Currently the best time of day to visit Phoenix Art Space would be at nightfall when the Window Gallery lights illuminate a display of works by Miranda Forrester and Emily Moore as the exhibition is only visible to the public from the outside of the building. Forrester (a painter) and Moore (an illustrator/animator) were awarded a studio residency with support from CASS Art at the Phoenix Art Space after graduating from the University of Brighton in 2019 and this work, a taster of their respective outputs, dates from 2020/21.
As fate would have it, much of Forrester’s and Moore’s time at the Phoenix was overshadowed by the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. Fortunately their positive resolve to continue to develop their respective practices beyond graduation was maintained and the studio opportunity enabled them to bridge the potentially challenging gap from university life to self-sufficiency and the early stages of promising careers.
For the staff and some permanent studio members of the Phoenix however, there is still the added bonus of being able to see the works closer up as they enter or leave the building. But, as a significant number of the Phoenix community have been unable to visit their studios during the current lockdown restrictions a decision was made to hold the private view for the show as an in-house Zoom meeting. For this event I was asked to present the work to viewers, aided by the Director, Sarah Davies at the computer and Chloe Hoare, the Learning Programme Manager, on iPhone camera duty as she recorded my live talk and the work displayed.
For each of the exhibitors I started the Q&A session by reading out a ‘first impression statement’. What I present here is each statement developed further after the event.
For Emily Moore
“…But the space of thresholds must be distinguished from the concept of a boundary.A threshold’s territory is not exclusive but inclusive. It also includes what might in fact question it. In it mixtures and conflicts occur, but also mutations and rites of passage…”Michele Manzini
From these six framed images I am being introduced to a world bathed in blueness. I like it.
Initially, I read these scenarios as fictive spaces that are manifested from the imagination with the aid of digital technology. A leap from a sub-conscious image bank that appears to have been partly formed by watching films and animations, and maybe comics too. It’s romantic, in a knowingly constructed kind of way. Presenting a dreamscape with an open narrative for the viewer to invent and make sense from. But the reflections on the glass in the frames act as a barrier, at least until I view my photographs of the install later and realise that your scenic locales are not so disembodied from the quotidian space that I think I occupy as a viewer. The two apparent worlds merge.
I return the next day with the reflections in mind and after a while I have a sense of both viewing and entering this unfamiliar land. It seems unknown but commonplace.
It’s not as alien as I first thought. This cinematic space is as real as what is outside the gallery windows now. And vice-versa. Might every-thing outside of the gallery space that is reflected on the blue surfaces (the trees, streetlights, and buildings) be props? The people who stroll past, heading home or towards the beach, despite the cold, are all actors – playing their roles unquestioningly. William Shakespeare was right, after all.
The mundanity of the near empty Brighton streets during this time of lockdown has the potential for enhancing a sense of a shared, communal territory. The gaze into these works employs a combined focus on the pictorial subject matter and, functioning as a rear view mirror onto the world outside. This double view was momentarily quite unnerving. I am not sure I want to look into a mirror too soon.
Your use of distinctive tones and colour contrasts – particularly reds and blues – holds the series together, even if they tell different stories. It has always struck me that the most interesting ‘art’ prompts the viewer to see the world afresh. In the animation still, “Deepwater Café’ there’s a theatre-type space (the trees could be digital coulisse, flat cut-out forms, with blue and red projections suggesting shadow). The Café, a small homely looking construction, looks too small to accommodate very many visitors. The neon ‘Deepwater’ sign looks like it belongs in an urban setting, not in a woodland environment beneath snow-topped mountains. Is this a dream fiction? In such psychological spaces, like the ones we experience in early morning reverie that soon dissipate into the humdrum morning chores, rationality is suspended. This imagery might be built from lived experiences (a film or a family holiday) or render a premonition as yet unrealised. Either way, the scenes are uncannily real and imbue an emotive sense with a subtle quiet humour.
That earlier thought about props and human behaviour comes back, not to haunt, but to revitalise a notion of perception. From seeing your work the viewer might perceive their world to be as constructed as this, as if everything was a toy or commodity of sorts. Not just the small things, but also the complete environment, including the mountains. The point is, that whether intentional or not, seeing your artwork in this setting and context revealed the world to be a sort of construct and a theatre of operations, wherein boundaries are crossed in the imagination and in concrete reality to create a psychogeographic event.When I read your comments about your studies at Brighton I was intrigued by the journey you had made from “experimenting and panicking” in years 1 and 2, and doing what you thought you were supposed to be doing – this is very typical for visual arts students. By the third year you say you were following your “instincts”. You clearly had that ‘threshold experience’ at the right time, in the right place. Make sure that this instinct continues to grow. Nurture it with frustration and doubt if you have to. It’s a crucial element in the creative process.
For Miranda Forrester
“…blackness is a state of being punctuated by thoughtfulness, reflection, intimacy, community, and repose…. Yiadom-Boakye’s conscious decision to create images of black bodies in moments of atemporal pleasure and tranquillity is cathartic.”JaBrea Patterson-West
From viewing the six small paintings I have a sense of the image ‘becoming’ – a kind of re-formation or birth. In the smaller works fragments build rather than deconstruct or diminish. The cut-out shapes and linear content takes on a decorative function with a short-hand, reductive engagement with actual surface and implied forms. The objectness of these three particular works is immediately apparent. Rendered simply and without fuss or detail. There is a minimalist palette of colour: reddish browns, a greyish blue, a pair of greens and a cream white. The light timber stretcher pieces add to the colour scheme. I might have dismissed these first three pieces, as they are so small and I was drawn to the slightly larger canvases. Perhaps they are studies for bigger pieces. Seeing the wood support, and even the staples, suggests that you are stating that there is no need for concealment. The front surface of two of these ‘opened up’ works protrudes barely a couple of centimetres from the white gallery wall surface, creating a space for shadows and this suggests early potential for installation work. Completed pieces are always works in progress.
I am also struck by the smoothness and glossiness of surfaces in all six paintings as if these qualities are as relevant to the visual language as the more obvious, figurative, hand painted areas that depict a figure or a houseplant. The material and the process are in sync with the visual. Smoothness suggests the surface, and touch, of skin, or is this a reference to domestic, comfortable fabrics? The visual aesthetic is serene, simplified, and characteristically linear. Abstract tropes of flatness and painterly colour-shapes affect a visual simplicity. The literal spaces and the glossy smoothness combined with seeing through and between streamlined forms combines the figurative and the abstract nature of shapes.
