Saturday, 11 May 2019

Catch the Chicken!

Nicholas Wright Ceramic Wall Pieces (early 1900s -present)
The prolifically produced and charming animal-influenced ceramics of Birmingham born artist, Nicholas Wright [1956- ] have been a staple viewing of my visits to Spike Island studios ever since I can remember. I learnt recently that he has been at the studios in Bristol from the very start in the 80s when a community of artists worked together on site. It is therefore really quite surprising that the current exhibition showcasing over a hundred of his works (produced over the last thirty years) is the first time his work has been shown on this scale in the UK. 

Nicholas Wright Ceramic Wall Pieces [detail]
‘A Chance to Look at Chicken’ is just that; chicken, birds, cats, mice and cows are the subjects of this unusual menagerie of animal representations in ceramic. Each one unique and situated within a crafted border of fauna. Influenced by religious iconography and pierced forms from ancient bronze-age metal work, these individual pieces have been designed in a dome-like shape mimicking a boss, which one learns, is a ‘decorative keystone used in the vaulting of medieval architecture’. They have a simple-looking nativity, imaginative or folk-like appearance which gives these pieces their individual character and, like most things of this nature, is deceptive of the skill and craft involved in producing them. In their perceived simplicity they reminded me of Picasso’s animal ceramics, specifically his birds of which I caught by circumstance at the Louisiana gallery in Copenhagen last year. It had me thinking that there seems  to be a quiet joy and elegance in sculpting something from imagination and in its simplest of forms, which is pleasing to the eye and more reminiscent of the actual feeling of happiness or feeling of ‘lightness’ on the glimpse of fleeting moment of seeing a bird than the laboured, detailed representations I tend to render in my own work. One is an intent on capturing the nature/character of the animal being represented, the other a more intense study of what it looks like.  Despite Wright’s representations being created in heavy fixed ceramic there is a transience in their depiction that is perhaps more lifelike than the static observational nature of my own. It is an interesting variation that makes me question what I am looking to convey or achieve in my own work.

Picasso Bird (Dove) 1953
Displayed together as a huge set, one can really appreciate the earthy colours of the glazes, mark-making and pierced-out shapes, defined and distinguishable like stencils or silhouettes against the white walls of Spike’s gallery space. Like Noah’s ark, some great animal archive or shrine they work well together as one big piece even if they were perhaps never intended to be shown in this way. Elsewhere a large ceramic chicken, from which the show derives its name, is displayed on a plinth alongside some of Wright’s drawings which are a useful addition revealing some of how he thinks about the web-like botanical fauna and mark-making present in the ceramic pieces.

Nicholas Wright Chicken Drawings (2018)
The pierced forms within the ceramics is echoed in an early work made by Wright (not shown here) when he noticed mice eating his paper in the studio. Wright used soup to paint onto the paper, the resulting work made from where the mice had nibbled at the soupy areas to create a stencil of sorts almost acts as an accidental precursor to the pierced forms of the ceramic work to come. The element of play and humour also present in the later works. I hope that Wright continues to use Spike as a studio for many years to come, but it is worth having the opportunity to see his work with the space it deserves outside the clutter of the studio. Visitors should seize the chance to look at chicken whilst they still can!

Nicholas Wright’s A Chance to Look at Chicken is on at Spike Island until 16th June 2019

Saturday, 30 March 2019

Stripped but not bare

“I felt that these galleries should somehow be returned to what they once had been, halls for monumental sculpture. Places where people could come and wonder at the sheer physicality of sculptural objects.” - Mike Nelson

Nothing in Mike Nelson’s [1967- ] latest installation ‘The Asset Strippers’, located in the vast, stone-carved walls of Tate Britain’s Duveen Galleries is trying to be art. It simply just is. Former industrial-sized knitting machines, a digger bucket, a cement mixer, scales, a lathe and a hay-turner are amongst a series of abandoned machines from salvage yards and online auctions of company liquidators, which have been collected and presented at the Tate as sculptural objects. Woodwork benches complete with vices, drawers and remnants of string and detergent bottles become the plinths on which many of these ‘ready-mades’ reside.

Each piece of machinery is a remnant fallen into neglect and disuse, symptomatic of the shift in ways of manufacture and decrease from manual industries to service ones. I confess that I don’t recognise what the majority of the machines here were even for! I am probably not alone in this acknowledging that there is also something unexpectedly exciting about trying to imagine or ‘work-out’ what the purpose of these things once was (or perhaps could be!). Like Francis Picabia’s paintings of imaginary Surrealist/Dada-esque machines, there is also the slightly more obvious connection to Duchamp’s ‘The Bride Stripped Bare by her Batchelors, Even’ in the way these mechanical parts have been arranged as though for a new use (for which they had previously not been intended) and collaged together. In one piece telegraph poles lay horizontally atop red, blue and yellow tarpaulin on which supports a circular tube (from possibly a drain) of sorts; balanced together in a sort-of ‘found-objects’ version of an Anthony Caro sculpture which can be seen also in the Tate Britain only a few rooms away. Nearby a former hay-turner is presented so that its’ turning blades take on the appearance of four golden suns or flowers; an association that I feel, relates to the dry sunny days during which the hay-turner would have been put to use. My mother commented that this machine reminded her of the one her parents used on the farm in Somerset and that she had never before looked upon or seen it in this way (as sculpture).
Formally and aesthetically speaking there is much to be gleaned from looking at all of this. Graffitied, worn and stained surfaces, flaking paint; artificial metallic blues and bright reds against natural woody browns and oil-stained metals. Boxy squares, circles, stacks and lines from threads and strings still connected in the knitting machines all make for a rich list of sculptural criteria. Though the question of whether we are being asked to appreciate these machines as sculptural objects or to look upon them as relics from the past (or both) is really where this piece becomes both socially significant as well as aesthetic. The knitting machines are reminiscent of the ones Nelson’s family worked on whilst growing up in the East Midlands, now in his early fifties, Nelson and many of his generation and before will have seen a broader picture, perhaps than myself, in just how much Britain has significantly changed from the industrial era to more service-based ones. Doors from a NHS hospital and wood from a former army barracks act as visual and functional barriers to divide and section the individual components of this installation into curated parts of one bigger, immersive piece; they also unintentionally or not comment on the value of both art and the materials it uses and the value or shift in value we have as a society towards institutions like the NHS and manual industries generally. For me, these make-shift walls help contain the unmistakable smell of oil from all of the machinery that is reminiscent of my grandfather’s workshop on the farm. I am utterly bias in this whole post from projects I have previously done on car engines and farming tools!

In a previous work, titled ‘Coral Reef’, seen at the Tate in 2000 Nelson similarly used reclaimed materials to create a movie-set-like-labyrinth of rooms. Each sparsely lit by naked-bulbs and grubby reclaimed timber to create a slightly seedy or sinister spaces, a gallery reception area, a taxi-office, a heroin-den; each with a story awaiting to happen, they are suspenseful and the closet experience I have ever come to like being inside an Edward Hopper painting; their commonality being the absence of people. There is something similarly haunting about ‘The Asset Strippers’ and as the name suggests it is after the factory has closed, the people who once knew the purpose of these great beast-like contraptions have since left along with their stories and their skills to work these machines. All is quiet. All is now still. It seems that in stripping these places into their bare commodities we have also stripped or lost something of the people, stories and time in which they previously existed. It is a proverbial ghost-ship but in being reclaimed as sculpture, as ‘art’ and displayed in the Duveen Galleries of Tate Britain where historically ‘treasures of the empire’ were seen, they are memorials to this past heritage whose concept of  ‘value’ is in-turn put into question. What once were stripped assets are now reassembled art. 
Mike Nelson –The Asset Strippers at Tate Britain until October 6th 2019

Saturday, 23 February 2019

I can see clearly now

*Study of a piece of Brick, to show Cleavage in Burned Clay (1871) 
Watercolour and bodycolour over graphite on wove paper

One-hundred and forty-eight years have passed since its creation but I do not think I may ever see again a more exquisitely rendered and divinely detailed observation of a piece of brick than the one painted by John Ruskin in 1871, currently on display as part of an exhibition of Ruskin’s art and influences/collection  at Two Temple Place, London. Covered in a moss/lichen this humble depiction of a piece of brick, so seemingly small and insignificant in real life, once drawn becomes the object of speculation. Victorian ‘Artist, art critic, educator, social thinker and true polymath’, it was Ruskin [1819-1900] himself that,   

“...urged his audience to ‘Remember that the most beautiful things in the world are the most useless; peacocks and lilies for instance’.” (Cooper, 2019, p29)

What could be more relevant a statement today, in a society in which we are so busy, so consumerist focused, working and ‘stressed’ that we are increasingly having to be reminded to stop, consider and be more ‘present’ and active in being more aware. In an exhibition that celebrates the bicentenary of Ruskin’s life it is fascinating and hugely relevant that it should focus on this exact topic, stated in the catalogue itself, 

“This is therefore not so much an exhibition of art as an examination of how Ruskin used imagery to help develop education and wellbeing”(Pullen, 2019, p13)

Long before the term, ‘wellbeing’ as we know it today had been incepted, Ruskin was encouraging people to look and notice the world around them. Drawing and painting for him were a form of enquiry to understand and appreciate nature, architecture better, how the landscape effects us and we in turn have an impact on the landscape in which we walk through, live on, utilise and work on. In some ways it was a moralistic view on the power of art, "To see clearly is poetry, prophecy and religion all in one."3 Contrary to much of the work at the time it was not even necessarily about capturing an aesthetic form of ‘beauty’, 

