Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Livin' for the Weekend

Sunday 4th May, whilst it seemed the entire population of Bristol was on Park Street attempting to catch a glimpse of the waterslide (myself included), I wondered how many also knew that this was just one event during the first Bristol Art Weekender. Spike Island Open Studios, Arnolifini, Bristol Museum and the Royal West of England Academy being among the few big venues to host events and exhibitions over the three day bank holiday weekend. I navigated my way through the crowds on Park Street to venture what was happening....
This is a post in three parts so you can choose which you’d like to read individually or sit and read them all. You decide... 

The slide's there somewhere, as is Wally

Karin Krommes 'Sway' (2012) Acrylic on Panel 60 x 40cm.

1.) Before I arrived in the melee I wandered Bristol harbour side to Purifier House where the nomadic art gallery, Antlers hosts the exhibition ‘Exploration’ featuring the work of three contemporary artists. If you haven’t come across Antlers before they’re worth keeping an eye on, based in Bristol they use different venues for each exhibition and represent emerging artists. ‘Exploration’ for want of a better word, explores the idea of technology and/or architecture being used as a means of exploring our environment in pursuit of discovery. In Krommes’ paintings, ‘Romantic’ landscapes featuring snow-filled and haunted looking pine forests become invaded by satellites and swarms of passenger-less drones. Similarly in George Diego Litherland’s paintings Eden-like utopias complete with their own self-contained weather system are trapped within octagonal frames or windows suspended within a  fantasy or science fiction-like world. Completing the line-up is Jemma Appleby who combines landscape and architecture into precise charcoal drawings based on Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian houses. Are they utopias or dystopias?  Devoid of humans it is hard to tell if we are seeing the technology or architecture left behind some terrible event or from the future. The buildings, the drones have are the unnerving presence in these works. Together the work is deliberately quite cold, artificial, isolating and slick. This is echoed in their presentation, as they are highly skilled works that are astonishingly done by hand but at first appear with the precision of a machine. It is also a poignant reminder of our reliance on technology in our day-to-day lives often determining how we navigate, interact and explore our environment.
'Exploration' is on until 8th June 2014 at Purifier House

Jeremy Deller 'A Good Day For Cyclists' (2013) Commissioned for the British Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, painted by Sarah Tynan 

2.) I eventually make my way to Bristol Museum and Art Gallery where Jeremy Deller’s Venice Biennale exhibition, ‘English Magic’ is currently on display. For the first time in the Biennale’s history the exhibition from the British Pavilion is touring the UK. I’d previously seen the work in Venice so it was interesting to see how it varied in a different context and I think the British Pavilion should tour the country every year; it’s a great way for the public to engage more with the Bienniale (we’ll have to see when Sarah Lucas exhibits in 2015). ‘English Magic’ gets its name from the ‘good’ and ‘bad’, trickery and concealment practised by politicians. It reflects the diverse nature of British society, its culture, its economics and its politics whereby Deller interprets particular events by working collaboratively with the public often with humour and wit. All is not what it seems however, icons of British culture and heritage are mixed, reinterpreted and/or respond to current events. Still I think this shows that we can be proud that Deller represented Britain at the Venice Biennale he showcases many of the ‘great’ things about Britain but does so by showing that we also have a sense of humour! The work isn’t a collection of one-liners, the humour more subtle, wry and satirical. Social upheaval and the economic depression are presented alongside Bowie’s tour between 1972-73, William Morris is painted on a wall as a giant lifting Roman Abramovich’s yacht from the waters of the Giardini in Venice (in 2011 he moored his 377-foot yacht blocking the quay for tourists visiting the Biennale), a hen harrier is grasping a range rover in its talons, Neolithic hand axes adorn the walls becoming arrows and way markers, there are drawings of politicians connected to the conflicts in Iraq and David Kelly incident by prisoners in the UK and seemingly colourful/abstract banners depict tax avoidance schemes used by international companies.

The themes in these works are presented in the opening film to the exhibition, ‘Ooh-oo-hoo ah-ha ha yeah’ where at first slow-motion shots of birds of prey are shown swooping in, talons and wings splayed in captivating detail; we are then transported to a scrap heap where giant mechanical claws are lifting and prising up cars at this point the link between the two becoming more obvious. Another shift sees a bouncy castle Stonehenge and its excited participants, young and old bouncing on it. The film finishes with a scene involving the Melodians Steel Orchestra playing Bowie’s ‘The man who sold the world’ (It’s a really wonderful version). The film is fun to watch and captivating, there is something uplifting about the sense of community involvement in the work and it highlights the wonderful aspects of Britain, its birdlife, history, people etc. but with a quiet, underlying subversive sense of unease; the Stonehenge isn’t real being commoditised to a thing of play, the natural beauty of a bird of prey grasping its prey is compared to the not so obviously/debatably beautiful mechanised version of the car disposal industry , the steel band performing a rendition of the ‘man who stole the world’ marking a change in what is traditionally played on steel drums as well as being a politically-charged song. I do feel the exhibition worked better in its own compact pavilion in Venice where the work could be read as a whole, the linking and referencing between ideas in the different pieces of work was more clear. Th enjoyment of the work however is not lost in Bristol  and still has thought provoking impact with the most notable significant difference being that in the Venice show part of the exhibition was to have a complimentary cup of English tea. Magic!      
Jeremy Deller, 'English Magic' is on at Bristol Museum and Art Gallery until 21st September 2014

