and thrift store quirkiness. Again, it’s the varying formal merits of mass-produced materials that are resurrected and given new life.

Mounts (2006), another piece in the show, takes this idea to its logical conclusion. In the work, four card picture mounts, like those found in pound shops within cheap frames, are placed on top of one other. Shown in descending order, the grey, green and two different white rectangles are trapped inside a cheap but bright and glossy ready-made casing. Although each rectangle originally served as an invisible border for another picture, each has now been given new life as the main focus of attention. Shown collectively, any central image or illusion is replaced by a frank focus on the de-centred physical characteristics of the various pictorial supports.

Perhaps it’s this attraction of playing with non-art props that points towards the essence of MacKillop’s work. The considered and obsessive manner in which she collects and selects the best combination of materials to make slight and subtle works also shows a critical paradox in all art production; that extreme efforts are often used to make something ‘pointless’ that appears effortless. In MacKillop’s case her objects are poised just at the level so that an awkward humour combines with a rigorous formal consideration to make assemblages that at first sight look as if they are deliberately and beautifully resigned to failure. In this sense you could say that she’s devised a nervous, self-deprecating formula for creating art, but the effect is more in tune with an open child-like absent-minded game playing that throws a cheeky nod to twentieth century Modernism.

The two sets of jigsaws that were installed directly on the floor at Vane support this suggestion in a fairly direct way. Jigsaws (circular) (2006) and Jigsaws (rectangular) (2005) echo Carl Andre’s flatbed sculptures, and use existing non-art materials (jigsaws are traditionally redolent of the hobbyist or a DIY form of picture making) to show their physical attributes; upended, each piece presents its rear monochrome non-picture side. Again, the materiality of each object is emphasised. In the rectangular piece, for example, three different piles of jigsaws rest on top of each other (twelve small jigsaws on top of another fifteen, followed by a further seven puzzles on the bottom level). Each pile is the same size, and each has exactly the same pattern (this is indicated by looking for the cut at the side of each layer). The puzzles in the circular work are offset, which in the exhibition also mirrored the position of the windows in each framed envelope on the wall across the room.

As ephemeral throwaway objects that have had any extraneous information removed, these works are interesting because each is transformed in order to suggest ambiguity and reflect our thoughts and imaginations back towards us, and the twist continues in another series that uses book pages. Turned backwards in their frames, and trapped between a mount and a sheet of glass, any information that would provide a clue to each publication’s literary source is hidden. These framed volumes are reminiscent of other works by artists using pages from books such as Pavel Buchler and Matthew Higgs, but by comparison are even more paired down, and instead emphasise the physicality of the artist’s chosen books, rather than any ideas surrounding ‘found conceptual art’.

In Orange pages, Maroon pages, and Green pages (2006), three tomes are reversed with their spine spread at an angle to show their coloured edges. The different publications, which overlap slightly in an awkward way and have yellowed to varying degrees, don’t point to any explicit cultural or literary context, but to the skewed and relatively invisible ‘objectness’ of their position in the frame. Because of this lack of focus on any textual content, there’s an aesthetic immediacy to them, and importantly, the accent on their relatively small-scale points outwards towards their relationship within the exhibition space.

For example, in reality, how would we attempt to read these books? We’d actually have to be situated in an impossible spot behind the wall. Similarly with the jigsaw works, we’d have to be positioned under the floor to view these constructions in a manner in keeping with their previous incarnation as puzzles. The situation is pushed further with Two halves of the same book (2006). A book is split in half and mounted as if it has been opened exactly on its centre page, except, as with the previous works, the two sides are mounted back to front. Situated in a single frame, the work further confuses any ‘correct’ rapport with it, implicating the whole space within its disordered logic through a twisted sense of perspective.

Miniature versions of this disruption also appear in Buttons (2006), which consists of small towers of shirt buttons held together with different coloured thread. Shown in a state of near collapse, there’s a mild psychosis to some of the colour combinations, like one that’s made of black buttons tied together with yellow thread. These objects are so fragile they can never appear the same twice, and look like an obsolete children’s game, or a hobbyist’s experiment gone wrong.

Echoes of this concern for colour also appear in Labels (2006) and Pens (2005). The former work is beautiful in its simplicity; stuck to the wall at each end with White Tack, a string of tiny paper labels is hung in an arc from one wall to another across the corner of the room like miniature bunting in a summer festival. Baby blue, yellow, pink and whites appear in the work, and some colours have an unusually nostalgic feel to them. There’s an element of play within the materials and an overall beauty that provides the work with an almost ethical simplicity. Pens, which was positioned on the adjacent wall at Vane, mirrors the arc of Labels. This time nine diminutive green and red ballpoint pens (those ‘bookie’ pens that are found in betting shops across the UK) are connected end to end and lead from the wall to the floor with the nib on the final piece wedged into a groove in the parquet grid. As much as the positioning of these two works represents any sophisticated, appropriate formal play, it also comments on the use and misuse of throwaway objects as art.

It has been pointed out that the materials MacKillop uses are no longer completely ‘current’ or ‘retro’; it’s as if her work points towards the wider culture in a more general sense. With the acceleration of nostalgia becoming ever more rapid (I noticed a 90s bar had just opened in the centre of Newcastle after my visit to the exhibition) we are increasingly thrown into a narrow space between a giddy future that always seems just about to occur, and the sensation that we’re permanently at the moment ‘directly after’ or ‘just past’ an important event that has just taken place. With MacKillop’s visual language playing with the small objects that inhabit the areas of the not so distant past, she manages to tap into this anxiety, and by doing so, the artist patiently creates a reality that distorts and makes sense of the confusion that surrounds us. Her work exists in the double edge between the culture of design, and the identity each object gains from being changed into something new.

Fundamentally, the artist’s re-coding of objects as unfamiliar and strange, have the effect of drops in a pond that reverberate way beyond their initial impact. Her radically small interventions scramble the logic of everyday ephemera, and act as micro events that affect and complicate perception in a refined and unexpected fashion.