“For Ruskin, beauty was not neat; it could be savage, grotesque, changeful, on the point of bursting into full bloom, but never florid or decadent. He offered a new way of experiencing and interacting.” (Cooper, 2019, p4) 

Inside Two Temple Place
I could have lingered in the busy room of Two Temple place for ages looking at this piece of brick, its variation of surfaces, colour, textures and detail. It is the embodiment of what the term, Romanticism means to me; the ‘greatness’ observed in something naturally occurring  on something as mundane or potentially overlooked as a lump of brick. The relationship between nature and the man-made, the brick is made of earth (clay) but is now a man-made thing, the moss is taking over the brick as it decays and returns back to its ‘natural’ state. It becomes its own miniature planet/ecosystem. It is amazing how this one drawing both connects with Ruskin’s appreciation for both architecture and nature but also his opinions that he wrote and spoke about on the importance of the hand-made, understanding where things ‘came-from’ or how they were created and how the rise of capitalism threatens to undermine the rights of workers and value in what is made/produced. 

I confess to not having really known a huge amount about Ruskin prior to this exhibition and whilst I claim to be no expert it is interesting to see that for many of his ideas it seems to me that in many ways, he was a man ahead of his time. Though it is hard to ignore or write about Ruskin without acknowledging that for all his influence in the arts (Pre-Raphaelites, Arts and Crafts movement for example) he himself was a strange and troubled, the speculation that he never consummated his marriage, his controversial fascination with young girls/women and prickly nature are strange but to some extent are perhaps symptomatic of his child-like sense of fascination and obsession for understanding the workings of things that consumed or were at the forefront of his existence. Later in life at the loss of his family and cousin he suffered a mental breakdown from which he never really recovered.

Studies of Birds (assorted artists) from the Ruskin exhibition at Two Temple Place, London
Within the exhibition at Two Temple Place there are examples of Ruskin’s work alongside that of artists such as Turner whose depictions of landscape, weather and nature had a significant influence on Ruskin who sought to not just capture the ‘likeness’ of something through drawing it but use painting/drawing as a way of understanding the atmosphere, the phenomena of what it actually felt like to be in that place i.e. how do you recreate the sensation/the likeness of the wetness of water in a painting of a seascape? Where does water from a mountain stream flow down to, where is it from (he was interested particularly in geology)? There are also numerous drawings of architecture, particularly of Venice, where Ruskin wrote ‘The Stones of Venice’ [1851-3] including a huge painting by John Wharlton Bunney of the Basilica in San Marco square [1877-1882]. Ruskin’s own work and pieces he collected by other artists were donated to the Museum of Sheffield, founded by Ruskin in 1875, as a place where metalworkers could see places such as Venice, that they otherwise would never have been able to see. It was this kind of philanthropy and criticism of capitalism that prompted Ghandi to take Ruskin’s ‘Unto this last’ [1860] as one of his text’s for transforming society.

*Study of a Peacock’s Breast Feather (1873)
Set in a neo-gothic mansion, it is impossible to fail to notice how glaringly appropriate Two Temple Place is as venue for this exhibition. It is worth seeing for the outside stonework (complete with gargoyles) and inside, mahogany-clad walls and stained-glass windows alone. Upstairs is a wall dedicated to images of birds by the likes of Audubon, Turner, Edward Lear, Henry Stacey Marks and others including Ruskin himself. Here a study of a peacock’s breast feather by Ruskin is another painfully beautiful reminder of how the beauty of the whole can be told in one single feather so intently and forensically drawn. This drawing is realistic but isn’t about showing off a technical level of skill, as such but more about the inquisitiveness that drawing and looking at drawings creates. Many of Ruskin’s drawings were unfinished because they were working drawings rather than about creating ‘finished works of art’. A lot of this echoes my own thoughts about drawing and how I use it, personally as both a way of observing or better understanding something more closely but I also use it as a way of escaping and distancing from myself so that all the thoughts and worries one may have become lost in all one’s focus and attention being on the ‘thing’ that is being drawn/looked at. Personally, I am a life-time convert into the benefits of an art education to provide the ability to see intrigue and beauty in the world which is why I still have the need to draw.
In addition to this exhibition I read a succinct new book to coincide with the bicentenary by Research Curator, Suzanne Fagence Cooper, who writes an excellent account of the themes, ideas and teachings in Ruskin’s life have had and continue to have resonance with the present. The following eight sentences taken from the book, offering an insight into why he is still relevant (Cooper, 2019, p8/9);

-          the ways that ‘hand, head and heart’ can work together

-          how drawing makes us notice the overlooked

-          what stories the buildings around us can tell us about the people who made them, and live in them now

-          how we can travel with more care through the landscape, walking and thinking, observing the clouds, or the earth beneath our feet

-          our struggles with love, and with the loss of the people and things we love

-          different responses to our own mental frailty, and the anxieties of others

-          possibilities for working more effectively, and more fairly

-          above all, how we can keep learning, whether we are young or old, in small ways and in great tumultuous revelations

