Wednesday, 27 January 2016

From The Archives

In 2011 I researched agricultural farming tools with Somerset Heritage Centre in Taunton as part of Somerset Art Weeks. What transpired was a most wonderful, resourceful experience as I had the opportunity to see ‘behind the scenes’ of the Heritage Centre’s storage facility and access some of the artefacts kept there from public sight. Warehouse rooms filled with wall-lined tools, boxes of treasures, taxidermy, clothing, a carriage and bull’s head all amongst the things to discover and be inspired by in addition to the knowledge and story-telling from the generously knowledgeable local curators of the collection.

Tools at The Somerset Heritage Centre (2011)
The work I made as a result was much more concerned with the museum itself, and museum modes of presentation & archiving than that of the actual objects themselves. I still speculate whether this was a missed opportunity on my part (not to have focused on the objects). However there was something fascinating about the processes and decisions used in order to protect, restore and catalogue these items which felt a more intriguing line of enquiry to pursue at the time.

 As you might imagine therefore I had a particularly vested interest in seeing the new exhibition of local artist’s responses to this same collection currently on show at the Museum of Somerset...

Natalie Parsley (Detail) Kaye's Tool Kaleidoscope, 2011
Featuring the work of Jenny Graham (who also brought the exhibiting artists together), Richard Tomlinson, Chris Dunseath, Jacy Wall, Laura Aish and Ralph Hoyte; the exhibition is pleasingly curated so as to look and utilise the experience of ‘the storage’ facility of Somerset Heritage. From the coded letters to signify different storage rooms on the walls, metal shelving and racking to place artefacts on, brown storage cardboard boxes; to clip-boarded ‘title’ lists printed on graph paper. There is a lot of ‘stuff’ in this exhibition and it is fortunate enough to have many of the artefacts the artists ‘used’ or took inspiration from on display alongside the work. The overall ‘feel’ of the exhibition is a good one, busy but not cluttered and does well at recreating that sense of discovery, wonder and unashamed nosiness that I certainly took away from my time at Somerset Heritage.
Richard Tomlinson’s work particularly does this brilliantly; to the right of the room stacked cardboard boxes with viewing holes which reveal hidden photographic anaglyphs inside. The images taken from safe’s, cogs and gears from mechanised objects found in storage. Peaking-in on them in this way recreates that same sense of curiosity and child-like delight from opening presents. Similarly Chris Dunseath’s vessels made from bronze and papier-mâché have hidden constellations and universes inside their shadowy interiors, again work that beckons one to look closer and discover more. These objects also directly relate to Bronze Age axe heads and more of Chris’ sculptures found in the cabinet behind. The objects patina mimicking the corroded ancient greens found on bronze/copper artefacts. Chris is one of the few artists who blurs the line between the museum piece and the art object so that sometimes one isn’t quite sure which is which.
Richard Tomlinson in 'New Dimensions'

A revolving postcard display unit featuring hundreds of curated postcards from Somerset and ‘days of old’ make some entertaining reading and act as inspiration for a sound piece featuring the poems by declamatory poet Ralph Hoyte. It’s good to see a more word-based practice in the show and makes great, often amusing discussion points for many conversations and questions into the origins and people behind the postcards.  

The flaw in this exhibition is that the museum objects tend to outshine most of the artwork. There is an amazing case of butterflies, pressed flowers, a safe, a film camera, tins, old sowing paraphernalia and a split Ash tree as part of some ancient cure for a hernia...! Very often the artefacts are almost intimidating in their effortless intrigue and charm that it feels somewhat futile as an artist to even contemplate competing with it! This is certainly how I felt and perhaps now think I was fortunate not to have the artefacts displayed alongside the work –it then became purely about my interpretation of them. I appreciate how challenging it is to both; select an object, from a source of thousands of things and then find a concept or response to that object which is both relevant and communicates with its source without being too close to it! I also criticise my own work of having conveyed some of the pleasures of depicting and ‘capturing the artefacts I selected but not really having as much dialogue into their unique histories and factors that made them individual.
Chris Dunseath (foreground) in 'New Dimensions'
Hence with the New Dimensions exhibition, there are a few similar opportunities where the work feels unresolved or unimaginative. Jacy Wall’s touchy feely cases of material and hands holding ribbons and thread feel a little lost and contrived compared to her skilfully executed prints (I think they're about challenging the inability of touching the artefacts in museums, but it still feels a little unresolved or too obvious) and Jenny Graham’s commercial butterfly prints similarly leave little to the imagination. Jenny's Victorian style Wunderkammers are better and feature well collated and wonderful objects, but being a big fan of Cabinets of Curiosities I have to be honest and say I've seen other artists (Duncan Cameron) do, in my opinion, better versions that also offer something 'new' rather than just being a collection of objects. I think my expectations were high but the work could have said more or something different in my view.

What is important overall from this exhibition is the commitment to what is hopefully an ongoing dialogue between the Museum of Somerset and artists. New Dimensions has achieved in revealing new aspects of the Heritage Centre’s collection that go relatively unseen and presented them in a visual way rather than purely historical or ‘museum’ way. I believe this opens up the collection and allows for new discovery that curators within Museums should note; sometimes a well chronicled, researched and informed museum exhibition doesn’t appeal to all audiences in the same way as the excitement of a bustling, disorganised antiques or flea market (I honestly think I have learnt more about history from these types of places). The latter is more visual and more inquisitive, promoting independent dialogue based on a genuine curiosity and interaction with objects that I think traditional museum curatorial practices should experiment more with. The testament from this exhibition is a simple but highly important one; let more artists work with museum collections!  

The Exhibition is FREE and I urge you all to go see it whilst you can. It is on until April 16th 2016.
All text and photos copyright Natalie Parsley

Sunday, 24 January 2016

Silver Linings Sketchbook

October 2015 was a busy month for seeing art and I didn’t mention it much at the time but the ‘Drawing in Silver and Gold’ exhibition I saw at The British Museum had probably one of the biggest effects on my artwork in a long while.

Generally speaking, I think there has been a shift in my 'taste in art', (if you can call it that) as I’ve gotten older; where I was once excited by Modernism (Futurism, Cubism, Dada and Surrealism etc.) I now find myself either drawn to the incredibly new or polar opposite, incredibly old. Rembrandt’s etchings which I saw for the first time in Amsterdam two years ago and since, Frescos in Florence have been amongst the art which has genuinely sparked excitement or the desire to create my own work. Their influence not necessarily manifest in style or much in the way of technique in my own work but have maintained a sense of wonder and kept cynicism at bay. And there has of course been much new contemporary art that’s been exciting but does not very often generate the same sense of awe and lastingness as much pre-20th century art.
Perhaps in the same way that the Rembrandt etchings were exquisitely drawn; their appeal for me being their mark making and intensity of light/dark contrast (Rembrandt also worked in silverpoint); I was also interested in the variety of marks and precision involved in metalpoint in the drawings in the British Museum exhibition....
Metalpoint is a process of drawing with a metal point (initially lead or tin but during Renaissance silver or gold began to be used) onto a subtly abrasive prepared ground so that traces of the metal are left on the surface creating the image. Originating in the late 14th Century it was used by artists such as van Eyck, Durer, da Vinci, Raphael and so on. As part of the process glue hide was mixed with fine bone ash to make the surface to coat the paper, this labour intense process was one of the reasons its use declined along with the introduction of more gestural materials like graphite which were more forgiving to erasing/correcting.      I thoroughly recommend viewing some early metalpoint drawings in person; they are amongst the finest methods of drawing I have ever seen. By fine, I literally mean a delicate fine and worked array of marks built-up and crossed to suggest tone. They achieve what, I think, is one of the most difficult things in drawing; to create tone as well as a sense of texture at the same time. Skin looks smooth as well as having the lights and darks of tone; a plume of feathers looks light and textured as well as adhering to darks/lights. The fact they are made of silver or gold also subconsciously adds to a sense of permanence and preciousness that cannot be overlooked in reading meaning into this drawing method. This discovery wasn’t, I’ll admit completely ‘new’, I had previously learnt about silverpoint’s existence from an artist working locally in Somerset. Like most things, regrettably, I became more interested in the process when just about everyone else did!
On first attempts at silverpoint I didn’t, like many, have the luxury of bone ash and glue based primer to work with so I experimented with the cheapest gesso I could find (as it needed a paint with a slight ‘tooth’ to it in order to work) and a silver earring (the hook of which I bent straight to create a point) taped to a chopstick. This will do. The type of line created is very light, very delicate and as mentioned before does not allow for mistakes but can be built upon in layers of fine lines/mark-making. I like the way it forces you to build areas up in line rather than flat shading. For my drawing style it allows for the intensity and closeness of looking which I'm interested in and have significantly and want to continue to improve upon since I started drawing regularly in 2013. My experience of etching is limited, but I feel that silverpoint is akin to the scratching and delicateness of producing marks that are created on an etching plate –fundamentally one of the differences being that you can see the line in silverpoint but not in etching obviously until you add the ink. I think the two relate to each other which is probably why artists like Rembrandt used both.
For me, however it is a satisfying process and one that I’ve only really begun to discover. I have since invested in a more manageable silverpoint tool to draw with (pictured above) that always alarmingly reminds me of some sort of dentist drill or implement, matched to the forensic-like precision spent scratching away. Creepy! To start with I’ve been interested in drawing things with lots of texture; hair/fur, scales, feathers etc (as pictured) without really questioning why/or what I’ve chosen to draw.  Due to the faintness and sheen of silverpoint it doesn’t reproduce well in any of my photos/scans but hopefully you get the idea. I think next maybe I start looking at drawing things that either relate to the medium (silver) or respond to some idea in some way (like the dentist thing, maybe I draw some dentures!? Or something mundane, silverpoint socks, maybe?).
For the time being at least silverpoint remains my most exciting art medium of choice since I discovered acrylic artist ink in 2014!
 Surely the next step is to try a combination of the two?!
 More information on ‘Drawing in Silver and Gold’ sourced from here:
 All text and images copyright of Natalie Parsley©

Monday, 18 January 2016

Hidden depths of Vertigo Sea

Centre; footage of a whaler alongside the underbelly of an enormous blue whale, slicing open its blubber to ‘harvest’ its organs.
Left; vast swarms of butterflies emerge from the forests of Mexico.
Right; more swarms of butterflies make the journey to escape above the forest canopy.
Centre; a harpoon from a 19th Century whaling expedition blasts into trans-oceanic waters.
Just as simultaneously as there is a scene of literal ‘cutting' happening in John Akomfrah’s ‘Vertigo Sea’ the ‘art’ of his particular style of filmmaking is a similar, albeit debatably less/more butcherous process of cutting and editing...
“What is the essence of the director’s work? We could define it as sculpting in time. Just as a sculptor takes a lump of marble, and inwardly conscious of the features of his finished piece, removes everything that is not part of it- so the filmmaker, from a ‘lump of time’ made up of an enormous, solid cluster of living facts, cuts off and discards whatever he does not need, leaving what is to be an element of the finished film...”
 The above quote from Russian director, Andrei Tarkovsky is one of my favourite (and probably one of the more accessible) analogies for describing the process of filmmaking. The fragmenting and overlapping of time, sound and moving image as malleable in conveying meaning, suggesting form and narrative as that of sculpting with marble or stone. Unlike stone however, film is never static and is forever shifting both in the action and passing of time within itself and within the world in which it is being viewed. At the Arnolfini, Bristol, the images of the whale, the butterflies; life, death; the majestic, the static are all happening at once, across three large projection screens in what is the first UK screening of John Akomfrah’s ‘Vertigo Sea’. They are all distinctive archetypal images and the minute they are placed alongside each other the meaning of opposites/conflicting ideas becomes clear.  Described as a ‘visual essay’ and
‘a cultural history of mankind at sea as both victims and perpetrators’, the 48 minute film uses edited together footage from BBC Natural History and BFI archives alongside newly shot footage to create moving and multiple narratives about the sea, our relationship with it and ideas around migrations, displacement and ecology.  The work draws on a radio interview from young Nigerian migrants to Herman Melville’s ‘Moby Dick’ and Heathcote William’s poem, ‘Whale Nation’. 
I was fortunate to have seen the film previously at last year’s Venice Biennale, literally stumbling across it unexpectedly but being interested almost instantly. There is something hypnotically engaging  about Akomfrah’s work that beckons you to stay and linger which I probably put down to the use of three screens and the amount of visual variety/juxtaposition this creates within the work; as though one image is having a conversation with another. Secondly, the imagery itself is very strong photographically and in its fragmented state plays a lot on memory and traces of past lives, people, events and places (like attempting to assemble an intriguing but ever-shifting jigsaw!). On Saturday 16th Jan having seen it a second time I realise just how rich and layered it is, on one level because of the visual adjustment of having to process three screens at once and more deeply, because of the amount of overlapping ideas, narratives and symbolism within the work that there is always something new to be interpreted and seen. In many ways it combines some of the ‘dreamlike’ qualities of a Tarkovsky film with aspects of documentarian realism creating a state of flux between the two. During, ‘A Conversation with John Akmonfrah’ that took place on the opening weekend at Arnolfini, writer and art historian, Anthony Downey described ‘Vertigo Sea’  as “ to different ways of being both illusive and elusive...and always seeing something new.” The very title, 'Vertigo Sea' even prompts associations with 'a loss of balance' that is so reminiscent, for me anyway, of the visual documentary, 'Koyaanisqatsi' from the 80s that looked at mankind's increasing disassociation from nature and significantly, its title also translating as 'life out of balance'.  
