Saturday, 19 May 2018

Black and Gold

Not all that glitters is gold, but you may be fooled by Hestercombe Gallery’s latest exhibition, ‘Cultivation: Points of vantage’ that features a surprising array of deceptively dazzling (albeit monochromatic) surfaces. From the glossy sheen of George Shaw’s enamel painted depictions of haunting urban places, John Newling’s gold-leafed plant specimens, Mary Griffiths’ iridescent, meticulously and intrinsically worked graphite drawings that sparkle and shimmer, Anna Barriball’s pencil rubbing of a stained-glass window rendered surprisingly light, to the reflective gloss of Mary McIntyre’s misty landscape photography. It is not a colourful exhibition whose slightly sombre tones provide a stark contrast to the seasonal colours outside in the gardens, but it will make you think; about the places, the vantage points from which we view and interact with landscape through our windows, the things we grow, the towns we live in, the places we leave behind....
Anna Barriball Sunrise/Sunset (2008) Pencil on paper.*
Things are what they first appear and not, forcing us to look beyond the surface of these works and investigate more closely so that new meanings are revealed. Griffiths’ and Barriball’s drawings both reflect the light, yet when viewed from different angles and in different light levels reveal their very grey, dark surfaces. Properties created due to the graphite from which they are made. I have a lot of time for Barriball’s work*, they have a pleasing trompe l’oeil affect in being both a life-size rendering (in ‘Sunrise/Sunset’ 2008 it is in fact a rubbing) of the original object, a window, a fireplace, a door; but in a material that makes them useless or a trace of what they once were. The stained-glass window’s main function to allow the emitting of light through its coloured glass pannels is now blackened-out as a grey, lead-like replica. It is now functionless, but reveals something new about its surface, its design and as already mentioned, the duality of its now opaque but still shiny surface that retains some of its connection to its original purpose.

Mariele Neudecker Everything is Important and Nothing Matters at All
(2009) Mixed media.
Similarly, Mariele Neudecker’s sculpture, ‘Everything is Important and Nothing Matters at All’ (2009), blurs with the distortion between reality and fiction through a miniaturised maquette of an abandoned dwelling through which a video of the natural world can be glimpsed (when viewing through the sculpture from different angles). It is an almost movie-like fabrication but one so accurate that it forces your eyes to become the camera; whether we chose to focus on the details in the scene that transports us in our mind’s-eye into thinking that it could be real or look beyond the sculpture and its presentation on a table within a gallery that breaks the illusion turning it back into the realms of fiction. This piece sits well alongside Mary McIntrye’s ‘Romanticism’ evoking, misty veiled landscapes which have something equally cinematic and suspenseful about them; scenes which are animated by the absence or anticipation of missing their actors.

John Newling Value, Coin, Note and Eclipse (2006) Pressed and guilded
Jersey Kale plants
John Newling’s work ‘Value, Coin, Note and Eclipse’ (2006) uses gold-leaf applied to,…well, leaves! The irony is not wasted on me and speaking from a purely aesthetic point of view is a visual treat for the eyes! Their museum-style mode of presentation is of great appeal to me. Made from Jersey Kale, planted and grown by the artist himself, whose leaves were removed at different stages of growth to create a horticultural wall that documents time. The gold-leaf was used to explore ideas of value and currency in relation to natural processes and, for me, becomes symbolic of the time we choose to invest/or not into our relationship with nature and challenges our perceptions of the preservation of life versus decay. Which do we value more, the plant whilst it is alive, the resource it gives us in death or the reminder of life it gives in being preserved in death? The idea of the land as a resource is also explored in film by Mikhail Karikis. In, ‘Children of Unquiet’ (2013-14) Karikis uses the sound of whistles and whispers performed by children with imagery of the volcanic landscape, to tell the story of the first geothermic power station to be built in Italy during the 1970s and its effect on the people who live there.
Mikhail Karikis Children of the Unquiet (2013-14) Video
All the exhibitions at Hestercombe, as we have come to expect (and perhaps rightly so) have some sort of connection to the natural world, land or the history/grounds context in which the gallery is situated. The connection the works in this exhibition have with land is relatively clear. If we were instead to take the title of this exhibition, to mean ‘cultivation’ in the sense of the none land-based definition of a,process of trying to acquire or develop a quality or skill’ it rather nicely fits with what the role of the artist is, as a sort-of cultivator of ideas, processes or techniques which is none more than present in John Brown’s photographed grasses, sparsely, carefully and meticulously placed to create a natural quality of Chinese calligraphy without the ink. They are even more subtle and quiet compared to much of the other relatively minimal pieces in the exhibition but have a contemplative honesty reminiscent for anyone who has ever picked a stalk of grass and pressed it between two sheets of paper in an attempt to capture its shape and beauty. Proof if were needed that less is often more and a process a means from which the artist explores transcendentalism. Elsewhere, George Shaw’s almost photographic-like quality of painting in ‘The Next Big Thing’ (2010) is an exact testimony to the art of acquiring a skill and using it to capture a moment in time, in Shaw’s paintings often of semi-urban abandoned-looking places that might no longer exist.