I think the works by Ruskin in the exhibition at Two Temple Place compliments Cooper’s observations quite accurately. For all the artistic delights in this exhibition an unexpected highlight comes in the form of a colourful collection of minerals from Ruskin’s museum in Sheffield and are a fitting reminder of one of Ruskin’s more memorable quotes, “you will never love art well until you love what she mirrors better.” (Pullen, 2019, p37)

‘John Ruskin: The Power of Seeing’ is on at Two Temple Place (for FREE) until April 22nd 2019

‘To See Clearly: Why Ruskin Matters’ by Suzanne Fagence Cooper is available to buy wherever fine books are sold

1                     Cooper, S. F. 2019. To See Clearly: Why Ruskin Matters. Great Britain. Quercus.
2                     Pullen, L (2019) The Power of Seeing. Great Britain. Two Temple Place

Sunday, 27 January 2019

A thing of beauty...

A thing of beauty is a joy forever,
Its loveliness increases it will never
Pass into nothingness...    -Keats

Maybe we all need a little joy in our lives every now and then? That question is largely rhetorical. Maybe I am getting older and am more conscious about what is happening politically in the world but in my lifetime, I do not remember a time as wrought as the one we are living in now; for that reason and the colder, darker winter days, I think that we need things that are inherently uplifting to compensate. And it is ‘joy’ that is the resonating theme present in the work and literally in the accompanying text, mentioned not once but several times, which describes the work of Albert Irvin [1922-2015] whose epic sized paintings are on display alongside his prints, early paintings and works by abstract expressionist painters (who influenced him) in an exhibition on at the Royal West of England Academy (RWA) in Bristol.

Albert Irvin -Northcote (1989) and Rosetta (2012) Acrylic on canvas at the RWA
Text in the catalogue aside, the effect of walking into the gallery containing large-scale works radiating with colour, huge, clean sweeping brush-marks in dynamic strokes and patchwork quilt-like shapes, has as an immediate impact on the senses. Oranges, pinks, reds next to greens; complementary colours zinging and dancing from left to right in an assortment of shapes, daubs, dots and strokes that, I defy, almost regardless of one’s personal taste in art, not to widen their eyes in reaction to confronting a room full of Irvin’s paintings. Colour is incredibly emotive and perhaps more-so in the winter when we are faced with less of it on a daily existence. Personally, I found the first room of the RWA exhibition to be joyous for that reason. Although I am interested at analysing whether it was a joy because of the colours in the paintings or whether that sense of joy comes from what Irvin has done with colour? It is probably a combination of both, but part of me wondered if there was an element of the Duchampian ready-made to how some of the Abstract Expressionist painters used colour. Barnett Newman and Rothko weren’t so much creating ‘red’ as though we had never seen it, as they were presenting ‘red’, a colour, for what it is. Attempting to give space or volume to something which exists but maybe we never fully notice or experience (similar to that of Duchamp putting a urinal and calling it art). Yet, I also appreciate that a Rothko and a Newman are completely different in their treatment of how they applied colour to canvas, that creates different mood and feeling; I think I am just curious as to where my response to these works lies, in the colour (doing what colour does naturally) or in what artists, in this instance, Irvin do with it.

The highlights for me are Irvin’s paintings from the 70s onwards, around about the time he started working with acrylic paint and is said he, 

‘took to their [acrylics] properties immediately. Working horizontally stopped the inevitable run-off of water-thinned paint from top to bottom, and by placing the canvas stretcher on large cans, he was able to reduce the drying time of the saturated surface…’

These paintings are deceptively simple in their cleanness of how colour is applied in shapes and layered without becoming muddied almost textile-like or reminiscent of Matisse’s paper-cuts, and it is an interesting parallel to see Irvin’s thought processes displayed in the exhibition as using coloured paper scraps to build his compositions before he scaled them up into paintings. Incidentally, the vitrine displaying some of the paper cuttings alongside a pair of Irvin’s paint splattered shoes, brushes and paint cans was an unexpected highlight. The old irony ringing true for all artists it seems that the palette used to the mix the paint is often more interesting than the resulting painting... that unintentional freshness so difficult to recreate. Though Irvin does retain some of that sensitivity to knowing when to not overdo a painting and allow certain colours and shapes space. Arrived as if by magic by anyone who has ever tried to create an abstract painting and been left with a muddy, chaotic over-worked mess. It is harder than it looks.