When questioned on the significance and reason behind making a film about the sea Akomfrah responded by referencing having read Moby Dick whilst younger and not really engaging with the work (I have known many a book fan to say the same) and that because it is a ‘masterpiece’ it ‘becomes something else’; and can no longer be treated in the same way as you’d read any other book. It is, I gather, from what anyone has ever told me, a challenging read, that requires more effort but in turn whose rewards come through discovering its themes, madness vs. ambition, capitalism and multiculturalism to name a few. When Akomfrah re-visited Moby Dick in his late twenties these themes became clearer and more relevant to current events. In some ways ‘Vertigo Sea’ is Akomfrah’s attempt at presenting some of those themes for today’s audience. Akomfrah also shared he had once nearly drowned in the sea as a child (psychoanalysts read into that what you will), but I do not see the work as being autobiographical comment but a more social one. He stated that, historically and culturally, “...everything tends to be land-based,” and that it was time for “a discursive dialogue across sea”, continuing to describe the sea as a, “neutral space” in the way it is open to so many possibilities (being both gentle and turbulent or unforgiving); much of which is reflected in the propulsion and attraction of images used in the work; from the uncomfortable to the sublime.  
Speaking of the sublime, the newly shot footage in the work takes the form of a Casper David Friedrich style painting as historically dressed figures stare out to sea (often amid an arrangement of upturned furniture and ticking clocks) as though waiting or contemplating the events of the past in the footage played alongside (pictured left). These shots and sound of the clock help thread the work together and add an element of stillness and importance of time and reflection to the work that stops the whole thing becoming too frenetic. They are also amongst the more symbolic and dreamlike footage in the work and have echoes of the as equally haunting ‘Unfinished Conversation’ which documented the life and endeavours of academic and socialist, Stuart Hall. In that film identity is ‘likened to an unfinished conversation’ and is forever shifting and remembered differently. Some of these ideas reflect Akomfrah’s own concerns with ethnic and personal identity having been born in Ghana and growing up in 1970s London.
'The Unfinished Conversation' 2013
Ethnic and cultural identities are reoccurring themes addressed in Akomfrah’s films, in ‘Vertigo Sea’ shown in different ways, through the multiculturalism of the crew on the Pequod in ‘Moby Dick’ and with reference to the17th Century slave trade (contextually making Bristol a poignant place to show the first screening). A scene in which bodies of slaves are washed-up onto a beach having been deliberately thrown overboard into the sea are chillingly almost prophetic of recent events involving refugees escaping Syria. Akomfrah shrugs off any such claims as coincidence to recent events claiming that whilst not intentional the use of the, “...archive has nothing to do with the is not history but how the present may begin to understand the future...” It is non didactic but asks political questions around identity and how we understand migration and people. Certainly the opening sequences of the film featuring accounts from Nigerian migrants who survived an illegal crossing of the Mediterranean addresses just that, with a more stating of the facts rather than being preachy to the ethical or moral rights or wrongs; I think it asks the viewer to make their own opinion.
As a passionate fan of films (as in movies), it is in some ways strange that I’ve never had as much enthusiasm towards film art shown in galleries or even making film myself. So it takes something very special to make me compelled to sit and watch a film in a gallery for a length of time, there are a few; Christian Marclay, Matthew Barney,  Elizabeth Price, Mika Rottenberg, Bill Viola and, it goes without saying, that John Akomfrah has since Liverpool Biennial 2012 also been on that ever increasing list. I see no reason why anyone who loves film, who loves photography, documentary and visual art generally wouldn’t find something significantly worthwhile in Akomfrah’s films. Specifically ‘Vertigo Sea’ is as rich, varied in its ability to unbalance and shift; as immersive and as undulating as the sea itself.
And not to mention that you can see it for FREE! So why wouldn't you?!
‘Vertigo Sea’ is on at Arnolfini until Sunday 10th April
Images sourced from:;;;

Thursday, 7 January 2016

These Streets

Nothing quite says “Happy New Year!” like the scenes of city streets or towns painted in ‘rainy’ greys and dusky pinks! If igniting some post-Xmas cheer was the intention in the timing of Michael Calver’s exhibition of paintings in the Exeter Phoenix Bar Gallery then they may be a just a little bit ‘off’ in doing so. Then again, it may also be possibly quite clever in that the dark and slushy greys in Calver’s paintings quite accurately depict some of the mood and climate many of our towns and cities are currently experiencing in the slump of Xmas and New Year festivities.
  As it would have it one particular dry and sunny Wednesday afternoon, I decided to visit the Phoenix to see Calver’s paintings in person... They are far from being vibrant, bustling or exuberant impressions of urban environments, they're darker and so it is quite difficult to have a sense of optimism about these paintings; their bleak and muted palette seems to dominate the feeling of the work, combined with the blocky nature in which the buildings/scenes are built-up and skewed perspective(s) leads to a sense of unease or claustrophobia. The characters present within some of the works (and the audience to some extent) become almost trapped or swamped within these environments rather than being situ within them or free to leave as they please. This quality is also what makes them so compelling and despite their less than rose-tinted viewpoint I find myself drawn to their painterly qualities, i.e. shape, form and colour. Whilst being mostly grey you could even argue there is something optimistic about them in the way in which slivers of colour occasionally sneak through the layers of paint in the form of a chink of orange, yellow or pink as a highlight or edge around a building or chink of light from a window. Sometimes they even become completely abstract, in the painting, ‘Pit’ the grey blocks take over the whole composition and become an impassable lump, mound or maze baring a slight resemblance, for me at least, to some of Philip Guston’s work in which the stuff of his father’s occupation as a rag and bone man become the subject and then abstraction for many of his paintings.
Pleasing in their banality like the working class streets of a Lowry or some of the uneasy realism of Robert Tressell’s novel, ‘The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists’; this is not to give these paintings delusions of grandeur but give them a context into how they may be read. Hovering between an impression of a place and the abstract they are highly imaginative but in doing so they also perhaps unintentionally paint a picture of some of the reality of streets and cities today. The way in which cities are built-up around themselves, the inner-city always threatened to be engulfed by encroaching urban renewal; cranes and vehicles; the climate and weather patterns; colours and absences of colour in urban landscapes and the characters and personalities (desirable and undesirable) which inhabit and animate these places.
There is also an element of story-telling happening in this series of paintings, dog walkers possibly what looks like men fighting, meetings in alleyways/backstreets, prostitution or other illicit night-time activities! Calver’s other art series’ have included immensely detailed, busy drawings know as ‘RAG Drawings’ and feature some of the characters, bustle and underlying sense of disturbance that is present and animates many of the paintings exhibited in Exeter Phoenix. It is rewarding to see how these earlier works may have fed into some aspects of the new paintings (I recommend you check them out on his website if you haven’t seen them and whilst I may be slightly bias in preferring the drawings to the paintings the quality that I admire about them both is their darkness. The edge that the paintings have which the drawings don’t however is their ability to create atmosphere through light/dark tones, they are perhaps in that way more theatrical.
It feels an almost rare thing to see a painter working today who isn’t abstract and isn’t representational (generally speaking, I know there are others) when what feels to me like a large chunk of the market is entrenched with painting that fits into either of the extremes. There is something pleasing in its difference about work which combines the two. Whilst this exhibition won't do much to banish the New Year blues it may remind many that not all painting, like art need be comfortable in order to be worth our consideration.
Michael Calver’s Paintings can be seen at Exeter Phoenix Cafe Bar Gallery until February 6th 2016. More details found at: