Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Site for sore eyes!

Teacups, bronze ingots, a huge boulder and a model fountain don’t at first seem to have a lot in common, nor are they necessarily what you may expect to find in an exhibition responding to the majestic and imposing gardens and landscape of Hestercombe in Somerset, but in that and in many other unexpected ways, ‘Second Site’ at the Hestercombe Gallery promises to be something entirely and refreshingly different. The Arcadian landscaping by Copleston Warre Bampfylde and Edwardian gardens designed by Edwin Lutyens and Gertrude Jekyll at Hestercombe have continued to inspire and delight its owners and public alike since their creation in the 17th century, now visitors have been invited the additional opportunity to experience an alternative perspective in a set of new, surprising and challenging artworks commissioned especially in response to the site and context of Hestercombe House and its gardens....

Jo Lathwood 'Phantoms and Candlesticks' (2015), white cotton and wood

‘Second Site’ opened on the 31st January 2015 in the newly reopened Hestercombe House turned Gallery. With two previous exhibitions under its belt this is the first exhibition to respond directly to the site and context of the house/gardens themselves, curated by Tim Martin and featuring the work of five artists; Patrick Lowry, Megan Calver, Simon Hitchens, Laura Ellen Bacon and Jo Lathwood who between them have diverse practices with experiences of exhibiting nationally/internationally and all being based locally in Somerset or the South West. You'd be forgiven for expecting something slightly spooky based on the shows title and in many ways the house is a bit of a haunting place perhaps as, Jo Lathwood (having spent a residency in Hestercombe House since it re-opened in May 2014) found out as the exhibition inside the house opens with two ghost-like sheets draped over a mock-up of where previously real candlesticks were placed; a physical reminder of a past life of Hestercombe house.Her responses, like that of many of the other invited artists is both a reaction to the inside and history of the house itself as much as the gardens.

 Generally a lot of the work explores bringing the 'outside', inside with current as well as past histories of the house and its uses providing context for the work; in some cases even providing the material from which it has been made. Do expect to be challenged; confused, delighted and exasperated by most of the works in this exhibition, it is not an easy or obvious ride! In fact I read an article ‘Is art best enjoyed in company?’ this morning that commented, “Art is now what religion used to be; an encounter with a mystery, which no one can fully explain and has no purpose beyond itself,” which I think could be said of this and a significant majority of art being made today. If you are open to a little mystery, a little weirdness then you will be rewarded and possibly, like me even learn something you previously didn’t know about Hestercombe in the process.

Megan Calver (from the work) 'Spill' Art Deco cup and saucer, chipped  

On that note, dotted throughout the exhibition on a series of Perspex shelves is a collection of ceramics dating from 1700’s til today. They range everything from a Chinese blue and white tea bowl to a 1970’s squirrel posy vase. There is no comment of ‘high’ or ‘low’ taste/value here with each item displayed on its own Perspex shelf independently with accompanying pamphlet of information on each piece, treated more like artefact than object. Collectively they make up the piece ‘Spill’, by Megan Calver whereby the recorded sound piece of ceramics smashing is played in the stairway/entrance hall to the house. We learn that the sound was recorded in an event which saw the ceramics dropped from the top of the interior stairwell in the Victorian tower of the house by children from Hestercombe’s Centre for Young Musicians. The event prompted by the story and sound of a cedar tree falling in the gardens right next to the house on Valentine’s day last year. The resulting work is both sensitive, with humour and I’m still undecided as to whether it is either blissfully or frustratingly conceptual as is often the case, I find, with Calver’s work in which its strength is in the storytelling and collaborative participation of its audience both in the making and in the interpreting of the work. I like the fact that she is working with old stories of the tree falling and creating new ones at the same time; the children from the music school will hopefully always remember the day they dropped fine china from the top of the stairway at Hestercombe house, it is a fun image and its story will hopefully live on with a time capsule of the broken ceramics planned to be buried in the gardens at the end of the project. In a separate piece Calver has worked again collaboratively with the Taunton Floral Art Club producing wallpaper of a Salvia seed packet, a bedding plant said to be loathed by the garden designer Gertrude Jekyll for its gaudy colour. Yes, you have to really 'work' to unravel this information which is revealed more in the text that accompanies the work than the work itself but when you do its interesting what you learn and in the case of this exhibition generally, it is often the hidden histories, incidental events and slightly subversive stories that the artists choose to bring to our attention. I for one am glad!  

Megan Calver with Taunton Floral Art Club 'Flame' (2015)

Jo Lathwood’s responses begin with the materials and during her time in residence she explored both the inside and outside stripping 15 kilos of copper wire from defunct electrical cable when the house was used by the council/fire brigade and collecting galls from oak trees in the grounds both of which then underwent alchemic transformations resulting in two separate bodies of work. The oak galls were mixed with gum arabic, water and various salts to make a permanent black ink. This ink was then used to create drawings of windows, their view blacked out. Interestingly their creation ties in with the unnerving story that one of the houses previous owners, the Hon Mrs Portman blocked the view from the house to the gardens so her servants could not look out and enjoy the views of the grounds and gardens. In the same room as the drawings the windows too have been blacked out with the same ink, our view of the gardens disrupted in the same way Mrs Portman denied her staff. Subsequently the copper also underwent a similar transformation being combined with tin from donated tankards from Hestercombe staff/volunteers and forged at Lathwood’s forge in Bristol into three bronze ingots inscribed with their maker/date/origin. This is more than just a recycling of materials and becomes symbolically representative of the importance of Hestercombe in all its parts, both its modern and past histories. In the same way that Calver’s ceramics force you to look at the building as you search for them, Lathwood’s work makes you think about the ‘stuff’ it’s made of, the miles of the buildings wire guts and innards made into something compact, something small, precious. The theme of inside/outside, revealed and concealed is present again in the galls from the gardens oak trees brought inside to become ink then brought outside in a representation of a blackened garden view. As Lathwood herself comments, she uses materials and process as ways of luring and engaging with her audience so that the meaning behind the work can in-turn be revealed. Somewhat agreeably I find the products of this labour are more understated in their ability to shout and excite than the often slightly more fascinating methods of their production.

Jo Lathwood 'According to rules and legend' (2015) bronze
Jo Lathwood's oak gall ink studies and experiments in the workspace she used during her residency. 
Also in this exhibition, displayed appropriately above the mantel of the fireplace is a painting by C W Bampfylde, ‘An extensive Italian landscape’ created in 1765 its connection to the exhibition otherwise slightly tenuous until you enter the adjacent room. There, visitors discover a life size replica of the Victorian fountain on the terrace of the gardens below, the ‘outside, inside’ again a reoccurring theme (pictured below). The fountain’s top tiered basin becomes a plateau on which a miniaturised model landscape sits complete with cow, people, trees, assorted plants, a turret, water and boats. Typically I unintentionally navigated the exhibition in the ‘wrong’ order (if it is even possible to do such a thing) missing the Bamfylde painting entirely as I passed it via a different doorway so amusingly it took me a while [completely of my own fault] to realise that this scene was in fact a painstaking recreation of Bampfylde’s painting in the other room (eureka)! A delightful moment of realisation later and I take pleasure in comparing and analysing the two. It is a clever way of drawing attention to an otherwise fairly ‘brown’, typical old painting of the likes I’d never really (rightly or wrongly) give much time to and sentimentally reminds me of a ‘transcriptions’ project I did during college where we did a similar thing. Lowry’s version titled ‘Arcadia’ after the Arcadian style landscaping Bampflyde brought to Hestercombe is playful in its own challenge of modelling of Lowry’s landscape where the scale and time are much more under the artists control than that of Bampfylde’s larger feat of landscaping of the grounds themselves. Funnily the two are not that entirely different acts just on different scales and materials. Out of all the works in the exhibition it is probably one of the more joyous and accessible in its conceptuality although I still do not quite understand why it has been presented on its fountain pedestal as to being installed in situ, one of the houses alcoves/windows for example? Lowry is known for life-like interventions which challenge people’s perception in public environments and whilst the fountain in itself is interesting I personally feel it is a little superfluous to the model itself which doesn’t really need or benefit from it other than being a glorified plinth to view it on.

Patrick Lowry 'Arcadia' (2015), mixed media

If you were thinking, what this exhibition is missing so far is a great big lump of rock then Simon Hitchens provides the answer in the form of an impressively excavated 9ft tall chunk of limestone sourced from Westleigh quarry somewhat slightly arrogantly and confrontationally plonked in the middle of the lawn on the approach to the house; one side left natural the other (facing the house) painted white. I get the fact that the stone is the same as used to build the house and that in its raw state stone can be beautiful and sculptural, but with this piece it feels too ceremonially placed to fit-in and yet too natural and unfinished to really stand out. Hitchens does though often work with dualities so that comment may not be as dismissive as it first sounds with the works twin, inside the house in the form of a cast looking back on its originator from the view through the window it faces. Positive and negative are presented, figure and sarcophagus, man-made – natural etc. The affect is ghost-like as the title of the lawn work suggests and does raise interesting doubts on the origins of the boulder, seeing its trace in the cast we start to wonder if the stone on the lawn is in fact a fabrication by man or naturally mined from the earth. The problem for me is that the sculptural works don’t really do a lot for me, as I feel they are dealing with previously explored ideas in a medium that has possibly reached its limits of potential. The more successful work, in my view, is the video piece ‘Genesis’ where the relationship between man/nature, man/material works connects more readily with the viewer. The film depicts a mountainous landscape scene with a large boulder in the foreground which slowly appears as though to inhale and exhale in timing with the sound of the roaring wind. It made me think about how the wind, the rain naturally sculpts stone by slowly eroding it away as well as the bodily connection rocks can  have to human form in scale/mass, their texture and/or porous surface also sharing bodily-like associations. Maybe the piece on the lawn is saying similar things, but for reasons that may be quite subjective to my own opinion it is definitely not as engaging. 

Simon Hitchens 'Genesis' (2014), HD film, 12 minutes looped
Lastly, Laura Ellen Bacon presents ‘Occupied’ a willow woven installation of organic arching, curvaceous forms that appear to cocoon, attach and spread themselves along a wall and towards the windows in one of the rooms. It does indeed, ‘occupy’ the space both inviting the viewer to walk around it, in it and explore. There is a great marriage of craft, skill and artistry at work here, but for me it is disappointingly not as immersive given the opportunity of the space, as a previous commission of Bacon’s seen at Barrington Court last year.

 Second site isn’t what you expect it to be and in doing so uses the element of surprise to its advantage showing its audiences contemporary and new perspectives on the house and gardens of which people who live in Taunton like myself, may have previously been all too familiar. The variety and inquisitive rebelliousness of artists exhibiting ensures there is much history and discovery unearthed in its use of wit and processes that range from storytelling to the sculptural. I’d love to have seen some more 'messy' work, by that I mean something more expressive possibly, as at times it runs the danger of being a bit emotionless, or a bit too cerebral; that saying in context to the abundant flamboyance of the gardens themselves maybe it doesn't need to be.

Second Site is on at Hestercombe Gallery until April 12th 2015

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