In an exhibition that does not require laborious contemplation to be enjoyed but whose works quietly invite the tilling over of ideas through their seductive surfaces or use of the double-take; those who take the time to look, think and look again may reap the rewards of the ideas these artists have sown.
‘Cultivation: Points of vantage’ can be seen at Hestercombe Gallery until July 1st. 
Find out about the Seminar happening around this exhibition on June 5th here:
Words copyright of Natalie Parsley.© 

Monday, 14 May 2018

A Stitch in Time

Cross-stitch, if you had asked me a month ago, would have definitely been on the unwritten and unimaginatively-named list of ‘things I thought I’d never do’. Nothing against cross-stitch, just that it was never something that I had time, reason or compulsion of any sort to commit my time towards. The list of ‘things that need doing’ always taking the priority and well, cross-stitch just never made it on there…until now! 

'A Day in the Life of a Nurse' 1938 Nursing Illustrated
To coincide with 70 years of the NHS this year, the library manager for the Library Service, where I work for the Taunton and Somerset NHS Foundation Trust showed me with the library’s copy of ‘Nursing Illustrated. Published as a series of magazines in 1938 (that’s right, 10 years before the NHS), it features research articles, news stories, letters, advertisements, tips and activities relevant to the nursing profession of the time. Coming from an art background I was drawn to a feature it published inviting nursing staff to produce a sampler, titled A Day in the Life of a Nurse’. The sampler, serialised in eight parts gave pattern designs for cross-stitch scenes depicting nursing activities such as ‘an interview with matron’ and ‘visitors’ hour’. The sampler also ran as a competition in which the winning first prize sampler could win 10 guineas*!

The seed of an idea has been planted and I thought it would be really interesting if these designs could be seen and brought to life again, made by the next generation of nursing professionals and even opening it up wider to everyone who works within the NHS today (even patients potentially), reflecting the breadth and diversity of the roles within the organisation. These patterns are likely to have been unmade by anyone for quite some years and so it is exciting to reveal something from the past.

The pattern for 'Up with the Lark' scene in 'A Day in the Life of a Nurse'
Inevitably times change and what was in 1938 a sampler design inside a nursing journal, perhaps intended as something to be made in-between caring for patients on wards, is now something that is more likely to be regarded as a spare-time leisure activity. In-part it reflects just how time-pressures and ‘the role’ of nursing has changed over the years. How many nurses still find time to create and make things whilst at work? And, what are the benefits to creative projects on wellbeing in relation to current day working within the NHS? It raises important questions and discussions around these issues as well as more broad ones in getting people to talk about ‘how things have changed’ and what the future may hold in store. If I have time I would like to talk to nursing staff and create new scenes that depict the modern-day counterpart to the 1938 one! What would be similar? What would have changed?

My efforts thus far at recreating 'Up with the Lark' sampler.
Under the current and topical NHS initiative of ‘Wellbeing through Creativity’, earlier this month we sent a call-out to employees at the trust I work for inviting them to participate in the challenge of recreating this sampler. I have so far been met with a positive response! As someone who artistically has mostly ever worked alone in the ‘making’ of art work it is humbling and encouraging to be working on a project collaboratively with a variety of people whose individual professions and experiences will hopefully add to the ‘story-telling’ element of how the whole sampler comes together. In some cases, parts of the sampler will have been made by employees in different parts of the hospital, the trust (Somerset Partnership) and possibly even by patients; I am hoping that the remote ways people now work within the NHS but come together as a team for the combined whole (visualised in the sampler through a variety of different sizes and colours) will celebrate the variety within the organisation that shares the same overall cause and values. That’s the bigger ambition, but I mean it when I say that I am genuinely inspired by the enthusiasm of those taking-part which has led to even me being encouraged to having a go at cross-stitch! Something, as I said, I thought I would never really try. 

At the very least if this project gets people making, talking and feeling good through doing so, then it will have achieved what I hope it set out to do. I will keep you posted how things materialise!

*Disclaimer -No prizes, other than the saccharin satisfaction of taking part, will be awarded to entrants participating in the 2018 version.

Sunday, 6 May 2018

Only 3000?!

"What is art?
No-one seems to know,
but everyone has an opinion.”

Curse you Robert Good! If only you had published your book when I first started Art School! How much more illuminated my traversing of the path into territory unknown could have been, had I been enlightened by the collected perceptions, definitions and opinions collated in, A New Dictionary of Art. Hours at the easel, days spent scratching and scrapping the application of paint on the walls and floors as I drew, painted, filmed, shot, did, didn’t read, wrote, whittled and weaved my way through the potential of all the things art can be; all in the fractious pursuit of creativity, expression, communication and somewhere at the back of all those reasons a deeper searching, a desire to figure-out what exactly, is art?