Gail Harvey 'Light and Movement on the Sea' (2013) Oil on Canvas, 142 x 163cm.

3.) Final destination of the day was ‘The Power of the Sea’ at the Royal West of England Academy (and also the first time I’d ever been there). In an exhibition that is co-curated by painter, Janette Kerr (pictured) it is not surprising to find it mostly contains paintings! We leave behind the directly conceptual ponderings of Deller’s work and delve into the briny depths of surfaces, texture and the stuff of paint. Personally, I love the fact there are so many painters in this show. It’s really refreshing for me to be reminded of the joys of making marks and wielding a brush. There are so many big paintings, expressive paintings, abstract paintings where the vibrancy, energy, intensity and often ferociousness of the sea are portrayed in frenetic mark making, gesture, splashes and pouring. Maybe it is because paint is a liquid medium it lends itself so well to communicating the fluidity of water and can capture a moment in time/an action drying to leave a trace, mark or stain?
It is not all painting however there are also sculptures, etchings, photography and film-based works where the serenity, vastness, sustaining and navigational nature of the sea are also explored. Featuring sea inspired/ themed work from British artists from 1790 til present day curating this exhibition must have been no easy task with artists who are essential in telling the story of British artists relationship with the sea such as Turner, Constable, John Miller Marshal, John Piper and Peter Lanyon to others who were certainly less well known to me, such as George Morland and Charles Napier Hemy. The pre 21st century artists are well placed in this exhibition being worth seeing in their own right and for providing a history of the evolution and context for the contemporary artists’ work in the second half of the gallery.

Janette Kerr 'Holding my Breath II' (2013) Oil on Canvas 180 x 210cm.

The contemporary responses to the sea are, for me, where things start to get a lot more interesting. There are a lot of paintings, I may have mentioned, some depicting the sea, others using water from the sea and in the case of Peter Matthews’ ‘Atlantic Drift’ and Susan Derges in ‘Shoreline 5 October’ the sea itself becomes part-creator in the work. In Matthews’ a primed board is attached to a rope and buoy before being tossed out to sea and in Derges the tide sweeps over photographic paper creating exposures of the waves. These works highlight one of the most important challenges of capturing the sea in art, movement. The sea is rarely, if ever, still. Even on the calmest of says the reflected light on water from the sun moves and shimmers. Along with their own concerns that each artist brings to their work the one thing most of them also have to contend with is how suspend that moment in time, an impression of the movement of the sea and or as well as addressing the ‘movements’ of change, tensions with our relationship to both use, navigate and save it. Anne Lydiat has a refreshing approach making a series of spider-like drawings marking the lived experience of bobbing about in a boat at sea. In ‘Currents’ Annie Cattrell has literally frozen the rippling or effect of light on water in what at first appears as the seemingly impossible, a cast taken off the surface of the ocean (the work is actually created using data scanning techniques to recreate a 3D vacuum formed  acrylic model of the surface). Pausing for thought looking at the variety of works in this show I begin to wonder how they begin to alter our impression of, relationship with and how we ‘see’ the sea. A bit like looking at the actual sea itself, it is all very contemplative and we seem to find some sort of solace or meditation in looking into the surfaces, the depths of these representations. It warrants more thought than I have time or words to explore now.     
There are two interesting films in this exhibition as well, Rona Lee’s ‘Ama’ is a moving film about the limits of observation shown through deep sea investigation and narrative of Amant Marine: De Friedrich Nietzsche read in Braille by a blind performer and Joanna Millett’s ‘Overflow’ (pictured) a video/sound recording of the ebb and flow of the sea that is projected on the wall and floor of the gallery space creating a disorientating and immersive experience for the viewer.

Joanna Millett 'Overflow' (2004) HD Video and Sound loops
This is an interesting exhibition and the relationships the artists have to researching, living and experiencing their subject matter is reflected in the work. A lot of it might be ‘Romantic’ in the sense that many of the artists have affinities with the sea, embracing themes such as light, colour, weather, mythology and history in the work, but there is increasingly a more scientific, more questioning  approach used by artists to understanding and representing these ideas which makes for an altogether more engaging show.

'The Power of the Sea' can be seen at The Royal West of England Academy until 6th July 2014

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