You are observing the individual figure (perhaps this is your partner) but not voyeuristically. It’s more contemplative than furtive or secretive. It is matter of fact, open and loving. The implied viewer (who, in effect observes you both) takes in a relaxed ambience where there is a feeling of safety and an acceptance of self and other. This is a labile space where spontaneity is accepted and the arousal of emotions is not forced, but is organic. Behaviour is private and safe. But the implied narrative is not neutral. The implicit visual assertion, however visually appealing, is a proclamation of normality for the LGBTQ+ communities that have come to the forefront of culture and politics. This is a positive affirmation for the complexities of human relationships that contrasts with the simplistic binary notion of male/female and the patriarchal and androcentric nature of societies.
The work also raises important questions about art’s subject matter(s) as well as the more broadly cultural and political. The ‘male gaze’ clearly has a dominating history in the tradition of Western art, especially painting. Is this okay, sometimes? So long as we acknowledge that there is a female gaze and a Queer gaze too? Forgive my clumsiness here, for I ask this as a white, heterosexual, sixty-something male who is on a learning curve.
Also, what of the Dancing Monstera in the Abode series? The commonplace Swiss Cheese plants that wilt or gather dust in many living rooms and offices that reveal the legacy of colonial botany under our very noses – was this intentional? The feminist voice encompasses so much more than elemental women’s rights. Let us celebrate diversity in skin colour too. Six little paintings say so much.
Mary Lloyd-Jones: Lliwio’ Gair / The Colour of Saying
Aberystwyth Arts Centre – May 2001
In two previous reviews (Carol Bove and Shani Rhys James) that were written some time after viewing their respective exhibitions I had indulged in the unexpected relief, a mild catharsis perhaps, of being ‘better late than never’. After writing the Rhys James piece I recalled the second review I had ever written, which had not been published at all. This was in response to Mary Lloyd-Jones’ ‘The Colour of Saying’ at Aberystwth Arts Centre in 2001. I was an avid reader of Modern Painters magazine at the time and had submitted the review in the hope that Lloyd-Jones would receive some well deserved recognition in a major publication. Alas, the piece was not accepted, but as the review had been word processed I retained a copy that migrated from computer to computer. On a hunch I searched for it and found it almost immediately. So, if one can write about an exhibition a year or two after the event why not publish a review written 20 years ago?
I have not changed anything in the original text, except to split one lengthy paragraph into two. It was tempting to re-write some of the passages, but I resisted the urge. It is also worth noting that, in this time of the Covid pandemic, an uncanny atmosphere of absence was prevalent on road journeys. Hence a reference to MAFF – the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. In 2001 there was a widespread outbreak of foot and mouth disease in the UK and access to public rights of way across land were closed. This severely affected the tourist industry and people travelled far less than normal. The journey west from Shrewsbury, where I had been staying with my brother, was therefore very quiet as this is a well-travelled route to the Welsh coast.
The Colour of Saying
Travelling on a near empty A458 between Shrewsbury and Welshpool the warning signs about foot and mouth disease lend an eerie feel to an otherwise pleasant journey. The kind of journey one makes to escape from the hustle and bustle of life, at work or play, in the towns and cities of England. Thankfully, for now at least, the MAFF signs slowly disappear as the roads of mid-Wales wind gently up and down towards the coast on a bright April day. Making a small detour via Machynlleth for its near deserted craft shops (tourists are few and far between these days) I am reminded of a treasured watercolour hanging in my Sussex home. The colours and shapes of the painting in my mind become the actual landscape that surrounds me. I have arrived, in the land of Mary Lloyd-Jones.
The work of many landscape painters have become associated with the regions in which they operated and in Britain it is Constable’s Suffolk that will first spring to mind. Moving west to ancient Celtic lands, in Peter Lanyon’s West Penwith, the landscape fuses inextricably with the man. In Chris Stephens’ study of the Cornish artist, At The Edge Of Landscape, he quotes Lanyon – “I paint places but always the Placeness of them.” This claim could also be applied to Lloyd-Jones’ paintings currently on display in the new and spacious Gallery 1 at the Aberystwyth Arts Centre. Many, though not all, of the works are representative of locations around Aberystwyth – Pontarfynach (Devil’s Bridge), Ystumtuen, and Cwmystwyth in the Rheidol Valley and other areas of Ceredigion. Although place names, or significant features such as lead mines or spoil tips, are regularly used for the titles in her paintings, the sense of a place or location adds up to far more than a picturesque view. These places are immersed in history and the collective rural memory – and in these paintings Lloyd-Jones reveals and interprets more than the purely scenic facts. Indeed many of these locations would only be known locally, for the visitor on his travels may pass them by en-route to more well known tourist destinations. Knowledge of these lesser known places – disused quarries, remote hillsides – may invite more visitors to this sparsely populated area of Wales; but in a Neo-Romantic spirit perhaps they are best left to poets and painters to explore and re-discover.
The gallery is large, light and spacious, and the architect, Peter Roberts, has integrated an inverted barrel vaulted ceiling to control what could have been an overwhelming space. The carefully arranged paintings, of various sizes, create a comfortable intimacy and envelope the viewer with walls of colour-filled landscape images. Suspended down the central axis of the gallery an avenue of acrylic-stained canvas pieces hang, inviting the viewer to stand between these great walls of colour and script, and to move from one to another transcending the conventional one-to-one relationship with an image. It is this installation that demands the viewer’s attention on entering the gallery.
The images hang in Bardic procession – the poetic reference is apt – for integrated with the strongly coloured banners are inscribed words from a variety of sources. From the earliest times the magical power of the word has been made concrete, the audible made visible, through mark and alphabetical system. To all but the most learned visitor these ancient inscriptions are without obvious meaning and we have to rely on the accompanying publication, that gives its title to this exhibition, for explanation. However, we are brought up to date by the use of quotations from contemporary poets, including Janet Dubé and Gillian Clarke. Lines by R.S.Thomas also appear and it was he, arguably the most important Welsh poet after Dylan Thomas, who found much inspiration from the environs of his native north Wales. Yet, as a Welshman who had to express and deliver his poetic vision in the ‘foreign’ English language, a dialectical tension would be present throughout his life’s work as a poet – where authentic pessimism jostled with spiritual redemption.
Painting, however, speaks a more universal language – the visual language of colour, shape, gesture and texture. Of the Bard, Mary Sara explains in her essay in The Colour of Saying:
“It is an ancient role which began with the member of the tribe who lifted his or her eyes from the task of survival and said Look! or asked Why? How? What if? – then shaped with their hands or said, or sang, a celebration or proposed an answer.”
In Lloyd-Jones’ paintings she re-affirms the task of the artist to communicate and show us those things, feelings and experiences worth having and knowing. There is great optimism and we see commensurate skills in the handling of oil, acrylic and watercolour. In the most recent works, for example, in ‘Rhosdir’,colour is both localised to earth, rock and field colours and enhanced by stronger, vibrant colours – the hues of interpretation and transformation. The viewer’s eye moves with these colours as paint is carefully applied in smooth, opaque layers or thin washes of semi-transparent colour. Oil paint is used with the consistency of watercolour with supreme confidence. In this composition there is a palpable sense of movement in space. Zigs and zags that relate to the characteristics of streams, trees, fences, posts, sheep paths – they allude also to the calligraphic script of words. The visual features are both fixed and rhythmical. Natural and abstract signs and symbols are derived from the landscape.
In ‘Iaith Cofio’, one senses, again, a personal colour palette derived from the artist’s predilection for strong colour, and from the richly coloured landscape of her homeland. She employs this intuitive and carefully observed use of colour to interpret and transform the subjects captured in her sensitive scanning of the Ceredigion landscape. For this is an image distilled from the whole area, from a landscape memory (‘iaith cofio’), not from a particular location. Integrating and superimposing the Bardic Alphabet and remnants of the Ogham script (an ancient alphabet found on stone monuments that could be used by the Celts for passing coded messages) this painting suggests an aerial view of a landscape delineated by stone walls, natural fissures or the scars of industrial activity. The word is imprinted in the land – as if to impress on the viewer the fact, for better or worse, of the cultivated, industrialised and ‘cultured’ environment that is inextricably linked to the ‘natural’ world.
However, Lloyd-Jones’ work is not reliant on a narrative tradition in literature or painting. Nor is it ‘insular’, for her work is clearly related, and indebted, to European (and North American) Modernism. One senses the intuitive spirit of Kandinsky in her use of colour on the brush; and another influence may derive, both technically and inspirationally, from Helen Frankenthaler’s stained and gesturally configured works. But in Lloyd-Jones’ work we are not presented with a limited and shallow Greenbergian expressionism – because here the content of the human and cultural place of landscape is signified. At first glance her paintings are expressionist – in style and temperament. One is aware of the act of the painted mark forged in the shapes and passages of colour on the canvas surface. These echo the patchwork of medieval field systems that, in topographic features, re-shape and define the land.
In another impressive painting, ‘Can Wyllt (Wild Sound)’, the title prompts the viewer’s memory to re-call the mixture of aural, vibrating and flowing qualities of the landscape. The painting’s aeriformed weaving and flurry of colour-shapes and blue-purple improvised layers, winding and scurrying as if in flight, takes the eye on a journey within the painting’s glowing and atmospheric space. This disembodies the viewer and takes the ground from our feet. To such a painting as this we bring our own memories and experiences – albeit unconsciously – and ‘Can Wyllt’ reciprocates by returning the human experience of exposure to the elements.
In ‘Mwyn Plwm (Lead Ore)’, a recent and memorable painting, the handling of oil paint is light and refined, proving that with maturity the best painters continue to improve. The skill of painting is hard-won, crafted, and controlled with the focused devotion that this timeless medium demands. However, for me, the most outstanding painting of the exhibition is, ‘Olion(Remains)’. In her catalogue essay Gillian Clarke refers to the transformative experience of a car journey made through Wales that reminded her of R.S.Thomas’ poem, Bright Field. Lloyd-Jones’ ‘Olion’ is, essentially, an indigo-blue and purple composition, incorporating flying orange ribbons to provide a complementary counterpoint to the mass of earth and rock that commands the centre of the image. Within its atmospheric boundaries it holds a green field or escarpment that also reminds one of Thomas’ account of this, literally, illuminating experience:
I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the pearl
of great price, the one field that had
the treasure in it …
This seemingly spot lit feature sits alongside a disused lead mine, an image retrieved from an industrial past. The painting contains the cartographers’ signs for various topographical features, incorporating both a bird’s-eye view and a multi-perspectival rendering of space, and is accompanied by an understated graffito of Bardic signs. As in the poem, this painting re-presents the image to be given freely to those who take the time to look. This commanding, delightful and sensuous canvas becomes a precious object to contemplate too.
A profound interest in the transformative powers of colour is reflected in the artist’s interest in India. In the accompanying publication Lloyd-Jones explains that her “… aim in visiting India was to immerse myself in a culture where the use of colour is fluent, spontaneous and sophisticated.” Thus, a large and exuberant patchwork of mini-colourfields is presented in ‘Jaipur’ III’, painted after one such visit to India. Pictorial space is more up-front and shallower than in the landscape work, suggesting a more spatially enclosed, claustrophobic, urban environment. It is interesting to note that the colour scheme is essentially the same as in the Welsh images – as if there is a cross-cultural link between Jaipur and west Wales. I sense this in the almost uninhibited and joyous use of colour found in Indian culture and echoed in the proletarian evidence of the colourfully rendered houses and cottages of west Wales. This dominance of colour also suggests a singular vision for painting that comes from this artist who imposes her visual language, her way of seeing, wherever she is – carrying a visual accent, or filter, to a foreign land.
This prompts the question – what is meant by foreign? Other peoples, another land, a different culture. In what sense is Wales foreign – particularly to the industrialised Welsh communities in the north and south who are essentially English speakers? What, and where, is their cultural identity? But Welsh art is a European and a British art too. In Lloyd-Jones’ work we see an unmistakably Welsh identity that is self-confident, undivided, and specifically related to the tradition of painting. She contributes to a living landscape tradition born out of her authentic rural experience and enriched by a European trans-national humanism. Landscape is proven to be a positive subject for contemporary painting. It is not an anachronistic genre but can deal with the here and now. In this instance contemporary, relevant, overtly political and wonderfully sensual and visual – from a geology over 400 million years old.
There are various dichotomies that can be distilled from the scope of this exhibition: of the relationship between Wales and Britain (England?); in the vestiges of ancient cultures in ‘modern’ day society – embedded especially in the Welsh oral tradition; and in the autonomous visual and literary expressive arts that sometimes link to enhance each other. Such questions are not necessarily intended to be answered here but a demand is made for reflection on such matters.
Lloyd-Jones’ work is, ultimately, a celebration. It is nationalistic in a positive and proud sense – it explores a collective identity, of a culture, a people through the landscape genre. We see to such powerful visual effect, the use of ancient and modern written languages linked to a heightened sensibility for employing colour with the language of abstraction. In her work and on her travels Lloyd-Jones becomes one with the genius loci – the spirit of a place. The landscape is transformed and interpreted in human terms – and we are invited to play a major role as viewers to verify her findings.
In conversation with Julia Brown, Helen Frankenthaler commented that, “True artistic creation of any kind is a very lonely process, a totally selfish act, and a totally necessary one that can become a gift to others. That’s when the painting finds its audience…” Mary Lloyd-Jones’ audience has grown steadily in the past few years and it is time that due recognition was given to her achievements by a broader public and on a truly national scale beyond the Welsh Borders. This exhibition in Aberystwyth is well worth the distance travelled.
SHANI RHYS JAMES: TEA ON THE SOFA, BLOOD ON THE CARPET
Wolfson Gallery, Charleston, Firle
(1 February – 19 April 2020)
A comment pops up on Shani Rhys James’ Instagram feed from newforestmutha asking if “…the Charleston show will be repeated?” This was in reference to ‘Tea on the Sofa, Blood on the Carpet’, staged in the Wolfson Gallery adjacent to the Sussex farmhouse where Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant set up their home in 1916. By chance, I had mentioned to my daughter just the day before that I still regretted not writing about Shani Rhys James’ show almost a year ago. I also recall coming out of the exhibition and announcing to my companions that this was the best painting show of 2020. I was not joking. This was on 1st February, the opening day, less than five weeks into the New Year and the exhibition be prematurely curtailed just a few weeks later.
Later, in June, after the first lockdown and the closing or limited opening of galleries, I had indulged in writing a retrospective account of Carol Bove’s sculptures at David Zwirner from 2018. This provided a fascinating experience for writing about, and reminiscing, an experience I assumed had gone by and for breaking with the convention of reviewing exhibitions whilst they were still ‘live’. The delay had also allowed time for thoughts to maturate a little, an indulgence of sorts that has been especially opportune with Rhys James’ works that have lodged in my thoughts throughout the past year. As the anniversary of ‘Tea on the Sofa, Blood on the Carpet’ approaches, I feel compelled to write my review at long last.
Starting with an overall impression, there was a sense that the work could have stayed in the Wolfson gallery space permanently. It somehow felt ‘at home’. A display of 13 paintings in a fairly compact space, one large elongated rectangular room that felt like three, as there are 11 walls, made for a powerful and emotionally impactful experience. The works were hung close together under strong spotlights that emphasised a chiaroscuro effect on works that featured bold colour and distinct tonal contrasts. In whichever direction one turned, and with any of the individual paintings selected, the viewer would be confronted by powerful imagery from the whole composition and, by stepping closer to get a sniff of the paint, details from small sections of the canvases were just as absorbing and captivating.
‘Boy and Bouquet’
Take, for example, a close-up section from the vase of flowers in ‘Boy and Bouquet’. Before arriving at these few square inches of canvas and paint that renders the top half of the vase, a mass of colourful blooms virtually fill the composition, brashly commanding and demanding attention as a child might. The vase in the foreground stands firm beneath this explosion of colour and painterly texture, perched as it is on a narrow white band of white linen on the tabletop edge that forms a counterpoint to the much larger black square of silence behind. In the bottom left hand corner of the composition a young, plump-faced boy stares, it would appear, at the implied viewer – or he may substitute the artist herself confronting the observer. His face, especially the eyes, acts as a focal point in the composition but one could be equally drawn to the row of yellow flowers that form a horizontal band across the mid-centre of the canvas. But with a swift movement the observer’s eye could swoop down the drooping stem of what might be a yellow tulip falling over the top half of the chunky looking vase. Here the eye could stay awhile to explore the surface of the canvas, slipping down further to an indistinct landscape on one of the facets of the ceramic form. The paint handling could be considered crude, but knowing when to leave a section as (apparently) unpolished as this is no mean feat when enough has been said. What is spoken, visually and materially, is quietly of itself. Nothing beyond flower forms, observed from real or decorative surface pattern by the artist, is to be elucidated.
An observer could have simply enjoyed the painting for what it is. But with a glance to one side to read Rhys James’ additional caption for ‘Boy and Bouquet’ revealed further scope and potential for interpretation:
“A small boy is dwarfed by a giant bouquet of flowers. I had been looking at a painting Degas did of a woman beside an enormous vase of chrysanthemums. My grandchild said ‘boys don’t like flowers’.”
The connection with the boy is pertinent, and undoubtedly special, for Rhys James but she expands upon a particular familial event by invoking a work of one of the greatest of early Modernism’s painters by referencing, ‘A Woman Seated beside a Vase of Flowers’, held in the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Whilst Degas, from a pre-Feminist age, might be equating this ‘pretty young lady’ alongside the bouquet of dahlias, asters, and gaillardias, Rhys James is both cheekily and seriously planting this very young boy next to a gregariously joyful bouquet in her own home. Never underestimate, or take for granted, a bunch of flowers. Given an alternative reading they might offer some other commentary on notions of ‘maleness’ too.
This effective curatorial decision, to include an explanation from Rhys James for all of the works in the show, broadened a reading of the images out of sync with the majority of ‘white cube’ affected exhibitions nowadays. In the context of a rural location, imbued with the fascinating history of a well known ‘extended’ family of sorts, there might be something unwittingly progressive about the inclusion of this text, as if Rhys James was at your shoulder, feeding you benevolent anecdotes as an additional narrative. The artist’s commentaries punctuate but do not interrupt the flow of imagery throughout the hanging. They vary in length too, which eschews any sense of strict curatorial guidelines to restrict this alternative conversation with the viewer.
The longest text, at over a hundred words, accompanies ‘Black Chandelier’, an un-domestically large canvas that invited very close inspection despite almost doubling as a wall-based installation. This canvas offers a fairly stark composition from the correct viewing distance, presenting a black chandelier suspended from the top of the canvas in the left half and a female figure dressed in black attire sprouting up from the right hand section. These two elements create a dynamic diagonal visual tension within the rectangular format that strongly suggests an implied narrative between object and person. But it’s the background of Edwardian style floral wallpaper that flattens out the implied interior space despite logically knowing that the chandelier, a pseudo-candelabrum, is placed in the foreground, with the figure just a step or two behind. The patterned and stylised flower forms, that with a feminist reading might represent vulvas, are regimentally repeated across the canvas as a visual manifesto.
The lengthy wall text references a literary source: “Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s novella, The Yellow Wallpaper, as about a woman suffering from hysteria who was placed out of sight… at the top of the house… The walls are covered in yellow patterned wallpaper. She loathes the wallpaper and imagines a small black figure…” and that “This was one of the first feminist tracts…” This is serious literary and political content and we might think again about symbolism, culturally assigned gender-roles, the home, family and individual existential reality rendered so straightforwardly in this and other works in the exhibition.
‘Glass of Water’ / ‘Oil of Ulay 2’
A relatively small jug of water and a piece of cloth placed in the bottom left hand corner of Degas’ aforementioned painting balances the gravitational weight of the woman on the right. Likewise, in Rhys James’, ‘Glass of Water’, a similar prop occupies the top right hand corner of a composition that suggests a late, minimalist/abstract, Rothko painting. This intimation of colour-field abstraction is also present in ‘Oil of Ulay 2’, where a backdrop screen of red extends three quarters of the way down the canvas and then continues its journey in vertical rivulets. In this lower quarter a hairbrush and a bottle of Oil of Ulay (now rebranded, ‘Olay’) float like flat constructivist forms from the 1950s. The elderly woman’s resting hand adds a third visual element that transforms object to subject. The red void provided was one route into the composition, but it is most likely that a viewer would enter via the subject’s arresting stare. These examples, the most compelling images in the show, pay homage of sorts to the artist’s mother. She appears to be an indomitable character, worthy of celebration within her daughter’s oeuvre. Her pictorial preservation in these works is surely a testament to the bond between mother and daughter. The raw, brutal honesty is strangely beautiful, but Rhys James does not go in for sentimentality.
These two simple domestic tableau in ‘Oil of Ulay 2’, a hairbrush and a bottle of ‘beauty cream’ (as a child might innocently call it), allude to a remaining element of self-respect more than vanity. As for the glass of water in ‘Glass of Water’, it potentially speaks of more than refreshment throughout hours of rest or confinement. For water is a symbol of divine life and purity, and is especially emphasised against the blackest of backdrops. The narrative is both mundane and spiritual – is the bed a place of rest, confinement or refuge? The interpretation is up to the viewer in these and, indeed, all of the works selected for ‘Tea on the Sofa, Blood on the Carpet’. Depending on your age and experience in life these engrossing portraits might be read as ‘matter of fact’ or deeply disturbing. A child could recognise a grandparent, or an adult might detect a premonition of a stage in life not so far away. For a carer of a senior the impact could be felt most deeply and upsetting.
No one could have left this exhibition without lasting impressions. Rhys James’ practice is multifaceted, with conjoined matters of painting practice in a digital era (perhaps reminiscing, proclaiming or asserting painting); family orientated as it impacts on personal selfhood and changing generational roles (including cultural expectations); and in being assertively feminist with humour and pathos.
This was certainly a show for other painters to see as well, as any evidence of struggling with the medium of oil paint had been expertly disciplined to serve the needs of the compelling imagery that distinguishes this work. By ‘expertly’ I mean that the handling of the paint medium has not only been adeptly and skilfully realised through many years of experience and practice, notwithstanding Rhys James’ continuing exploration that reveals the contradiction of struggle as part of the deal, but is also attuned to the potential of the subject matter and the possibilities inherent in the materiality and visuality of the medium itself.
This sense of a dynamic embodiment of readings has, ideally, to be experienced by the viewer in the presence of the paintings, but the enlivening and stimulating combination of image, subject matter and a viscerally coloured and textured surface facture, endures beyond an initial viewing. Whilst the content goes far deeper than simply enjoying the paintings for their immediate visual impact, for viewed from half a yard or less there is always an engrossing content of captivatingly brushed, palette-knifed, dragged and drawn marks in every work that rewards inspection. This brings us back to the paint and its alchemical properties to become something or somewhere else in the memory, the here and now or beyond language or pronouncement. Where the visual is both animated and physical, time bound and fleeting; and space is past and present, inward as well as external.
I am reminded of a comment about the mystery and complexity of painting made by the American painter, Joe Bradley:
“I think it hopefully escapes language and kind of stops a linguistic read. I don’t think the idea is to be evasive or tricky, but I think one thing that painting does well is to broadcast contradictory content in a single view, as opposed to a book or movie that leads you through. Good painting sort of stops time and jams up the works – in a good way.”
“In this extraordinarily challenging year when universities and galleries have had to close their doors, support for graduates entering an uncertain landscape is needed more urgently than ever. The Platform Graduate Award 2020 enables us to join our network partners in revealing the high quality and diversity of practice that continues to emerge from the eleven participating art schools”
Sarah Davies, Director of Phoenix Art Space
Bucking the trend for cancelling actual physical exhibitions, or for only revealing works on-line, the Phoenix Art Space celebrates the work of five recent fine art graduates. Unfortunately, the public will not have access due to the current Covid related restrictions but for Brightonians who are passing by on their daily stroll to the seafront a pause outside the gallery will be well rewarded.
For the Platform Graduate Award (now in its 8th year) instigated by the South East Contemporary Visual Arts Network, four highly renowned regional institutions (Aspex, Portsmouth; Modern Art, Oxford; Turner Contemporary, Margate; and Phoenix Art Space) are promoting 28 graduate artists selected from 11 universities in the south-east (excluding London). Phoenix have selected five artists: Jessica Davis and Leanne Jones-Starr from East Sussex College, Hastings and Charlotte Guérard, Rachel Atkinson, and Ursula Vargas from the University of Brighton.
The work is typical of current tends in fine art education in that conceptual aspects generally steer studio practice and diverse outcomes are the norm. No one prevailing trend dominates these young artists’ works – unless sharing and expanding introspective inclinations whilst creatively questioning our shared relationships with culture, industry and the natural world can be classified as such. As examples of good practice the field remains open for traditions of painting and sculpture to be realised as subtle or shocking; contemplative or overtly performative; immediate or slow burning; issue lead or aesthetically and visually nuanced in this taster of degree level fine art. The visual presence of the works ultimately takes centre stage and whether the audience can see the work on-line (see the YouTube walk through video via the Phoenix website) or through the windows at the Phoenix, the considerable efforts made to go on with the show are justly rewarded.
My privilege, as one of the selectors for the final cohort has been in seeing the work close-up as the show was installed. This was a fascinating experience as the initial selection, in two stages, was carried out by looking at photographs of the works via on-line access and in reading statements. All along I was aware of a niggling dissatisfaction from not truly sensing any sense of size or scale; or of experiencing those visual and haptic qualities that can only be sensed in the presence of the works. Nor could I meet the final five shortlisted participants who might have been free to talk about their works without the restrictions and formalities of the endemic written statement. But I need not have had any apprehension about the quality of the work, or the diversity of content.
The visual and physical ‘hit’ of seeing the various works just brought home, as if it were needed, the importance of seeing the real thing. To my relief I was even more impressed with the various outcomes after sneaking into the install a couple of times and in seeing works of such disparity so successfully curated by Production Manager, Gabby Gilmore and her colleagues. Because of the variety of practices none of the five displays overpowers or embarrasses another – and there are no lame ducks. The final realisation of the works in a group exhibition format is impressive and, as can be expected from early career works, there is evidence of great potential from each participant.
Without proper access a viewer of the show from the roadside will probably see the works displayed from what is normally the final section of the gallery, as a left to right scan of the front windows initially presents three large paintings from Ursula Vargas. To the left is the 2 metre high, ‘Every Man For Himself’, a floor based triptych. The term ‘ACCIÓN POÉTICA’ has been scrawled onto a banner-like flap on the top of the centre panel that lends a contemporary reference to a movement in South America that encourages reading, most especially of poetry, via a positive form of tagging. The primary source of narrative in the paintings is visual of course and the landscape backdrop sets the scene for three foreground characters. The visual references to Coyote and Roadrunner cartoons are revealed by the rocky topography and a Coyote character on the right hand side that leaps across, or into, a chasm whilst holding three balloons. To the left a figure from pre-Columbian art (a visually rich culture without a writing system) appears be juggling items that look like snakes and rocks. Between these two, in the centre panel, a scaly bird-like creature stares with one eye at the viewer as if conveying a message of some importance. The long, winding road links foreground to background and disappears into a man-made tunnel. It’s a surreal scene that conjures cultural pasts and presents into personal experiences of the extensive road travel that Vargas has undertaken in her partly nomadic life.
Another work, ‘Where the Braves Die’, also presents three foreground features: cartoon Coyote, a road sign for an oil extraction pump and a pre-Columbian stone statue. Again, the landscape appears to be wrecked by human activity and the highway to hell takes the viewer’s gaze to a Shell sign on the far horizon. The colour palette, essentially yellow, orange and purple is purposefully crude, referencing street art (aka graffiti) as much as cartoon imagery. The third piece in this space is ‘Self Portrait’, one of the most memorable pieces from the initial selection process. The bold use of colour grabs the attention first and the dripping orange paint that depicts the outline of distant landforms behind which a yellow sun appears to rise, clearly rejects any romantic notions of the beautiful sublimity of nature. In fact the philosophical notions of the ‘sublime’ (surely an overused term in contemporary discourse) as postulated by Burke and Kant in the 18th century, referencing the potentially delightful and uplifting, but also the overwhelming and horrific physical and emotional affect of the powers of ‘nature’, are referenced by Vargas’ take on the western landscape tradition. To send an unequivocal message, with the addition of the actual contents of a recycle bin she introduces (now in a global context) the evidence of the environmental fuck-up that prevails. Subtlety and diplomacy in imagery, paint rendering or pleasing ‘aesthetic taste’ is suitably rejected for maximum effect.
Moving into the larger gallery space Vargas joins her four co-exhibitors with ‘Me Llama La Llama (The Llama Calls Me)’. This is a poignant work that adds a sentiment that rises above the cartoon simplicity of the visual language appropriated for this series of paintings. In anthropomorphic terms the Llama looks a friendly soul and, again, we see the road that will take the traveler away from her homeland and a view of distant snow-topped mountains that are picturesquely framed by a tunnel cut through the rock. That such romantic tropes provide such agency and emotional potency might bring some comfort after all.
Shifting to an encounter based on having permission to actually enter the gallery (avec masque) and entering the exhibition through the internal double-doors the first display is a surprising black wall in an otherwise ‘white-cube’ type showroom space. Here a row of five digital photographic prints produced by Leanne Jones-Starr stretch across the wall, which is fortuitously or by design, just the right width. The whole display, measuring about 3×5 metres, establishes a dark, minimalist colour-field of sorts. Within this apparent void the plant forms in the photographic panels emerge, suspended in the implied emptiness. Were it not for a larger image (unless that’s how one should ‘read’ the black wall) the five panels might function as an altarpiece predella from the Early Renaissance period. This would imply a narrative sequence related to the ‘bigger picture’, which might have to be provided by the viewer.
As with all other students across the country this final degree project from Jones-Starr was produced during the first period of the Coronavirus pandemic and is a collection entitled ‘Isolation Garden’. The images are inspired by the confinement of an urban space that must have taken on new and revived meaning and purpose. The fascination of the garden, art historically linked to the hortus conclusus from medieval times, has strong female associations, particularly in the Christian tradition relating to the Virgin Mary and a notion of the ‘untouched womb’. So I wonder if it is more than coincidence that the mirrored image (courtesy of Photoshop) suggests a vagina in the third and central panel. Symbolism is also provoked by two other images in the sequence, that are constructed again by using a mirror image and there is a suggestion of the Rorschach inkblot test about them. This potential for psychological interpretation very much places the imagery into the viewer’s court and for those of us fortunate enough to have such a space of refuge and potential solace, a period of introspection may well have prevailed at times in our gardens last Spring. In her explanation of this work, Jones-Starr states that she “explores the connection between memories, the uncanny and intuition… and challenges our sense of the familiar… the work invites us to question what it is we are viewing and to further consider the associations we build through our singular and collective memory.” It’s quite a claim, and a huge ambition to explore for what could be a long-term project, but the sense of the everyday appearing new or even unfamiliar may well have changed rather than confused the meaning and appearance of our enclosed spaces.
This potentially illuminating and revelatory content in natural and/or private spaces was also echoed in Jessica Davis’ framed photographs on an adjacent wall. In these three images of a Great Tit that has been preserved, or reconstructed, by the taxidermy process, Davis is commenting on the treatment of wildlife by the ongoing development of modeling the world to our own (human) needs. Each of the set-up images conveys a specific message. ‘Bird Shit’ shows the heal of a boot about to crush the bird; a hand carefully picks up the creature in ‘Bye Bye Birdy’ as it is disposed of; and ‘Worthless’ presents the undeniably beautiful animal being inspected as an object that may have some sell-on value. The unpretentious scenarios facilitated by the arranged photographs give the imagery an almost forensic configuration, which very skillfully conveys the frustrated and distressed messages. The choice to employ the photographic process was not only expedient, as the same preserved bird could be used in a variety of simulations, but also added to a sense of distancing from the real animal kingdom which should be understood as a realm in which we are a part and not disconnected observers. Having mentioned the frames above, the clean and tidy domestic quality of the frames may have been selected to suggest the tendency to bring imagery of animals into our homes as innocent and innocuous decoration. But the underlying mockery and scorn is subtly powerful in this sequence.
In Davis’ most confrontational piece, ‘Couple of the Hunt’, a pair of foxes are ‘live’, as it were, in the gallery space. Not literally alive, the taxidermy process has been used yet again, but as actual bodies that uncannily greet the would-be visitor on entering the gallery and turning right. Each of the pair wears a black sock on its head, adorned by a plastic muzzle. As with Vargas’ Llama, mentioned earlier, there is an echo of anthropomorphism at play here. And unanswered questions: why the socks (is black relevant?) and what are the muzzles for – is this an ironic gesture at the hunting hounds that might now be muzzled so that ‘innocent’ pets are not killed by out of control hunts (never mind the poor old fox)? Or is there an attempt to make these animals tamed and domesticated – yet effectively blinded by the socks? And lastly, what does a pairing imply in anthropological terms, if we are to read the duo as a human-like couple? Clearly, this body of work is not restricted to Davis’ heartfelt narrative that is both shocking and emotional. The creation of more open interpretations for future works that trust less explicit but equally powerful imagery might be an area to explore.
It’s been quite a year for CharlotteGuérard, nominated for the new Freelands Painting Prize 2020 and having an interview with writer Kitty Bew published in the a-n review in April. This will have softened the blow of missing out on the University of Brighton degree show 2020, which has been a true highlight of the annual visual arts calendar in the city for decades. Guérard has selected three new works made after submitting images of her abstract paintings for the Platform Graduate Award. This is a great statement of intent, as she is clearly not resting on her laurels after been selected for the Phoenix exhibition. Due to their size (about two metres high), the canvases are well visible from the street but also demand close viewing and deserve far more than a mere glance or first impression. Often, abstract work of this sort is heavy on the colour impact and the application of paint, but these canvases are characterised by subtlety and understatement. Whilst the work is informed by painterly abstraction from the British and American traditions of the past 60 years (read her interview with Kitty Bew) there is a contemporaneous feel that places the work within the current mission in abstract painting for further development of the genre. This relates to both the attention to medium specificity (painterliness, materiality, colour impact and independence of imagery in portraying external content) and to countering the phenomenon of competing visual technologies, particularly lens-based, digital and ‘post-internet’ art.
Although the titles may apparently point to subject matter (‘In her pink dress she swam under the bridges’ could alternatively be a line from an Imagist poem) I suspect that these are paintings one could live with and see afresh from day to day without identification with external subject matter. I get this impression most immediately from, ‘Marble Dawn on an Autumn Morning’. It’s an accomplished painting that wriggles with movement within the confines of the four sides. The disparity of forms are restrained and just about held back from over-indulgence. There is a hint of excess in the stream-like exuberance in the bottom left hand section where reds, greens and oranges interweave and overlap, but they are kept in check. The colours influence each other, especially when overlapping, but retain essential characteristics without mixing into muddiness. The implied visual space shifts from shallow to deep too, created by shape, colour and compositional proximity. There is an element of dance and vivacity about this work that gives it visual rather than the subject-matter type agency that we see in Vargas’ paintings. But this is not esoteric imagery, suggesting introverted or closed systems of self-containment. The viewer can be engaged with the abstract qualities of the compositions or take a more literal route that might attach to geographical or landscape scenarios. We may see the ocean in, ‘In Her Pink Dress…’ or aerial views of land and sea in, ‘Daddy Long Legs’ (which actually references the old electric railway that ran along the Brighton seafront at the very end of the nineteenth century) but these are paintings to write around rather than explain like visual texts. They are paintings to be open to and to ingest before judging. The conversation is purely visual, despite the intriguing titles. But they are serious too and demand attention so the viewer can indulge in their own realisation of time and space, preferably over a long period of contemplation.
In this setting Guérard’s canvases command the biggest wall space but still allow other works to hold their own attention. If anything physically dominates the floor space it’s Rachel Atkinson’s multi-media installation entitle ‘Exit, Stage left’, a contemporary example of the expanded field of sculpture first identified by Rosalind Krauss in 1979 and still informing and influencing fine art practice from the art schools to the major galleries. As, primarily, an object maker with a Sculpture degree Atkinson’s productivity may well be primarily manifested as a producer of ‘things’. But in art of course, such ‘things’ are not confined to the purely material, as ideas and concepts are manifested in and from them. In fact we can philosophically contend with ideas and situations as a category of object, not only because objects always have context, but also situations have consequences that affect the material and object-oriented world.
