Sunday, 18 November 2018

Warning! May contain traces of elephant

A conceptually ambiguous blog post title, for a conceptually ambiguous art exhibition! 

In writing about Hestercombe’s latest exhibition, Materiality:Provisional States I felt it would be legitimately wrong to document my thoughts without first addressing the all-important, but seldom overlooked, elephant in the room. That is, I was taught by one of the artists in this exhibition, Sarah Bennett, during my Masters in Fine Art with Plymouth University and have had the pleasure of knowing, another artist in the show, Megan Calver. There is an element of bias, that whilst one would try analyse the work objectively, I cannot to some extent ignore that my opinions are influenced by those relationships. It is a scenario that I had never previously given much heed to in any of my writing, how the possible impact of knowing or not knowing the artist has on my personal interpretation of their work. Where does the writer's responsibility lie, to the integrity of themselves, the artists whose work they write about or that of the reader who possibly deserves the most honest opinion. I think part of the problem is there aren't enough people writing about these sorts of exhibitions so that readers have much choice!

This also relates to a book I have been recently reading, “What it Means to Write About Art” that documents a series of interviews with art writers/critics on the practice of art writing/art criticism. It has been fascinating to learn of different writers’ thoughts on how they address this same scenario,

“It’s hard. When I write about somebody I don’t know. I almost try to imagine them. And when I write about somebody I do know, I try to forget them…When I started out, I didn’t know if nay of it mattered – I couldn’t imagine that I actually had an audience -so felt completely free to say whatever I wanted. When you first start writing, you don’t know if people are reading, and you don’t know if anybody is going to care. And then, after a while, you realise people do care…Basically, I’ve always felt my job as a critic is to try and be me and figure out who I am…It’s those basic, immediate reactions that fuel your thinking and your writing…There’s a danger of over complicating things.” -Jed Pearl in an interview with Jarrett Earnest “What it means to Write About Art”

Philippa Lawrence - Trace (2018)
I have tried to keep some of those sentiments in mind when writing this. It gets even worse if one considers that I was also taught by the curator and know some of the technicians that also helped install the show, but that’s Somerset for you! There is, however, an artist I definitely do not know in the exhibition, Philippa Lawrence and it is her work with which we are first greeted at the top of the stairs in the form of an uprooted tree stump. The top of the stump, where it was sliced, has been polished to an irresistibly tempting-to touch by hand, high-sheen. The contrast between the roughness and brutal-act of sawing presented against the considered care with which the act of polishing wood has associated with craft or objects intended for consideration/keeping. An idea Lawrence continues in a similar piece in the form of a log pile, titled ‘Shift’ also exhibited. Initially we see a pile of logs associated with the practical connotations of being a resource for fuel and on closer inspection their polished spec, where each log has been cut makes them objects of consideration or an implied sense of preciousness. Lawrence has worked alongside the woodland management team, as have each of the artists in this exhibition, engaging with the site of Hestercombe House/Gardens, its history and the different skilled people who manage it today. In ‘Trace’ brightly coloured enamel profiles off the tops of tree stumps from around Hestercombe are displayed together on the (appropriately wooden) floor of one of the gallery spaces. It is visually quite minimal and could not be more clinically detached in its man-made fabrication from the original tree from which it was formed (a statement in itself). Each stump becoming an island or fingerprint-like replica of the original tree and the trace of the action which led to its current form.

Sarah Bennett - Cultivatar (2018) 35mm slides of 21 silverpoint drawings, slide viewers
Another artist who likes capturing traces of human encounters and actions within her work is Sarah Bennett, who for Hestercombe has created a series of responses, the majority of which are linked in using the material of silver. Multiple reflection points inspired by Bampfylde’s pear pond are drawn with photography and silver nitrate, in ‘Cultivatar’ (2018) silverpoint is used to recreate meticulous drawings of seeds presented in viewfinders strategically placed to great effect in the windows overlooking the gardens themselves (so that seed and plant can be seen simultaneously) and again in embellishing a row of handheld garden tools.  Now partially rendered in silver the tools are in affect useless for their original purpose but take on a preserved sense of status that the quality of silver brings elevating the tools from their more humble connotations in being originally used for the maintenance of the estate. The cheeky part of me cannot omit that I take some small nugget of narcissistic delight in that my own tool-related work may have had some influence on the use of tools here?! Whilst I have long accepted that I clearly cannot monopolise the use of tools in anyone’s art, I equally in this instance cannot deny myself a wry smile of amusement. If Hestercombe ever wants a more expressive response to gardening tools then you know where to find me! 

Sarah Bennett -Siolfur (2018) Silver plating on found tools
Continuing with ideas she first started exploring in 2015’s exhibition, ‘Second Site’ Megan Calver works with notions of taste in particular to, one of Hestercombe’s founding gardeners, Gertrude Jekyll’s ‘exacting attitude towards colour and language’ presented through scans of scorched blooms (flowers grown at Hestercombe, picked and pressed by an image-scanner) viewed on tables from above like botanical specimens. The invigilators of the exhibition having the licence to routinely edit which ones are seen and not but covering them, their own ‘tastes’ becoming a part of the work. The use of language and description of colour, in particular to fire/flame links well to a previous work by Calver about Salvia seeds described on their packaging as ‘Blaze of Fire’ (and incidentally loathed by Jekyll if we are to relate it back to ideas of ‘taste’). Calver’s other interventions such as additions to the light-box signage in the house's former fire brigade control-room and coals in the fireplaces in each of the galleries are subtle enough to go unnoticed by many but are quiet statements in keeping with ideas around fire and the context that Hestercombe House was formally the call-centre to the fire brigade. It is rewarding when one spots them and for want of a better phrase, ‘gets it’ but I am unsure how hard many visitors may be willing to work to reach that point.

For me it really highlights my reservation with the exhibition as a whole, that it feels a bit too cerebral. When one compares it to what one reads about each artist having individually undergone very investigative inquiries in talking to people, looking through archives and working on site around Hestercombe; a process which I imagine as being very 'warm', human, interactive and enriching  to then each produce work which is largely quite detached from the reality of those experiences/engagement and make work that is by comparison cold and sterile to the point of being so considered and laboured in its though processes that something of those original encounters with which we as the audience can identify with is lost. In example, I do not personally get a sense of the encounter of reflections on a pond in Bennett's 'Pear Pond 1' from what appears to be an overly process-engineered oval photograph, for me it does not offer anything different that I would not better obtain from looking at the real thing or offer a different insight that photography can allow. There is a point to be made here perhaps about how close or far does an artist’s relation to their original subject/source matter in how the work is received and understood by their audience? I expect it is subjective. For the purposes of this exhibition however, I would have liked to have seen some more emotive/expressive responses to counterbalance the largely conceptual nature of the show. I am often concerned that as artists we tend to over-think or complicate things, so ideas become so refined and detached from where they originally started that we loose the sense of what it actually is to be a embodied, thinking, feeling human responding to a subject and have yet to see an exhibition by a contemporary artist at Hestercombe that really celebrates that. Addressing the elephant in the room, what it says on the tin -in my opinion stating the obvious isn't always a bad thing.

‘Materiality: provisional states’ is on until 24th February 2019

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