Sunday, 22 July 2018


'the diviner' 2018
In every sense of the word (and for reasons that will also hopefully become clear) Helen Sear’s exhibition which opened last Friday at Hestercombe Gallery, is divine. Least alone because the show opens with her most recent photographic work, titled ‘The Diviner’ (2018) spectacularly displayed on the gallery’s nineteenth century staircase [pictured]. An epically-sized series of three prints of willow trees taken over two years chronicled as their roots grew and dried with the rising and falling of the water where they grew. Their roots adorned by the artist, with flowers to denote their likeness to skirts; a fitting tribute, in the absence of any actual period-dressed skirted ladies, to the grandeur of Hestercombe’s ballroom-like setting. Many proms, in-fact my own having taken place here some years ago (though I never recall myself or anyone else wearing anything that quite matches the scale that Sear’s tree-skirts convey)! The trees divine water through their roots and mirror-image both their workings above as below, intentionally or not, allude an interesting insight into the dual-nature of Sear’s work depicting her subject matter through multiple viewpoints,  the known and the unknown, both here rendered visible. Its subject matter, scale and situ within the gallery, along with its use of colour and play of illusion through mirror-imagery really set the tone for the other visually intriguing and intellectually beguiling works exhibited. 

“Sear has always, it seems, been interested in looking with, looking round and looking through as she is in looking at.”

'stack' 2015
Sitting on the periphery between photography and fine art the works on show in ‘prospect refuge’ are united in being influenced by Sear’s interest in nature and our 'human/animal relationships within it'. The title of the show influenced by a concept from natural history writer, Jay Appleton whose concept of ‘prospect refuge’ states, ‘the perceived beauty of a landscape is directly linked to human survival’. Personally speaking, I am unsure if the images I see consciously trigger thoughts of survival, though I do find many of the stills from Sear’s film-based pieces, with their strong use of colour and focus on textures (a curtain, a net, light through trees) to be beautiful in an aesthetic sense. Maybe much of what we know of 'survival' in relation to the natural landscape has been lost or is now only ingrained in our subconscious? I am unsure, but this psychological-edge to the work creates a double-take in how it is perceived by the viewer. The film/sound piece ‘wahaha biota’ (2018) made for The Forestry Commission England that shows the planting and processing of trees is an example of how Sear’s work creates a sense of intrigue and beauty through green-filtered scenes of meadows and dappled forests in contrast to the isolation and strange sounds that also give these places an edge of being dark, primal and slightly foreboding. Though the overall impression I get is that for what is mostly an exhibition using photography it is surprising just how painterly, immersive and in some cases sculptural the images are. 

The exhibition features photographic and film-based works from 2015 onwards with the implied cross-over between sculpture and photography being an idea that the artist herself acknowledges within one of the first pieces you encounter in the gallery. Titled ‘Stack’, [pictured above] a pile of stacked logs is displayed on a large scale, which in-turn is also physically sliced and stacked vertically as an image along the gallery wall forming a visual blockade that is physically felt as well as seen,

‘a meeting of photography and sculpture, or treating the photographic image as sculptural,...’

In a visual-sense these logs are a series of cylinders piled onto one another, but it also raises feelings of deforestation, man's relationship with the forest, ideas of the homestead and stacking logs used for fires and so on. The doubling-up of the captured-moment of an image of stacked logs versus the stacking of the physical image itself calls into question the visual play between illusion and perception.  A theme explored across a number of Sear’s works from when she exhibited in the Welsh pavilion in the Venice Biennale in 2015. 

'...caetera fumus' 2015  
One of several pieces from the Venice Biennale exhibited at Hestercombe, titled ‘...caetera fumus’ reads almost like a transcription of the original painting of St Sebastian [1490] it was inspired from by Andrea Mantegna.  Instead of a figure the landscape becomes the protagonist, a bright yellow field in contrast to red twigs become symbols for blooded arrows and a light-box becomes a modern-day interpretation of creating a glaze in paint and almost celestial-like luminosity associated with religious imagery. In the same room, the curation of the quote, ‘Nihil nisi divinum stabile est. Caetera fumus’ [which translates as ‘Nothing is stable if not divine, the rest is smoke’] displayed, in my mind rather wittily, above the fireplace and refers to the impermanence of all things. I am fortunate to have seen these works before in Venice where the context of this work was closely tied to the building it was shown in, however, I feel that the work has more autonomy in the context of Hestercombe away from the heat and saturation of art in Venice where it can be contemplated quietly and more fully than I allowed time for previously. 

Colour and the reference to painting (as we have already had with sculpture) are also present in another series of photographs called ‘brand 1’ and ‘brand 2’. You could almost take these images on first glance to be paintings, stains or rubbings. 

“My use of colour is also to do with a convergence of the synthetic and the natural, using heightened colour to explore relationships between light and pigment, painting and photography.”

I think they are a photograph of a marking on a tree, but for me the uncertainty and place it fits between being photo and non-photo, is it a documentation of a moment in time or is it merely an image? Are these colours natural or manmade, real or unreal? Are questions what make these and many of Sear’s images worth revisiting.

“Her process of production often suggest a series of veils or membranes that may be alternately piled up and peeled away...Rather than merely giving us the world, or giving us to it, the photographic act is an overlayering , of times and places, signs and sensations.”

'the beginning and the end of things' 2015
The projection piece, shown on the floor ‘the beginning and the end of things’ (2015) is another example where our sense of perception is skewed and how Sear adapts her medium of film and photography to create something that (like ‘Stack’) her audience almost 'physically' encounters rather than merely 'looks-at', as one tries to work out what this unfamiliar amoeba-like changing coloured thing is. Her work has been linked to ideas within Surrealism and I can see why within this work particularly as it conveys an ever-changing puddle within which the trees and sky are reflected but at the same time are an illusion of the real-thing, an Alice in Wonderland-like portal to another world... It is real and unreal at the same time, uncanny, slightly trippy and strange but oddly also more engaging because of those things than had it been static or on the wall. Once again there is also something very painterly/impressionistic in its fluidity. It is not the only piece in the exhibition either where Sear combines new technology along with nature/natural images drones are used in the film piece, 'moments of capture' (2016).

There is more to be seen in this exhibition than I have referred to here in what is also worth noting is Sear's first solo show but second time exhibiting at Hestercombe, having shown work in 2015's 'Double Take'. Then as now, I feel that her use of colour, modes of display and references to painting/fine art is more exciting, inventive and engaging than I have felt about a lot of photography as a medium previously. It is great to have that perception challenged as it is also worth reiterating how great it is to see these works on my doorstep and I would encourage others to do the same. 

Helen Sear’s 'prospect refuge hazard 2' is on at Hestercombe Gallery until October 28th

Quotes sourced from: Drake, D (2015) Helen Sear: ...the rest is smoke, Ffotogallery Wales Limited: Cardiff 

Sunday, 1 July 2018

Not so shocking pink, but still relevant!

This less than conspicuous fluorescent pink book, titled, ‘Creativity: Why it matters’ from chief executive of Arts Council England, Darren Henley was published last week on the 28th June and is the sort of book that, if I still worked in a bookshop, I would most definitely have on display till-side. It’s small enough to read quickly and gives a convincing polemic for why creativity in all its forms generates a significant impact on the economy, in our communities, in our lives and education that leaves a lasting impression long after reading. 

Somewhat bias of me but much of what Henley’s book covers will ring true with what those already in the art world know/believe about the labours and  importance of their undertaking already, but is heartening nonetheless to have the message, along with some impressive stats and examples (such as Hull’s experiences being capital of culture) to demonstrate how creativity drives innovation, boosts our economy and enables individuals and communities to shape and define their futures. 

“The creative industries contributed £91.8 billion to the UK economy in 2016 –that’s 5.3 percent of the UK economy (bigger than the combined totals of the automotive, life sciences, aerospace and oil and gas industries).”

This is exactly the sort of manifesto that one would want to come out from someone at the helm of Arts Council England and though he states that it is ‘his’ words rather than an official publication of the organisation, it is still reinforcing much of what must be some of the values and ambitions of Arts Council England? I assume! Henley also talks about the value of creativity (broadly speaking) rather than being pigeon-holed as being something only relevant to the arts and how its capacity for inducing curiosity, problem solving and analytical skills are essential in many industries as well as helping tackle rising problems of loneliness and issues surrounding mental-health. One such example cited by Professor Roger Kneebone is to use arts within sciences to teach medical staff,

“The expertise of the scientists and medics informs the creativity of the artists; and the expertise of the artists helps the scientists and medics to think and act more creatively.”

Of course, again my own personal bias is coming across here (having quite recently started working in a medical library) but in an era when arts are being increasingly cut in education and undervalued in the academic jobs market this little book is an important voice in the need to remind, inspire and nurture the provision of creativity. It isn’t simply a call for more money to be thrown at it, but a sort of recognition and investment that must first come from time and understanding. Some of the most successful musicians, artists and performers etc. often come out of places with little or no opportunity because there is a need or desire for expression and the arts in these areas of our communities. It also highlights the diversity of places and means by which people are ‘creative’ from cooking, to gardening, walking, writing and even fishing! However, the argument of when and where people learn and retain their creativity is something of contention but must still be encouraged. One such example cited that was of personal interest, being libraries, 

“Libraries consistently emerge from surveys as being especially trusted institutions, safe spaces and resources of integrity. They are also making an evolutionary journey towards being communal, creative hubs, where you would be likely to access a 3D printer as a novel. Maybe we should develop these trusted community resources so that they become miniature local universities –centres for life-long learning and bases for new kinds of co-operative creative work. Centres of citizenship.” 

Interesting and I haven’t really given too much thought into the practicalities of such a proposition, but I know that from working in a bookshop retail environment that what bookshops offer goes farther than being merely ‘just a place to shop’ yet, it seems, they are seldom by government or otherwise supported as being anything other. Yet they, libraries and other places people go to learn, socialise, have fun, connect and discover could continue and even be much more than they already offer. A thread that continues into Henley’s final chapter which addresses creativity and education and is critical of how it is being cut-back at the peril of failing to invest in human progress.

“Art education is not a luxury, it’s a necessity.”

Though its not all doom and gloom, he makes several resonate observations of why creativity is important in the development of a person's sense of self and potential to make positive change, in-fact the overriding feeling is one that this book is small and punchy enough to have an impact that could instigate long-lasting change, as long as the right people are (reading) listening. I hope so.