Kestrel (1981) Acrylic on canvas.  213 x 305
Gesture and the use of movement and action present in these paintings, such as the sweep of yellow across a pane of blue in ‘Kestrel’ (1981) gives extra dynamism to the use of colour, rendering it less static as we attempt to imagine the tool, the movement and body it was attached to that created those marks, Irvin was known for using ‘improvised squeegees’ and decorating brushes. In the accompanying rooms to this exhibition a collection of paintings from an exhibition at the Tate titled, ‘The New American Painting’ includes a Pollock, De Kooning and Motherwell whose use of action, volume and bold confidence in their approaches to painting inspired Irvin when he went to see the exhibition in 1959. Certainly, the parallels between the Irvin paintings which use a lot of black in them alongside saturated colour, such as ‘Untitled 3’ (mid 1970s) use a similar colour visual language and use of saturation as some of the works by the American painters. These rooms included a collage by Grace Hartigan who I’d previously never heard of and was like a combination of Kurt Schwitters meets Abstract Expressionism.

Untitled 3 (mid 1970s) Acrylic on canvas. 213 x 305
Irvin’s early paintings, also on display (before he used acrylics), done in oils are contrastingly more representational; depicting street scenes, portraits and still-lives. Though they are still very painterly and become increasingly abstract with paint as a medium being applied in different thicknesses, mixed with sand or scrapped and smeared (with influences of Francis Bacon and even a Futurism-style sense of movement in some) being precursors to what lead to the later treatment of paint in this very physical, experimental way. The influence from meeting Cornish artist, Peter Lanyon in Irvin’s early branching out into abstraction are also readily comparable. Lanyon’s birds-eye view mix of abstraction with landscape elements filtering into Irvin’s treatment of painting on the canvas horizontally ‘from-above’.

Untitled 6 (1975) Acrylic on canvas. 178 x 
I remember hearing more than once from different tutors during my art education that, ‘angst is easy’ and that creating art which has the opposite effect and brings a smile or joy to people’s faces is actually quite hard to do. I mostly agree with that and in the same sense I think it can be often easier to criticise art than it can be to see the merit in it or face the difficulty of attempting to understand it when it is easier to dismiss it as being ‘rubbish’. Despite this, Irvin’s paintings aren’t angsty enough for me, personally speaking; they are quite flat and need room to breathe compared to the sumptuousness and intensity of a Howard Hodgkin or scratchy variation of marks in a Peter Lanyon. Yet for the use of colour alone I cannot fail to appreciate the joy they bring.

Albert Irvin and Abstract Expressionism is on at the RWA until March 3rd 2019

Sunday, 20 January 2019

Not the destination

“Describing something is like using it -it destroys; the colours wear off, the corners lose their definition, and in the end what’s been described begins to fade, to disappear.” 

I love this quote, for reasons that, in a manner rather paradoxical, will hopefully become clearer as I describe them. The quote is (one of dozens more that caused me to ponder) from Olga Tokarczuk’s InternationalMan Booker Prize winning novel, Flights. A book I have tried (and always feeling as though I have failed) to successfully describe to people on several occasions, each time, explaining that it is a novel of fragmented parts, fleeting narratives, some of them purely fictional others rooted in fact, told across different times and by different people with many of them taking place or being linked by moments in in-between places, such as airports and train stations. The transitionary spaces we are when nothing is happening or something is waiting to happen -what do people think and do in those moments and in those places? Like eating a bag of pick and mix sweets, each time you reach into the bag you reveal a different flavour, shape or colour to try. However, as the quote from the book itself explains, it seems futile to attempt to summarise the diversity of places, thoughts and ideas in which this book took me. You may totally disagree, no two readers would  read this the same, which is plenty reason itself for giving it a try!

When I am enjoying reading a book, I like to make notes, notes of quotes I find interesting or ideas which resonate with things I have spoken to people about, places I’ve been or other anecdotal connections of a personal nature that mean something. Over the years I have built up a little library of these quotes, many of them are funny, some could be described as quite profound and some are purely incidental but in little ways, they reaffirm what it means to exist, what it means to be me. I found myself doing this a LOT whilst reading ‘Flights’. From a description of an airport as being like its own city, a dialogue about Dark Matter to series of facts listed off the packaging of sanitary pads in which we learn, “The word lethologica describes the state of being unable to recall the word you’re looking for.”

 Afterwards I like to read reviews of what bits other people picked up upon, wondering if others were drawn to the same passages of text as me. A review of the book by Tom McAllister in The Washington Post also picked-up on the quote about ‘describing things’ and I suppose the paradox for me came in the irony of wanting to describe and share why I liked this book, whilst the book itself drawing attention to the notion that sometimes describing does not do a thing/place justice. Ephemerality of the moment or ‘lived experience’ versus the permanence of ‘description’ being a theme alluded to in many of the stories throughout the novel; expectation versus reality. Tokarczuk trained as a psychologist and her experience in this field is drawn-upon in how she captures the thoughts and inner monologues of her characters with analytical, believable honesty. Part of the reason I write this blog is because of the challenge posed in trying to articulate in words, to describe how I feel about art I have seen or experienced. It continues to be something of personal interest. 

The book begins with a narrative about travelling and waiting in airports, in which the narrator's internal monologue recalls a memory about a visit to look at cabinets of curiosities rather than an art gallery. It is a fitting comparison to the construction of the novel's structure (or lack of) being like a cabinet of curiosities; a man searches for his missing family whilst on holiday in Croatia, a woman walks out on her family to live life during the day as a beggar, an anatomist in the 17th Century dissects his amputated leg, Chopin’s daughter transports his heart from Paris back to Warsaw…It is the sort of book that really does not lend itself well to description as it sounds messy and eclectic. To begin with I wondered if I was reading it correctly, whether I had missed something and as it progressed, I wondered whether I was supposed to understand how it all threaded together or have an inkling to where it may be heading; the fact was I didn’t have a clue! Though I was enjoying the journey and individual pieces of this patchwork tale and I had to learn to let go of my anxiety that I did not grasp the bigger threads or meaning that was happening.

Ropography, we learn, “…is a painting term for the attention the artist pays to trifles and details.” Another reference within the book that mirrors much of what is happening within the book itself and in example echoed in a fantastic chapter towards the end of the book (page 403 in my paperback edition) titled, ‘The Origin of the Species’ in which invading airborne anemones reveals itself to be plastic bags. As an environmental comment it could easily stand alone from the whole book as a separate piece of prose.  It sounds utterly random and banal, which it is, but is beautifully written and intelligently translated from Polish to English by Jennifer Croft. The reader is left to chart and make their own connections to other parts within the book, create their own meanings as they see fit. In this aspect reading this book reminded me a lot of the process of interpreting art and for that reason I enjoyed it immensely. Regular visitors or those familiar with my work will also know that the everyday and banal is something of an ongoing obsession of mine. The descriptions of cadavers and embalming fluids and some of the dark humour of this book may not be to everyone’s taste but it is counterbalanced by the allure for the sense of the whimsical and chaotic unknown, “The things that exist in the shadows of consciousness, and that, when you do take a look, dart out of your field of vision.”

If you only read one book in 2019, make it this!

Sunday, 18 November 2018

Warning! May contain traces of elephant

A conceptually ambiguous blog post title, for a conceptually ambiguous art exhibition! 

In writing about Hestercombe’s latest exhibition, Materiality:Provisional States I felt it would be legitimately wrong to document my thoughts without first addressing the all-important, but seldom overlooked, elephant in the room. That is, I was taught by one of the artists in this exhibition, Sarah Bennett, during my Masters in Fine Art with Plymouth University and have had the pleasure of knowing, another artist in the show, Megan Calver. There is an element of bias, that whilst one would try analyse the work objectively, I cannot to some extent ignore that my opinions are influenced by those relationships. It is a scenario that I had never previously given much heed to in any of my writing, how the possible impact of knowing or not knowing the artist has on my personal interpretation of their work. Where does the writer's responsibility lie, to the integrity of themselves, the artists whose work they write about or that of the reader who possibly deserves the most honest opinion. I think part of the problem is there aren't enough people writing about these sorts of exhibitions so that readers have much choice!

This also relates to a book I have been recently reading, “What it Means to Write About Art” that documents a series of interviews with art writers/critics on the practice of art writing/art criticism. It has been fascinating to learn of different writers’ thoughts on how they address this same scenario,

“It’s hard. When I write about somebody I don’t know. I almost try to imagine them. And when I write about somebody I do know, I try to forget them…When I started out, I didn’t know if nay of it mattered – I couldn’t imagine that I actually had an audience -so felt completely free to say whatever I wanted. When you first start writing, you don’t know if people are reading, and you don’t know if anybody is going to care. And then, after a while, you realise people do care…Basically, I’ve always felt my job as a critic is to try and be me and figure out who I am…It’s those basic, immediate reactions that fuel your thinking and your writing…There’s a danger of over complicating things.” -Jed Pearl in an interview with Jarrett Earnest “What it means to Write About Art”

Philippa Lawrence - Trace (2018)
I have tried to keep some of those sentiments in mind when writing this. It gets even worse if one considers that I was also taught by the curator and know some of the technicians that also helped install the show, but that’s Somerset for you! There is, however, an artist I definitely do not know in the exhibition, Philippa Lawrence and it is her work with which we are first greeted at the top of the stairs in the form of an uprooted tree stump. The top of the stump, where it was sliced, has been polished to an irresistibly tempting-to touch by hand, high-sheen. The contrast between the roughness and brutal-act of sawing presented against the considered care with which the act of polishing wood has associated with craft or objects intended for consideration/keeping. An idea Lawrence continues in a similar piece in the form of a log pile, titled ‘Shift’ also exhibited. Initially we see a pile of logs associated with the practical connotations of being a resource for fuel and on closer inspection their polished spec, where each log has been cut makes them objects of consideration or an implied sense of preciousness. Lawrence has worked alongside the woodland management team, as have each of the artists in this exhibition, engaging with the site of Hestercombe House/Gardens, its history and the different skilled people who manage it today. In ‘Trace’ brightly coloured enamel profiles off the tops of tree stumps from around Hestercombe are displayed together on the (appropriately wooden) floor of one of the gallery spaces. It is visually quite minimal and could not be more clinically detached in its man-made fabrication from the original tree from which it was formed (a statement in itself). Each stump becoming an island or fingerprint-like replica of the original tree and the trace of the action which led to its current form.