And am, in many ways, still blissfully non-the-wiser.

Language and word-based artist Robert Good’s book offers some 3000 definitions of art, ‘compiled from the internet, established authorities, artists and institutions’. This ambitiously mad plight of collecting and organising so many definitions reveals (what the author himself acknowledges) much of what we may already expect, that art is and can be almost anything and everything!

Definitions in this book really do include everything from, the literal/descriptive, ‘Music, literature and cinema’ to the metaphysical, ‘a way for people to put something out there that cannot be said in words’ and the entertainingly specific, ‘like a strawberry cake’ as plausible options in answer to the question of ‘what is art?’ But how much does anyone really want to know?

That being said, Good’s book is a superfluous testament to a commitment in documenting the sheer range of amusing, absurd, arrogant, informed, spiritual and historically defining ways in which artists, makers, viewers of art, writers, philosophers, critics, curators and more have created their own definitions as to what art is. Many of which, historically speaking, have influenced the course of art history and what we perceive ‘art’ to be. Or...not to be! The book includes Duchampian statements of art being, ‘what the artist says is art’ to that of Surrealism ‘Transformed from the real to the unreal’. The chicken and the egg moment being which came first, the definition of art or the work itself, when to some extent I question how easy it is for one to exist without the other. It all becomes a bit conceptual and reminds me of Sol Le Witt’s ‘Sentences on Conceptual Art’ (1928) in which the final sentence reads, ‘These sentences comment on art, but are not art.’ I have always found this to be a paradoxical thing to say because it seems that others have interpreted this as ‘art’ even though that was not Sol Le Witt’s original intention (or was it?). The mind boggles.

From my perspective, art is something that is usually best discovered through actively ‘doing’ and experiencing it through seeing it, taking-part or making it rather than, on first instance, attempting to understand it through reading pre-set definitions. I do not think people need a comprehension of what ‘art’ is in order to produce something that is then perceived as being art. In fact, from personal experience, the latter is often the better and the closer one is, ‘not trying’ to make art, often results in work which is less contrived and more genuine.

The book’s biggest problem and also its charm is the question of whether what is presented here are a series of definitions or opinions. In-reality it seems that it is a mixture of both and one could argue the semantics of what is the ‘definition of definition’ as opposed to an opinion but then we would still end up in a subjective state as this very book is trying to address. The appeal of this is that established definitions from the likes of critics, Clive Bell and Arthur Danto are anonymously embedded amongst definitions from everyday people online. It has no hierarchy! Which is refreshing. Though overall it depends on how seriously or not you want to take this book when, for example, art defined as, ‘Largely a load of old cobblers and a big sham’ and ‘Like a mirror which reflects our inner selves’; ‘that piece of light in your pupils’, as confrontational or poetic as they are still seem much more like opinions/beliefs than definitions to my humble opinion, of course!

There is nothing wrong with this but part of me still cannot shake-off the question of whether this book is really necessary if nothing other than a light-hearted piece of satire? Sometimes it falls into repetition of saying the same thing but worded in slightly different ways which also slightly weakens its argument, but on the other-hand, also demonstrates the individual subjectivism involved in interpreting what art is; as being something unique and personal to us all as individuals but with certain themes, symbols, readings that are inherently more universal. In the book’s opening introduction by Professor in aesthetics and philosophy of the mind, Derek Matravers’ offers an interesting viewpoint to what Good has produced as a whole,

‘ [the book] makes a mockery of the modern world’s desire to systemise, to classify and to control. In particular, it mocks the modern world’s desire to put a boundary on creativity.’

And for those reasons A New Dictionary of Art almost offers inspiration in its celebration of diversity and the way in which art is its own language of multifaceted readings. That it rebelliously seeks to continuously deify categorisation! Some may even see it as a manifesto that art must never become definable and resist categorisation least it become stagnant but it is also a celebration of the things people find similar and different about art such as, ‘a desire to convey meaning’; ‘someone’s vision shared with others’; ‘from the world around us’.

For want of a better word, some of these ‘definitions’ at their best, offer brilliant starting points for thinking about ways of making work, generating ideas and opening-the-box on proliferating the possibilities of what art can be, a few examples, ‘Does not have to be man-made’; ‘Does not form without growth and movement’; ‘The opportunity for love between strangers’; ‘progressive’; ‘tilling the soil of culture’. Anyone of these and hundreds of others besides demonstrate some of the potential and scope of what the arts are/can be. There are so many it is almost harder to articulate what isn’t art than what it is! And it is certainly something that I am sure will only continue to grow with time.

'A New Dictionary of Art' by Robert Good is available to buy now (at all good bookshops!)

See more about Robert Good’s work at FAB 2017 here: