WHERE ARE WE NOW? Uwe Henneken: The Teachings of the Transhistorical Flamingo

At Pippy Houldsworth, Heddon Street, London.

(From 8 September to 21 October 2017)

All images, ‘Courtesy the artist and Pippy Houldsworth Gallery’.

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Uwe Henneken at Pippy Houldsworth – Installation shot.

The last time an extraterrestrial was spotted in Heddon Street, Ziggy Stardust had arrived from Mars. It was 1972 and the hippy-trippy ‘60s were well gone. But, where the imagination was required, Sci-Fi (even when glammed up for rock ‘n’ roll) was still creating a futuristic mythology for audiences and the promises of other lands were appealing, if only someone might lead us there. Escapism, perhaps, but visual artists and writers (poets and story tellers especially) have always enlisted and augmented their imaginations to extend the boundaries of the sensible and balanced mind-set. Historically, this is the role of the Shaman in a multitude of guises and cultures and the notion of a purely rational consciousness is surely too much of a limitation to account for the scope of the mind.

Enter: Uwe Henneken. In reviews from previous shows, and from the press release for this exhibition at Pippy Houldsworth, much has been said of the shamanistic nature of Henneken’s fictive world of diverse characters and settings. His first solo show in London presents eight canvases, all completed this year. Entitled, The Teachings of the Transhistorical Flamingo, the exhibition showcases deceptively challenging imagery for his expanding audience. The work offers fascinating portals into a strangely familiar world – but where the inhabitants are out of the ordinary. Henneken’s troupe of exotic, cartoon-like or flamboyant beings, some glowing with inner energies, seems to either beckon the viewer, or a second character in the painting. The relationship of the viewer to the imagery is either one of invitation to imagine, perhaps in a dream-like state; or to encourage and provoke a more probing desire to make sense of the evidence presented.

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Uwe Henneken – ‘A Lesson in Polarity’ (2017)

Displayed slightly away from the central space of the gallery, but seen first on entering the exhibition, is ‘A History Lesson in Polarity’. This is the only landscape format canvas in the show and Henneken’s influences may have been affected by Paul Gauguin’s paintings, such is the sense of synthétisme in the implied narrative and settings. For example, at least three characters are subsumed into this rocky landscape (others are suggested with some sketchy use of pencil and paintbrush) and the figures and the environment merge as one undifferentiated fiction. Looking for something to make sense of, the animal on the left suggests The Lion King atop a rocky prominence, but the translucently white, big-eared creature opposite stares as if mesmerised. Overlaying the horizon line that might depict a raised escarpment, the young girl who will reappear in other paintings floats above an orange shape that might depict a field or a drawing of a bison from an ancient cave painting at Altamira. I don’t really have a clue – because the clues don’t add up. The lesson is a process, not a definitive statement of facts. Dream on.

As in the paintings that follow, the more you look the weirder it gets as a sense of initial comprehension is undermined by the various characters and beings who occupy these external spaces. A glance at the works before investigating close up immediately reveals a variety of environments. The inhabitants give them a narrative function integrated with the figures – even though these meanings might be unfathomable or deliberately open to interpretation. The various backdrops might be recognisable from personal experience (holidays abroad perhaps) because the scenery is not so otherworldly: starry night skies, mountainous vistas, rocky desert outcrops, and woodland or forest environments are earthly delights. These places provide the kind of theatrical or cinematic settings that we find in classic fairy tale illustrations from the past and popular, animated, children’s films for a more screen-engaged audience today.

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Uwe Henneken – ‘Kin’ and ‘Transhistorical Waterfall’ (both 2017)

In ‘Kin’ and ‘Transhistorical Waterfall’, appropriately hung side-by-side, the two figures appearing in each could be located in far away locations that are new to the viewer. An implied exoticism, most especially in the latter composition, where the colour and visual style shifts between a post-impressionist, illustrative and cartoonesque style, is sensed in the (possibly) masked and wild-eyed creatures. These two wonderfully colourful, but unidentifiable figures, stand either side of a narrow V shape parting of trees. Just beyond is a waterfall and in the far distance a youngish human visage peers out from the cliff face – but it does not feel like a joke or play on words. The viewer is invited to approach, delving into the jungle simultaneously, into pictorial and imaginative space. What appears delightfully decorative, slowly takes on a nightmarish feel – it will freak you out.

In ‘Kin’ [2017] a pair of wide-eyed creatures, arranged (on first reading) in a Mother and Child pose from the Early Renaissance period, merge into the Spaghetti western landscape. Incongruously, mum wears a pair of spotted tights and a red-gloved hand reveals the child’s face to be a flower head, not a plump infant. Their facial features and body hair merge into cloud and frilly costume alike. As with ‘A History Lesson in Polarity’ discussed above, my visual and mental confusion seems to increase rather than clarify. Why are the characters exploding in bubbling, billowing colour? Am I hallucinating in the desert? Or is the implied viewer who must complete the story on LSD?

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Uwe Henneken – ‘The Art of Jumping Timelines’ (2017)

What might be a mediaeval castle in, ‘The Art of Jumping Timelines’ (the largest work here) also suggests the modern urban cityscape, where we could assume a band of party revellers are winding their inebriated way through the streets. But two foreground figures suggest another reading. A young male leads a taller figure away, out of the picture framed setting. Both wear strange headgear, suggestive of exotic animals and ancient cultures. Whatever the implied narrative, Henneken leaves it to the viewer to transcribe the imagery into some kind of understandable tale – albeit aided or mystified by the various titles.

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Uwe Henneken – ‘A Meeting at the Desert Shore’ (2017)

Some images look complete, whilst others appear to be still in progress – ‘A Meeting at the Desert Shore’ is a case in point. The two foregrounded figures are ’coloured in’, as is the sunset and reflective surface of the lake backdrop. In between, the sketchy landscape appears to be reserved for the forlorn but glowing figure that observes the rainbow-girl and the Moomin character that gaze at each other. This latter personage might look quaint and child friendly at first, but closer inspection reveals a penis-like red serpent with three testicles hanging between his legs. This contradictory figure also holds a three pronged spear, or trident, which points down to the ground. If it’s a weapon it comes across as symbolic and ceremonial rather than menacing and its colouration from the sunset or the rainbow figure further diminishes foul intent. Perhaps two worlds are depicted here: one of colour, the other drained of unnecessary flamboyance.

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Uwe Henneken – ‘A Call’ (2017)

Above a woodland scene in, ‘A Call’, flower-like stars appear amongst the woodland forms. They could be imagined as fruits from the trees or as stars beyond the earth. A sickly yellow mist cuts across the base of the huge blue trees. One tree has been felled, its purple roots transformed into claws that imply danger in this eerie setting. Placed on a pathway that leads into (rather than out of) this space for the imagination, stands the child from three other works on display, including ‘Space in Space’. As if against the light, in both of these particular paintings, she is almost featureless, flat and blue and has the same emanating glow that might be protective in some way. The stars revealed within her body shape in the latter painting are missing in ‘A Call’, but at the end of the curvaceous pathway is a golden light, which must be her destination. Whether she gets there or not might be up to the viewer to imagine.

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Uwe Henneken – ‘Space in Space’ (2017)

In ‘Space in Space’ this cut-out figure appears to float in outer space whilst looking towards an implied planet or cosmic portal. The globe-like form to the left of centre is created by the Ouroboros – a serpent that bites its own tail – that symbolises the cycle of life and death in many cultures. The blobs of white paint within the inner circumference of the sleeping snake, its one visible eye closed, creates a planetary form – or an implied multitude of planets – and the white moon-like shapes are repeated within the human figure. Around these forms some of the stars resonate like wild flowers, creating a sense of animation. In this painting the notion of being at one with the cosmos (we are stardust after all) is implied. Contradictorily, because the meaning of the painting (including the title) might be the most obvious in the exhibition it might be limited by this degree of clarity. Obscurity or an implied, but unexplained, exegesis suggests a broader potential of meaning so that it is not fixed and holds more potential for the imagination.

As a phenomenon, the subject matter of Henneken’s paintings will surely appeal to an audience already interested in the likes of Rui Matsunaga, Raqib Shaw, or Chris Gilvan-Cartwright. A surreal, illustrative, narrative-heavy trait that enlists rather than rejects the past in contemporary practice appears fecund, alive and well. So, given the burgeoning problems of the world, whoever and wherever we are, we all may wish to escape somewhere at times. The shamanic spirit in any art form may not provide clear answers – but questions might prove more useful given our individual natures. That we experience inner and outer worlds simultaneously, and that the imagination is universal and timeless, might go some way to grasping the many potential meanings of Henneken’s paintings.

A final thought – in more recent times, the artist formerly known as Ziggy Stardust, asked: “Where are we now?” How apt.

Geoff Hands (September, 2017)

Note: Henneken adds his imagery to the shamanistic tradition that Professor Michael Tucker has examined in ‘Dreaming With Open Eyes: The Shamanic Spirit in Twentieth Century Art and Culture’. Tucker investigates the visionary and super/mythic-consciousness of the Shaman in world cultures – and especially in relation to the modern artist. (The book is out of print, but is easily available on Amazon.)

A HISTORY LESSON? – Paulo Nimer Pjota in Hove

‘The History in Repeat Mode – Symbol’ at Morena Di Luna, Hove

Open Saturday and Sunday from 12pm to 6pm. Until 15 October 2017.

So, the word on the street was true: Maureen Paley really is in town – or ‘Hove actually’, as the locals like to say. The gallery, named Morena di Luna, is Wolfgang Tillmans’ nickname for Paley and the renowned East End gallerist has further established her presence in the city as Maureen Paley was previously involved in the HOUSE 2016 event when, in partnership with the University of Brighton, Gillian Wearing’s ‘A Room With Your Views’ was presented during the annual Brighton Festival.

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This inaugural exhibition at 3, Adelaide Crescent presents the Brazilian artist, Paulo Nimer Pjota, in a Regency town house that is situated in a prime location on the seafront. Pjota previously had a one-man show at Maureen Paley in Herald Street in Bethnal Green in 2016. The works displayed in Hove are similar to those displayed in London, and these additional works further establish Pjota’s reputation as fast developing name in contemporary practice – especially in the field of what is now labeled ‘expanded painting’ or ‘Post Medium practice’. The so-called expansion of course is into sculptural and installation-type manifestations of painting, where the space of the viewer is often encroached upon by physical elements in the artwork. The paint itself is not hierarchically superior to any other medium in use – and, likewise, the image becomes an object too.

In this exhibition the most immediately obvious intervention in the space is as much on the walls as on the parquet floors of the two main ground floor rooms. Pjota has used both acrylic and oil paint on canvas (another support is metal), which is conventional, but the paintings ‘hang’ unframed and feel like intrusions into a traditional domestic space that, historically, is designed to accommodate an oil or watercolour in a guilt frame.

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Paulo Nimer Pjota – ‘Garfield’ (2017)

Whilst still on the subject of the wall, a few of the cartoon-type images appear to have escaped from the paintings and appear in unlikely places. A teenager’s bedroom might be implied and the imagery could appeal mainly to a younger audience. For example, whether in the implied painting space, or let loose from the restrictions of the artwork, we see Garfield the cat; a grinning Halloween smiley face; a sad face; Pocahontas; and Skeletor from Masters of the Universe in various locations throughout the show. This creates a sense of a subliminal reference to a Gothic tendency in contemporary visual culture where the fictive but everyday becomes scary, even in the child-centred aesthetic of the cartoon (Garfield) or by twisting the sentimental or superficial lightness of the Smiley face, in what has become an emoji icon in an all pervading digital culture.

(Note – see Gilda Williams’ ‘The Gothic’ from the Whitechapel Gallery’s Documents of Contemporary Art series for a collection of writings examining this ‘Gothic’ phenomenon in art today.)

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Paulo Nimer Pjota – ‘Skeletor’ (2017)

Other imagery in Pjota’s work includes the representation of fruit that is commonly seen on walls, shop windows and, of course fresh fruit at the supermarket – whether in Brazil or other countries. This apparently innocent category of imagery in commercial visual culture – which takes on an indigenous identity – is juxtaposed with more traditional and non-European imagery too. For example, the Priestess Medusa from Greek mythology, shares the same space as modern, commercialised images of fruit in both ‘Black Paintings part 2’ and ‘Vacaciones in Europe’. This latter work, a diptych, has previously been exhibited with the two panels switched from left to right, casually subverting any fixed arrangement. The pink panel has a painterly area in the top left hand corner, but may be no more than an area used as a smeary palette. The over ripe bananas and a forlorn pineapple might reference traditional still life painting – but look quite unappetising. They are merely display objects, unfit for human consumption.

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Paulo Nimer Pjota – ‘Vacaciones in Europe’ (2017)

In ‘3 reis magos part 2’ what look like three pre-Columbian mask images are presented, one in the centre of each of the metal sections of the triptych. The historical reference here might be to the Fortress of the Three Wise Men near Natal in Brazil but circular, geometric, contemporary glyph-type symbols bring the imagery into the present day, as if someone from the invisible hoard of street ‘artists’ have intervened in the gallery setting as a change from the high street. Eight melon or nut-like forms are casually arranged on the floor – they seem petrified like fossilized vegetation.

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Paulo Nimer Pjota – ‘3 reis magos part 2’ (2017)

The largest work in the show, ‘Black Paintings part 2’ appears to represent an aerial view of a four sided pyramid, with three heads from a mixture of world cultures. The five labels at the bottom seem to be passing through, as is indicated by a sixth symbol that is applied to the wall outside of any notion of the picture-plane. In front, and on the floor, are five resin cast basketballs. The colour gives them a melon-like appearance but the Nike sportswear symbol reduces the name of the Greek goddess of Victory to a graphical ‘tick’. It is not only the post-modern artist who appropriates – the mythological past is available for exploitation by big business too.

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Paulo Nimer Pjota – ‘Black Paintings part 2’ (2017)

In ‘The History of Colonialism’ several versions of Smiley faces are torn or turned upside down to invert the smile. Is this a visual joke or a sad reflection of notions of freedom or happiness? I guess it’s up to the viewer to decide. The four large water jugs, one on its side, another with a missing handle, seem to allude to something lost – but not in a nostalgic sense as the forms look infinitely reproducible. Pjota’s graffiti-artist past is referenced by a handwritten comment – “THIS GUYS TURNED MY CONTINENT IN BAD VIBES BABE” – which was written by a visitor to his studio in São Paulo. Pjota is as seriously irreverent about his own imagery as any other, offering another element of irony as he is clearly committed to his practice and his modus operandi as an urban artist.

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Paulo Nimer Pjota – ‘The History of Colonialism’ (2017)

Are such facile, commercial interventions giving the finger to high-culture? The purposely-ironic contradiction here is that the contemporary art gallery is the epitome of such elevated status. Pjota’s engagement with the viewer seems to be one of presenting visual information from a world in which hierarchies have broken down and ‘history’ and ‘culture’ (high or low and interchangeable) are available as ‘product’, as much as a lesson to be learned. Images and objects from any era are indigenous artifacts of sorts. The ethnographic visual representations and symbols of modern cultures are as loaded as those from way back in history. In repeat mode? Maybe, time will tell.

 

All artwork images: ©Paulo Nimer Pjota courtesy Maureen Paley, London & Morena di Luna, Hove

A STUDIO VISIT: LOUISE McCLARY

DOING A GOOD THING IN ONE PLACE

Louise McClary is a native of Cornwall and is well known for producing evocative landscape paintings with an emphasis on colour, linear rhythm and an effective use of chiaroscuro. Her work is informed, geographically, by the Lizard Peninsula and from her own expansive garden developed with her partner, Matt Robinson. With a Quaker background and an interest in Buddhism her practice is more broadly, and politically, affected by vital ecological concerns.

McClary’s paintings are held in many private collections in the UK and USA, and several galleries represent her, including Artwavewest in Dorset. I travelled to Cornwall in the summer of 2016 to see the latest developments in her painting. On this occasion, I was left alone in the Caervallack studio at her home in St Martins, near Helston. In retrospect, this was a mini-writing residency, lasting just two hours or so. The subsequent realisation, and gestation, of this text took a further nine months to complete.

‘Doing A Good Thing In One Place’ not only constitutes an experiment in a form of reviewing a body of work, but also attempts to connect with the spirit of McClary’s painting that accompanies the visual into the metaphysical. Like the works in the artist’s studio, a text can be speculative, where language trips and meanders: extracting questions rather than answers. And, unlike a more ‘journalistic’ review that is written with some urgency to meet a deadline, the prose poem, with many possibilities for form and content, demands time to dig deeper into the relationship between the visual and the written form.

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DOING A GOOD THING IN ONE PLACE

(Louise McClary’s painting studio, Summer 2016)

 

In the silent studio

From the comfort of the sofa

Ambient sounds add a contingent counterpoint

To the visual contemplation

 

An invisible fly

Buzzing

Then birdsong from outside

One thing

 

After another

Then all is fused

Searching for a narrative

Interpretations of an imagined Eden emerge

 

Ominously, as questions are raised

The various hortus conclusus

Offer small vistas that perplex

And the canvases become portals

 

To lush gardens and intimate landscapes

Places of the cycle of life, death and re-birth

An immersive experience manifests strangeness and mystery

Germinating the numinous space of the imagination

 

All is energy where, incessantly,

The growth machine hums quietly and

Fixed liquid colours flow and dissolve into painterly mists

Suggesting forms, solid or ethereal

 

Echoing the Caervallack garden we walked in this morning.

The paintings reveal a spirit of place

Where seeds are sown

In the wind and the rain

 

In the light and dark hours

Forming a slow burn,

That engages with tacit, sympathetic looking

Igniting an increasingly restless gaze

 

Revealing the phenomenal

As event and material form.

 

*

After the downpour

The quietest place

Is now bursting from within

Evolving into a critical mass

 

The inner sanctum of the studio

Takes on an ever increasing sense of disquiet

Where the paintings toil against idealised notions

Of the picturesque landscape

 

Composing chaotic meanderings

Weaving disorderly diagonals

To celebrate impermanence

And new patterns in nature

 

In rhythms of visual energies

Variegated carpets of colour

Form a series of undulating nets

And structure can appear definitive

 

But with capricious qualities

A sense of change persists

Yet symmetry prevails, and

Balances are built

 

On quirkiness and uneven growth

Presenting an entangled domain

A liminal threshold

To be realised and entered by the observer

 

In patches of colour

Extracted from keen or dreamy observation

Intimate recollection or intuition

As spaces and forms are constructed

 

Guiding the eye purposefully

As the best paintings do

Forming a nucleus –

A Cubist-like configuration of pictorial space

 

The images are provocative

Allowing the indicative flatness

Of a particular kind of visualisation

To reject logical, selfish perspective

 

Wherein the viewer is never exhausted by variety

As the scenarios oblige active participation

To see through the dark glass

That clouds perception.

 

*

An alchemical process

Combines time

With visual experience,

Creating new territory

 

On the largest canvas

A crimson river, winding

Travelling across the multi-faceted surface

Via the twist and turn of a round headed brush

 

Ending in a single leaf-like form

And adjacent,

A scumbled light green

Suggests a leafy branch

 

A linear limpid overhang

Gesturally applied, reaching

Forward into space

Towards the viewer

 

Alternatively, a wall, a rock, or a tree form

Holds the two-dimensional plane and

Impedes the eye by occlusions

To send the looking on alternative routes

 

Backwards then forwards

Pushing and pulling an elasticised space

Where new thresholds open out, extending dimensions

Then to enfold, pinpoint, into small voids

 

The enclosing backgrounds

Which turn into foregrounds

In grey, gentle lime-green, or raw umber

Surfaces over-layered

 

By snail-slime white weaves

Forming entangled pathways

Mapping journeys

Towards a terrain without borders

 

Although this initial confusion requires time to digest

It is meditatively resolved

Prompting a still gaze

That gives way to accumulative scanning

 

Taking in detail, colours, shapes, textures

Then simultaneously, all variety is resolved

By the orchestration of content

To produce harmony and wholeness

 

Making relationships of contrasting colour fields

Skeins and linear strands

The mind’s eye feeds eagerly

As new configurations are constructed

 

And surprisingly

This conjured revelation

Comforts a poignant moment

Of potential loss and devastation.

 

*

On the studio sofa

A book has been discarded:

 

A page is randomly, or fatefully, opened

Skimming the lines a comment is noticed where the author has written:

“…doing a good thing in one place”

To fortuitously acknowledge the purpose of McClary’s labour

 

Where suspended and reconsidered decisions

Loosen into gestural outcomes

Offering a lingering sense of things falling

Apart, fractured

 

And where final images may not consciously conspire

To state anything profound

A metaphor of The Fall is coaxed from the imagery

Pricking the conscience, so subtly

 

A cryptic pathology bears itself

Of protest in the face of

Induced pandemonium

Divined in this localised subject matter

 

But the wild places are fighting back

By way of persistence

Becoming abstract, deregulated, burgeoning forms

In an enhanced cartographic language.

 

*

A warning is embodied

By skilful applications on the canvas surfaces

In a budding galaxy of small

But insistent, landscapes

 

These incomplete paintings reveal evidence

Of momentary skirmishes

Apparent dead ends

And chaotic entanglement

 

But, actively and obstinately

The paintings astound and seduce

With an indulgent palette

And chiaroscuro indulgence

 

From atmospheric islands of colour

Scumbled into deep shade pools

Leading to luminous passages of light

Making the compositions

 

Immediate and inevitable.

The imagery become fixed

Sieved through a relentless process

Realised in painterly configurations

 

That declares an ecstatic dance:

Seeing the moves, in silent rapture.

 

004 - LMc sofa

 

Note:

The book on the sofa – ‘Buddha Mind, Buddha Body’, by Thich Nhat Hanh. (Parallax Press, 2007)

PETER DREHER: Ce n’est pas un verre!

Day by Day Good Day

Peter Dreher at The Mayor Gallery, Cork Street, London

7 April – 2 June 2017

Dreher - Instalation at W

 

“What is abstraction? What is its purpose? Why does it not incorporate recognizable imagery? For two reasons. One is so it is neutral in its way. So it can be read equally… The second and even, especially now, more important is that it is a structure, a language that can be read out of context.” (Sean Scully, 2012)

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Peter Dreher – ‘Tag Um Tag Guter Tag’ Nr.1334 (Day), 1997

En route to attending a reading of extracts from ‘Inner: The Collected Writings and Selected Interviews of Sean Scully’ at Waterstones in Piccadilly, I had time to visit the Peter Dreher exhibition that was opening later that evening at The Mayor Gallery in Cork Street. I previously only knew of Dreher’s work from acquiring a copy of, ‘Peter Dreher – Just Painting’, (published by MK Gallery with Occasional Papers, 2014). Even in reproduction, Dreher’s studies of an empty but heavy, leaden-looking drinking glass placed on a flat surface have an engaging attraction for their apparent simplicity and matter-of-factness. In this instance, the reproductions are small and the paper glossy – which suits the reflective qualities of the glass receptacle depicted. But of course the ‘real thing’ is always different – for paint cannot (yet) be reproduced as facsimile. In the flesh, the carefully applied oil paint is not only textured by the brush and skilfully nuanced; it is also perceptively manipulated by the human hand and coordinated by the eye and the mind.

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Peter Dreher – ‘Tag Um Tag Guter Tag’ Nr.2642 (Night), 2011

At The Mayor Gallery, a small selection of Dreher’s 5000+ studies of the same drinking glass, typically painted in two sessions per day (since 1974), is presented on three walls. The sequence of 58 linen canvases are only interrupted by one barely noticeable corner break in the interior architecture, and the installation creates an integrated hang in a gallery space that is neither too large nor too small. The square format seating in the centre of the floor allows for contemplation of one wall at a time; but a slow, stop-start, walk along each horizontal expanse is ideal before the guests arrive for the Private View.

Initially, the observer might play at ‘spot-the difference’, but each painting is clearly unique. The sequencing is one of pairs; from the am/pm sessions that Dreher structures his typical painting day, providing a binary structure or mirroring of sorts; but in this arrangement you can look to left or right to make comparisons. At a stretch, you can compare any of the paintings, but each one pulls the viewer in to its own self-contained arena. A notion of non-identical twins, or an extended family portrait comes to mind, where the same faces will differ, despite a shared DNA. Or perhaps each image, an almost head sized 10X8 inches (25X20cm), is a self-portrait? But the inverted reflections in the glass do not reveal the artist’s face, although the evidence of his attentive gaze is clearly and astutely visible.

Each canvas could be considered a document of a visual manifestation of time, witnessing the lights and darks of both opaque and reflected surfaces in and around the glass, tabletop and backdrop wall. The surrounding but anonymous studio room, plus the external window view of a building, clouds and sky, adds a context or theme of the ‘inner’ and the ‘outer’ volumes of space that sends the eye in macro or microscopic directions.

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Peter Dreher – ‘Tag Um Tag Guter Tag’ Nr.1229 (Day), 1996

This is not photo-realist imagery (a painting made from a photographic print would look utterly different), but the pictures that appear to represent so many mundane moments have a snapshot quality. Thousands of observations within one sitting of several hours is not so much condensed, but expanded into the momentous grasp of a Cartesian endeavour to make an observed judgement reveal the complexity of the visual world. That Dreher admires Giorgio Morandi and Robert Ryman – and the serialist music of Philip Glass – is unsurprising. By comparison, Scully’s paintings might be too loud and vigorously constructed in comparison – though their works are similarly produced with reference to an inherently architectonic structure and the visual necessity of each unique image to travel beyond the literal.

In considering Morandi, Scully has written: “To see and to work. To paint in a way that was always virtually the same. Thus simultaneously to liberate the painting style which represented the subject without prejudice, as I would call it, and to read that subject as space, light, color and form.” (Sean Scully, 2005)

The same could be said of Dreher’s, ‘Every Day Is A Good Day’ paintings.

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Peter Dreher – ‘Tag Um Tag Guter Tag’ Nr.1491 (Night), 1996

Though I have co-incidentally brought Scully into a consideration of Dreher’s realist paintings, their respective achievements as painters may represent two sides of the same coin: where true value lies in a total commitment to painting – as substance and image. Both artists make paintings work making – and worth seeing. Therefore any argument about categorisation is superficial – or limiting.

Delving back into the ‘Just Painting’ publication, from his 80th birthday interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist in 2012, Dreher referenced abstraction in painting: “If someone finds the painting of the glass abstract, I don’t mind, for the painter simply sets down islands of colour next to each other, intent on reconciling the islands or letting them contrast with each other. He doesn’t think about producing the illusion of a glass, and is astonished when at the end, the illusion of a glass is there on the painting. Thus, an abstract painting has come into being, in which one can also see as glass… Paintings are – and always have been – abstractions, colour surfaces on surfaces.”

Aficionados of abstract painting should not miss this show.

Scully - Inner cover.jpegJust Ptg cover

 

HOW MANY ABSTRACT PAINTINGS DO WE NEED TO SEE IN THE WORLD, REALLY?

TESTING 1,2,1,2 UNIT 3 – A.S.C. Studios

(25 March – 2 April, 2017)

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The argument over Abstraction in art (especially painting) still drags on. In Elephant magazine, issue 29 (Winter 2016/17), the prestigious American painter Kerry James Marshall makes some interesting, if debateable, comments on “Abstract picture making” as little more than an “academic mode”. He claims that “The fundamental principle of art making is representation… There are quite enough problems to solve to keep you going for sometime. If you never succeed there, and you go to abstraction because it seems easier, you miss the philosophical and aesthetic questions involved. Besides, how many more abstract pictures do we need to see in the world, really?”

Though tempting, it would be too easy, and crass, to say that there are also too many figurative paintings in the world. There are probably far too many bad paintings of any classification. But there can never be enough good ones – which is partly what drives an artist on, if that’s not too romantic a notion.

A strangely contrasting point-of-view was made more recently on the (highly recommended) Two Coats of Paint blog. Sharon Butler, reviewing ‘A New subjectivity: Figurative Painting after 2000’ at the Pratt Manhattan Gallery, makes the fascinating observation that, “In adopting imagery without direct reference to the objects that underlie them, the artists seem to be noting – indeed, demonstrating – the disconnected manner in which life is now lived. Fragmentation and detachment – a kind of existential abstraction – are the norm.”

Whether appropriated by some contemporary figurative painters or aligned with some sort of new figuration, where the painters “find everything to be a matter of images” (to quote Barry Schwabsky from the online catalogue for ‘A New Subjectivity’), Abstraction clearly and demonstratively engages with the problems of painting (and collage and sculpture) despite the surprising conservatism of Kerry James Marshall. Indeed, Schwabsky’s comment hits the proverbial nail on the head – for the result of Abstraction is always the image (2D or 3D) – which is, surely, the ‘thing’ we engage with in the gallery?

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Stephen Lewis – ‘Confluence’ (2017)

Take the current, but brief, show in Unit 3’s gallery space. Conceived of by John Bunker, Testing 1,2,1,2 gives a little taster of the current scene in Abstraction as a snapshot experience for the viewer. The comfortable 3:2 dimensions of the gallery (about 14X22 feet) introduced an appropriate containment for the display. If there was a temptation to show more, or larger, examples the impulse was well controlled as the exhibitors had approximately adhered to similarly sized works.

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Matt Hale – ‘Oilscape’

Bunker’s personal, professional and critical enthusiasm for Abstraction (and a genuine, open-minded, belief in the value of complementary and contrasting relationships in the abstract community) is speculatively explored. In curatorial mode, John Bunker invited six artists to invite a peer to forward a piece for the show. Hence, fourteen works are on display. No doubt, had the show been more conventionally engineered there might have been a tighter mix of materially similar works – confined to collage and painting perhaps. But the open-minded mixed-media characteristic of the selection as a whole pushed boundaries to include Matt Hale’s , ‘Oilscape’ (oil on gesso on board with plastic tube, engine oil/grease and rubber stops) and Nick Cash’s, ‘Drumming Part IV. 9 mins 47 secs 2″ @15ips’, which was covered by sellotape.

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Nick Cash – ‘Drumming Part IV…’ and Charley Peters – ‘Hard Edge/Soft Focus’

Intriguingly, the lone sculpture (Stephen Lewis’, ‘Confluence’) and the framed collagraph (Georgina King’s, ‘Threshold’) sit comfortably amongst the other twelve works. In fact the presence of a sculpture opened an imaginative door for future combinations of a constructivist and additive type of forming of image and/or object that would sit easily with painting and collage.

This sense of a building and overlaying process was conveyed in particular by two collages which happened to be placed opposite one another: namely Matt Dennis’, ‘Easy, Tiger’, which offered a more geometric counterpart to Bunker’s organic and busy, “Umwelt’.

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Matt Dennis – ‘Easy, Tiger’ (2017)
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John Bunker – ‘Umwelt’ (2017)

As he has been so pro-active, it is appropriate to say a little more about John Bunker’s contribution. There is an inherent passion and (positive) bloody-mindedness in Bunker’s wall-mounted collages that has benefitted from escaping the confines of the frame. This lends his work a sculptural/objectified sense of colour and shape as materialised imagery. His work presents, and holds, a chaotic frisson that is somehow controlled by the careful placement and juxtaposition of disparate elements of colour, shape and the revived materiality of potentially discardable ingredients. In ‘Umwelt’, a mixed media, shaped collage, a frame would be superfluous as the various sections visually hold together, whilst allowing the immediate environment of the gallery space to notionally ‘frame’ the work – if you should need it.

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EC – ‘Brouhaha’ (2017)

Also presenting a considered collision of fragments was ‘Brouhaha’ by EC (as she likes to be known professionally). Despite being the smallest piece in the show, this rectangular amalgamation of oil paint, acrylic paint, household paint, varnish and mixed media collage on canvas (then mounted on board) had that rare feeling of monumentality. ‘Brouhaha’ suggesting a maximalist indebtedness to the likes of Robert Motherwell: proving the point that bigger does not always mean better. As with Lewis’ sculpture, one wanted to see more from the enigmatic EC – and a combined show by these two artists would be fascinating to devise.

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Stephen Buckeridge – ‘We have expanded our space and intensified our time!’ (2017)

As already mentioned, half of the exhibitors had chosen a guest collaborator, but the works had not been programmatically paired up side-by-side, or opposite, one another on the four walls. There were however inevitable pairings to be made. Amongst the paintings there was a reflection of sorts between some images: for example, in Stephen Buckeridge’s, ‘We have expanded our space and intensified our time!’ and Karl Bielik’s ‘Target’, an affinity for a dissolving geometry and a shallow watery space, with some strong red visual punctuations in each, provided a kind of visual anchor (one of John Constable’s tricks of the trade) for entering each mini-environment.

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Karl Bielik – ‘Target’ (2017)

Another correspondence, of painterly contrasts in this case, between Lisa Denyer’s, architectonic, ‘Sands’, and Tony Smith’s more organic, ‘Magnitude’, was proposed. Where the pixelated but dissolving grid surface and multicoloured cross in the former could have somehow fragmented and morphed into the looser rivulets of curved meandering lines in the latter: the qualities of one emphasising the features of the other as a binary contrast of sorts.

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Lisa Denyer – “Sands’ (2017)
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Tony Smith – “Magnitude’ (2017)

Where a characteristic, (and maybe temperamental?), visual language appeared autobiographical, though unconnected, there was a ‘mapping’ or terrain-like association between Emyr Williams’, ‘RATS’ and Simon Pike’s, ‘Untitled’. Williams’ canvas had that colourful, painterly exuberance (with some texture paste added) which is a well-established feature of his work – whereas Pike’s immaculately controlled painting skills referenced a surface grid or net, overlayered by ordnance-survey type contour lines. One painting may have been waving, or undulating, to the other.

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Emir Williams – RATS’ (207)

Of course, there is no preordained or planned correspondence between any of these superficial pairings that I am making, but the conversations (of a sort) were made in a social context by the almost arbitrary coming together of a loose affiliation of like-minded people and their artworks. Old friends making new friends, as it were.

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Simon Pike – Untitled’ (2017)

Ideally, some future version of Testing 1,2,1,2 should be seen in a more prestigious space – although the gallery amongst studios provides a rare treat. John Bunker’s conception for a communal form of presentation and collaboration has created a prototype for a larger show, which expands on several previous exhibitions, revealing the broad and multifaceted range of Abstract art. Examples would include ‘Slow Burn’ (from way back in 1998 at The Mead Gallery in Warwick – featuring Mali Morris who attended the opening of Testing); ‘The Indiscipline of Painting”, curated by Daniel Sturgis in 2012; ‘Ha Ha What Does This Represent?’ (curated by Katrina Blannin and Francesca Simon in 2012); and ‘From Centre’ (2015), a Slate & Saturation Point Project which included Charley Peters who showed ‘Hard Edge/Soft Focus’ in this show.

Good abstract art is far from easy to achieve – and this exhibition presents various deliberations, findings and conclusions that should be seen by a larger audience.

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Charley Peters – ‘Hard Edge/Soft Focus’ (2017)

Note – Copyright of artwork is with the artists listed.

A QUICK ONE?

Catherine Lee: Ties That Blind

Onca Gallery, Brighton. (17-19 March 2017)

Phrases can be politically powerful and loaded – or just provide an effective shorthand of sorts in our daily lives. Trawling the media might provide a Phd student with pointers to the troubled collective unconscious in the current social climate – aided and abetted by consumer targeted song titles, advertising slogans, newspaper headlines and party political rhetoric (you know, all that Post-Truth truth). Good writers, and speechwriters especially, should avoid clichés of course – unless irony is intended. The double entendre (a British specialty) generally provides both mirth and sexual undertones: innocence is interchangeable with guilt; light becomes dark.

The titles of Cath Lee’s paintings exhibited in Ties That Blind at ONCA – “for one weekend only!” it has to be said, are loaded (or should I say, impregnated?) with various possibilities. Take the title of the show, (courtesy of listening to The Boss’ Ties That Bind) and look at some of the teasingly overt sexual imagery on display, and notions of forced role-play come to mind rather than positive familial and community ties that the Springsteen song eulogises. The culturally induced expectations, particularly of women, that render them as eye-candy for the male-gaze, provides an appropriate subject matter for a young female artist with an active feminist agenda to explore: but begs the question as to why audiences might need reminding of the pressures of appearance and behaviour that remain both insidiously and blatantly prevalent.

Notwithstanding the third-wave (post?) feminist view that might claim empowerment through the twerking exploits of Miley Cyrus or Nicki Minaj – who provide entertainment for men and women alike – there’s still an argument that contorting the image of the body (physically and visually) remains an exploitative and degrading expectation that society generally purports to challenge. Part of Cath Lee’s mission is to present such disquiet through her painting practice – particularly in the largest painting in the show, ‘Religion and Righteousness’ (a triptych) – and even more so in ‘Equality in the Workplace’, which is painfully difficult to look at if such a pose were imagined. Linked to human rights and enlightened by some common understanding of a fair society, the expression of ‘equality in the workplace’ is in danger of becoming a truism if it remains no more than a well meaning, but dull statement, and actions fail to speak louder than words. This graphic image is shocking for the right reasons.

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Catherine Lee – Installation shot with ‘Equality In The Workplace’ (left).

‘A Woman’s Worth’ (Alicia Keys?); ‘Fight or Flight’; ‘Theft’ and ‘Whoopsie!’ are some of the other titles of the paintings in this early career show. Some of the imagery appears to have been appropriated from pornographic sources, but a wider net is cast by depicting unnervingly, child centred, imagery from the cartoon characters that incongruously appear in some of the paintings, to provide disturbing juxtapositions. For example, ‘Sweetie Pie’, depicts two Tweety Pie portraits, with their yellow bulbous heads illuminating a pink-bikini clad, buxom blonde, staring creepingly at her body. Perhaps it is the rendering in spray paint that lends a wide-eyed wickedness to their presence? Likewise, ‘Just Keep Praying’ includes a drooling Winnie The Pooh with three sad, grey figures holding empty vessels before them.

Also undermining an innocent reading of the infant(ile) imagery are a kissing pair of Smurfs, appearing in ‘True Blue Love’, presented against a painterly abstract-like background, displayed with half a dozen other canvases in the basement section of the show.

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Catherine Lee – ‘Just Keep Praying’

What the twenty paintings (there are also two drawings on display) also have in common – in addition to the figurative subject matter – is a predilection for the painterly brush marks and vivid colours of gestural abstraction. Here the influence of the work of Marlene Dumas, Cecily Brown and Willem De Kooning is clear. The use of the ubiquitous spray paint (Brighton is awash with self-centred name-tags and crudely rendered cartoon imagery to affront or please the eye) also intervenes in Lee’s developing style and working process and lends a suggestion of ‘street art’ subversiveness into the mix.

The most overt ‘abstract’ painting in the show is ‘Tripping’, wherein the near luminous psychedelic colour scheme dominates what appear to be graffiti-type body parts and three crudely rendered human faces. The dripping paint emphasizes the wall of colour on a surface that eschews visual perspective in favour of the abstract expressionist’s insistence on non-illusionistic imagery. As the drips flow in virtually all directions and the aforementioned heads are shown the right-way-up, diagonally placed and upside down, the steady gaze of the onlooker is also challenged.

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Catherine Lee: ‘Tripping’

Undoubtedly there is still work to do, with various avenues to explore on the blending of the imagery; with important decisions to be made whether to pursue the contrasting abstraction with the figurative imagery, or to drop one or the other; or to advance a knowing undermining of the tropes of abstraction (for example: autographic gesture, mark-making, colour and shape; formatted in to controlled aesthetic judgments and/or intuitive decision-making). But, as the opening comments reveal, there is much to be read into subject matter that remains current and vital – and will sustain a promising career.

This is just a fleeting show (less than three full days) but the now you see it – now you don’t format fortuitously suggests a peep into Cath Lee’s practice and leaves the viewer hungry for more.

Geoff Hands, March 2017

OUT OF THIS WORLD: Rendlesham

KATE SHERMAN: Rendlesham – New Paintings

Onca Gallery, Brighton (5-13 November 2016)

Despite rumours of a UFO incident in 1980, from the evidence of Kate Sherman’s recent paintings, Rendlesham Forest in Suffolk retains a human characteristic: albeit deadpan, but with a fascinating personality that is revealed subtlety if you look long enough. Sherman has worked on this ‘portrait of a forest’ project for two years and the results are impressive.

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Kate Sherman – ‘Rendlesham 8’ (2016) 60X60cm

A quick scan of the display at the ONCA gallery, before a slower and more contemplative viewing, establishes the solemn, greenish-grey and essentially ordered nature of the modern forest site. Representative of this almost detached and nonchalant form of representation is, ‘Rendlesham 8’, which might remind us of John Constable’s, ‘Cenotaph to the Memory of Sir Joshua Reynolds’ (1833-6) or Paul Cézanne’s, ‘Avenue at Chantilly’ (1888), both of which can be seen in the National Gallery, London. In Sherman’s painting, a manmade pathway wide enough for a Forestry Commission tractor, leads the eye to a fuzzy portal, where space is occluded just before mid-distance. Initially, the subject seems obscure.

But if Constable was paying homage to the first President of the Royal Academy; whilst Cézanne explored the possibilities of rendering a subjective experience of landscape, objectively on to a flat surface; Sherman, it seems, contrasts an arguably outmoded Romantic subject matter with an instantaneous, and digital, sampling of the countryside that we might be passing rather than entering.

This dialectical proposition signifies the economically efficient arcadia that society strives for, whilst encoding environmental concerns that grate with a sense of foreboding and loss. Or, as a statement on Sherman’s website explains: “This photographic source is important because the paintings capture a reflective notion of memory, of the emotional distance between a real landscape and a photograph, between experience and longing.”

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Kate Sherman – ‘Rendlesham 7’ (2016) 100X100cm

The deliberate transcription from photographic sources is strongly maintained in this body of work, and emphasises a certain distance from a more personally adoring, singular and emotional interpretation of landscape. Presciently, in many of the images in the show, the original photographic source is cropped at the bottom edge, or the viewfinder is raised above the immediate foreground, to cut the base of the trees from the land. Also, referencing the photographic, or more pertinently today, the digital is significant to what we might accept as the interface with the way we record and view the ‘natural’ environment. On a day-trip to the countryside most of us will frame the view through our iPhone or some lesser equivalent – and this may be enough to satisfy the peculiar need to record places we may otherwise forget.

Kate Sherman, however, has taken the time to carefully select and render such views in paint, offering a far more reflective and substantial experience than the snapshot. In her paintings, the compositions, influenced via the framing devise (a Panasonic DMC-GF6 to be precise), are pervasively structured to repeat how the camera ‘sees’. The subject matter, a seemingly regimented typology of ‘nature’, consisting mostly of trees, appears to offer a dispassionate view. But this would be a misinterpretation.

The considered viewing of these paintings, extending the gallery glance even just for a few minutes for each one, facilitated an interpretation of Sherman’s project that revealed a genuinely engaged analysis of picturing. Posing questions of the relationship, emotional or otherwise, between the viewer and a view of woodland (a deliberately manufactured forest of pines), and about the propensity of the medium of paint to engage the eye that the pixel cannot, is achieved with skillful, controlled, restrained application of oil on panels. Whilst photographs are instantaneously created, these paintings slow and extend the quickly fixed moment, due to a studio practice that is concentrated, disciplined and patient.

In the majority of these images there is also a sense of a comfortable, viewer’s distance. As we might observe a painting in an art gallery, the convention is to stand back from the ‘real’ subject that is ‘viewed’ in nature. And, just as we may not touch a painting, the forest is an alien place we may not venture in to, except in our imaginations.

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Kate Sherman – ‘Untitled (1)’ (2015) 35X35cm

 

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Kate Sherman – ‘Untitled (2)’ (2016) 35X35cm

By contrast, it provided some respite to look at two small but quietly emphatic paintings that contrasted in mood with the monochromatic greens and the tree-bark, greyness of the majority. ‘Untitled (1)’ and ‘Untitled (2)’ were each especially atmospheric in the context of the selection on display and a specific colour mood evoked a sense of time – the end of the day perhaps? The colour extended the images’ impact beyond the cold facts of a photographed scene and added a poetic feel and an evocative intimacy. Although most of the paintings projected a sense of detachment, ‘Untitled (2)’ pulls the observer in to the dark grey/blue entanglement of tree branches and sky. Whilst other works deflected the viewer’s gaze, undermining reflection by throwing back rather than absorbing the imagination, and, by implication, mirroring so much indifference to the plight of the natural world – these two studies invited the viewer in.

We might be there, at twilight – connected and integrated with the natural world – as we recognise the changing light of day: lost momentarily in sublime reverie. Or, imagination suspended, we might be here, estranged from the ecosystem, awaiting environmental apocalypse.

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Kate Sherman – ‘Rendlesham 9’ (2016) 100X100cm

Sadly, there is a self-defeating point of view that might think the planet a safer place without a human presence. In ‘Picnic Bench 4’ and ‘Rendlesham 9’, each include, in the bottom left hand corner, a typical wooden picnic table. (One of those badly designed benches that are challenging to get into, and harder still to extricate yourself from.) We can read this as a sign of conquered territory, but no one is there (except, by implication, the artist). In fact none of the paintings directly show any people at all. But visitors may be close by, as ‘Rendlesham 10’ includes a number of parked vehicles. They appear devoured by the light. Motionless and abandoned for a while, the cars are encamped forming a momentary settlement, as if the occupants were from the same nomadic tribe. Perhaps these anonymous visitors, natives from the metropolis, have ventured into the forest?

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Kate Sherman – ‘Rendlesham 10’ (2016) 60X60cm

As viewers – cultured folk who visit art galleries – would we dare to join them? If we are romantics at heart we might be too afraid, as woodland myth dictates that fairies, sprites, pixies and goblins animate these sites. And there’s the dilemma: our rational minds know that Jack-the-Green has scarpered, and we might, paradoxically, fear that the inhabitants of ancient myth are not there anymore. Removed to a safer place by the UFOs.

Geoff Hands (November 2016)