Sarah Bennett - Cultivatar (2018) 35mm slides of 21 silverpoint drawings, slide viewers
Another artist who likes capturing traces of human encounters and actions within her work is Sarah Bennett, who for Hestercombe has created a series of responses, the majority of which are linked in using the material of silver. Multiple reflection points inspired by Bampfylde’s pear pond are drawn with photography and silver nitrate, in ‘Cultivatar’ (2018) silverpoint is used to recreate meticulous drawings of seeds presented in viewfinders strategically placed to great effect in the windows overlooking the gardens themselves (so that seed and plant can be seen simultaneously) and again in embellishing a row of handheld garden tools.  Now partially rendered in silver the tools are in affect useless for their original purpose but take on a preserved sense of status that the quality of silver brings elevating the tools from their more humble connotations in being originally used for the maintenance of the estate. The cheeky part of me cannot omit that I take some small nugget of narcissistic delight in that my own tool-related work may have had some influence on the use of tools here?! Whilst I have long accepted that I clearly cannot monopolise the use of tools in anyone’s art, I equally in this instance cannot deny myself a wry smile of amusement. If Hestercombe ever wants a more expressive response to gardening tools then you know where to find me! 

Sarah Bennett -Siolfur (2018) Silver plating on found tools
Continuing with ideas she first started exploring in 2015’s exhibition, ‘Second Site’ Megan Calver works with notions of taste in particular to, one of Hestercombe’s founding gardeners, Gertrude Jekyll’s ‘exacting attitude towards colour and language’ presented through scans of scorched blooms (flowers grown at Hestercombe, picked and pressed by an image-scanner) viewed on tables from above like botanical specimens. The invigilators of the exhibition having the licence to routinely edit which ones are seen and not but covering them, their own ‘tastes’ becoming a part of the work. The use of language and description of colour, in particular to fire/flame links well to a previous work by Calver about Salvia seeds described on their packaging as ‘Blaze of Fire’ (and incidentally loathed by Jekyll if we are to relate it back to ideas of ‘taste’). Calver’s other interventions such as additions to the light-box signage in the house's former fire brigade control-room and coals in the fireplaces in each of the galleries are subtle enough to go unnoticed by many but are quiet statements in keeping with ideas around fire and the context that Hestercombe House was formally the call-centre to the fire brigade. It is rewarding when one spots them and for want of a better phrase, ‘gets it’ but I am unsure how hard many visitors may be willing to work to reach that point.

For me it really highlights my reservation with the exhibition as a whole, that it feels a bit too cerebral. When one compares it to what one reads about each artist having individually undergone very investigative inquiries in talking to people, looking through archives and working on site around Hestercombe; a process which I imagine as being very 'warm', human, interactive and enriching  to then each produce work which is largely quite detached from the reality of those experiences/engagement and make work that is by comparison cold and sterile to the point of being so considered and laboured in its though processes that something of those original encounters with which we as the audience can identify with is lost. In example, I do not personally get a sense of the encounter of reflections on a pond in Bennett's 'Pear Pond 1' from what appears to be an overly process-engineered oval photograph, for me it does not offer anything different that I would not better obtain from looking at the real thing or offer a different insight that photography can allow. There is a point to be made here perhaps about how close or far does an artist’s relation to their original subject/source matter in how the work is received and understood by their audience? I expect it is subjective. For the purposes of this exhibition however, I would have liked to have seen some more emotive/expressive responses to counterbalance the largely conceptual nature of the show. I am often concerned that as artists we tend to over-think or complicate things, so ideas become so refined and detached from where they originally started that we loose the sense of what it actually is to be a embodied, thinking, feeling human responding to a subject and have yet to see an exhibition by a contemporary artist at Hestercombe that really celebrates that. Addressing the elephant in the room, what it says on the tin -in my opinion stating the obvious isn't always a bad thing.

‘Materiality: provisional states’ is on until 24th February 2019

Friday, 26 October 2018

Do you see what I sea?

In her latest exhibition at Exeter Phoenix, Tania Kovats dives into the socio-political and environmental concerns of mankind’s relationship with the sea. Influenced by her ongoing exploration of water and by marine biologist Rachel Carson’s 1953 book ‘The Sea Around Us’, the exhibition focuses on themes such as coral reefs, the horizon line and maritime culture exhibited through sculptures, drawings and installed works.

Bleached (2017) mixed media
Carson’s influence is quite literally and immediately present in a series of drawn book covers forensically represented and taken from different versions of ‘The Sea Around Us’, each meticulously rendered and observed so as to capture every wrinkle and fold from their wear and tear. My own personal interests in all things book-related leads me to wonder if these books all belong to Kovats or whether they were loaned, found or borrowed from their original readers? They all look like books which have been read and travelled, where have they been, how many people had read them, had the ideas they contain affected someone’s life? Books like weathered skin show the passing of time and age, a thought that I have never really previously given much contemplation to until I thought about how drawing a book cover must be like drawing a portrait, the book design itself may be mass produced but the wear of the book is individual and something of a pleasing mystery in its uniqueness. I like the idea that the physical object of the book itself can hold a relevance as much as the ideas with which it contains.  For the purposes of this exhibition however, the temporal nature of these book covers perhaps a reminder of the ever-changing sea itself, as Carson’s book reiterates, 
The Sea Around Us (nine spines) 2018, pencil on paper

‘It is a curious situation that the sea, from which life first arose should now be threatened by the activities of one form of that life. But the sea, though changed in a sinister way, will continue to exist; the threat is rather to life itself.’ -Rachel Carson

Continuing with my book theme, in 2014 Kovats’ produced a book about drawing titled, ‘Drawing Water’ to accompany an exhibition the she had at the Fruitmarket Gallery in Edinburgh. I never saw this exhibition but found the book and remember how it reinforced my own feelings about drawing can be a ‘way of thinking’ or a means in which to lose oneself and ponder new ideas.
'I draw to find my way out. Drawing fills the space when I'm not sure what I am doing. It's my mechanism for map-making and my search engine, even when I don't know what I am looking for.'-Tania Kovats
Therefore, one could argue what better way to understand the sea or contemplate it than to draw it? A large installed drawing titled ‘Sea Mark (Prussian Blue)’ 2018 created via a series of blue watercolour dashes or horizontal pools conjure comparisons to abstract puddles or the shapes of light hitting the surface of the sea going out towards the horizon. It is no coincidence that the medium with which to draw is connected with water and only reinforces its connection to the sea it represents (a similar piece was created in a solo show at Hestercombe in Taunton during 2014-15). Displayed across a series of sheets pinned together on a wall being both a scaling-up process and a compartmentalising of elements that make up the greater whole. It is as if Kovats is saying that the sea is too vast to contemplate or depict in its entirety so it must be broken down into a series of repeated shapes until its scale can be installed rather than preconceived. It also puts the viewer directly into the work, making us contemplate our own situ and scale in relation to 'the sea' or something much bigger than ourselves.

Sea Mark (Prussian Blue) 2018, watercolour on paper
Somewhat bias of me, I have so far only focused on the drawings of what will strike many people as a very sculptural exhibition (debatably the work ‘Sea Mark (Prussian Blue)’ is almost quite sculptural in its installation). A series of vitrines titled, ‘Bleached’ 2017 containing ‘an imagined bleached coral reef’ represent a bleak and sterile view of the impact humans have on the health of such habitats. Like a beautiful, yet fragile petrified forest and a warning told in museum-form, conveys the message that these reefs are a dying and precious ecosystem that must be protected lest they become museum relics of the future. Part of me wonders if it is all too obvious in how it is meant to be read and that this work leaves less to the imagination, but then maybe it is more important that the message is clear? In a second room adjacent to ‘Bleached’ two more sculptural works titled, ‘REEF’ 2018 are more experimental. A bit like the premise of drawing as a way of ‘figuring out’ these hand-maquette sculptures made from concrete and neoprene (ironically the same stuff used to make wetsuits) are prototypes for a ‘functional coral reef restoration structure’. They are less polished and sort-of awkward if a little clumsy looking in comparison to the vitrines but as consequence have more potential in what they could be interpreted as. Potential, that could be believed as being a 'new imagined coral reef' or for those more sceptical, like me, at the very least something that is more multi-faceted in its abstraction than its linear-ness in being representational. 

REEF (2018) concrete, neoprene
The overriding ambition that the work Kovats makes intends to, ‘reflect on our relationship with the sea, and encourage more connection and agency in how we connect to the natural world’ is quite a bold statement. I do not know if I personally feel a greater connection or understanding after seeing the exhibition than I had previously, but discovering more about Rachel Carson is certainly something I am keen to pursue, particularly how what she wrote in the 50s still feeling very relevant today. Having seen other work by Kovats previously at Hestercombe, I am excited by her methods and inventive enquiries into water, the ocean and creative processes as a means of understanding and getting audiences to engage with work. I think ‘Troubled Waters’ is just that, where it achieves is that it is intriguing and unusual enough to want to contemplate but readable enough to be able to take away a sense of meaning from it. Whilst the drawn elements are important, to me at least, in stopping the whole exhibition becoming too ‘cold’ and emotionally bleak, bringing back something of the human-hand and presence to make us connect to the work more. The waters Kovats foretells may be troubled but there is hope too, perhaps, is we do not loose a sense of humanity.
Troubled Waters – Tania Kovats is on at the Exeter Phoenix until 11th November 2018