Without meaning to be condescending, Atkinson’s props might have been appropriated from a Level 2 BTEC trainee’s attempts at basic construction, but part of her project is to advocate notions of failure (or lack of expertise). The props are well made enough to look just about good enough to function, even if in an implied amateurish way. From a socially distanced Instagram exchange with me she revealed that her “… props all have their faults. They have wobbly edges and filled holes. They are makeshift. They are objects you can’t quite place. I want them to feel familiar yet out of place. The moment you think you’ve placed them somewhere, you find something new and strange that doesn’t quite add up.” So don’t be fooled too soon.
Atkinson’s constructed objects are hard or soft, humorous (‘Laughter Applause sign’) or a little menacing (a suspended rope). Some could be about to fall apart or simply not function effectively. Consequently we might consider all of the objects in our daily lives in this way, particularly in lockdown 2.0 as we spend yet more time at home with our hoarded artifacts of excessive consumption. (Though I really must buy a more comfortable computer chair and dispose of some of that junk from the attic.) As an expansion from sculpture as three-dimensional form, her time-based, fictional but spookily real presentation of human choices, actions and everyday melodrama, replete with film props, is a compelling ingredient in the 90-second video included in ‘Exit, Stage left’. On the screen, Atkinson utilises old and new media in a playful performance overlaid by a spoken soundtrack. A male voice appears to be commentating on the lonesome performer’s raison d’être: “And you can’t help but feel as if you should be doing something”,he intones. So aptly put in lockdown mode.
The text (written by Atkinson), and the physical actions of the awkwardly moving actor introduce a strong hint of a Samuel Beckett type purposeless absurdity, with implicit routes from Dada and Surrealism. One abiding image is of the actor self-consciously performing the gesture of taking off a top hat (so old school) and of approximating a grand, but melancholy and trite, performance. And again, in our role as ‘audience’, as innocent observers of all modes of media whether written, sound based, visual or performative, we have impressive skills in suspending belief to go along with the fantasies, good intentions and/or lies of our constructed existence. But our acts and behaviours have to be questioned. This constitutes the ethical dimension of Atkinsons’ burgeoning project, which suggests that freedom is frightening and therefore necessitates positive actions and reactions to the status quo, otherwise we descend into conformity and control by the state or other authority. This may sound heavy, but art is a serious business.
It not just props, a video and a written script that Atkinson presents (and she may even be acting in her short film). Green is a major component too, as dark or light sheets of material for the soft sculptures, or for the green outfit of the actor in the video. For two crucial seconds the green room (a bunker of sorts) is purposefully empty in the opening shot. Clearly referencing the ‘Green Screen’ by including two oversized markers for editing for CGI purposes on the front and back of the hidden figure’s head covering, this is space into which any narrative or identity is possible. The green might also be read as representing growth or nature, which makes for a fascinating connection with the garden imagery from Leanne Jones-Starr’s work at the beginning of the show, or with the broader palette in Guérard’s paintings. Green certainly represents potential. Atkinson’s work is impressively sophisticated at such an early stage of her career as she delves into a lifetime’s journey of creativity with her peers. She will now contend with the graduates selected from the other regional institutions for a bespoke mentoring package and a £2000 bursary.
Before I leave, I notice several sheets of A4 paper on the gallery floor in close proximity to the props. It is a one-page script for ‘The Final Performance’, a conversation by seven actors named as ‘fools’. One of the lines provides the title for this review, which I hope is suitably ruminatory. By picking a sheet up I become an actor of sorts too: Fool 8, I guess.
It’s a dull morning in Brighton and heavy rain is expected, but the streets are busy as shoppers make the most of dull but dry weather conditions. The opportunities to see art in the flesh have, for obvious reasons, been few and far between these past six months. The Phoenix Art Space gallery is functioning again and now 35 North also opens its doors to visitors. As it happens, Michelle Cobbin’s studio is based at the Phoenix and so she is on home territory. This is not the largest of spaces, just the one room, but Tardis-like, the space has accommodated 16 paintings of various sizes without feeling congested. Cobbin last showed at the gallery in 2017, in both group and solo shows and now a new body of work is on view. Entitled Transitions, the collection suitably presents a subsequent period of time impacted by extraordinary and historical circumstances. But, true to character, the repercussions for Cobbin are subtle within a broader painting project to explore colour and its potentially meditative effects on both maker and viewer. The work is highly personal too, as Cobbin has revealed that, “…‘Transitions’ … best describes where I feel I am right now: in an in-between space; taking stock; moving my practice forward; embracing ageing; exploring ancestry and welcoming seasonal change.”
Cobbin is one of those painters who enjoys both strong, impactful colour and the materiality of paint without inhibition and whose work would be categorised as abstract. But she’s not averse to employing earthy or atmospheric colours either and there are clear references to the landscape, particularly horizons, and the titles reveal her wandering spirit and love of the natural world. Cobbin has been walking on the local Sussex downland that embraces the City of Brighton and Hove to the north and east. With the Covid lockdown her expeditions have been restricted to an area close to where she lives. This lack of autonomy to venture further afield has proved a bonus, as it happens. Even from a relatively small collection of works the varieties of visual memories and encounters recorded, experienced and visually ingested al fresco, then developed in the studio, are numerous in terms of colour combinations, tonal variations and implied explorations and experiences of local landscape spaces at various times of the day. That no space is inexhaustible, as visual phenomena or for prompting personal interpretation and meaning, might be a sub-theme to Transitions.
This title is most interesting, for transitions occur not just in the natural environment but also in terms of the self, as the artist’s revelation above identifies. In a more general sense, for many the enforced social isolation, where a deceleration in the daily engagement within society has not proved to be an overwhelming burden, this opportunity to slow down and to go inwards in daily active/walking meditations might have manifested a positive aspect in such troubled times. The daily 30-minute walk approved of and encouraged during full lockdown earlier in the year has certainly born fruit for the continuous developments and adjustments in Cobbin’s practice. The sometimes stark juxtapositions of colour and shape remain in her work, but the outcomes are now mediated with a more pronounced sense of finish and resolution. Even in ‘Bridge’, one of the larger canvases on view that could have originated from an earlier body of work (although described as a – “Spontaneous expression of summer” by the artist), there is a softer combination in the relationship between contrasting colour fields of reds, greens and yellows. This is partly due to the overall sensuousness of surface and brushwork that is quite restrained and, given the robust implications sometimes associated with complimentary pairs, quells overt contrasts of form. The monumentally dominant standing stone and lintel red/pink form is subsumed into an atmosphere of physical lightness by the modulated green-yellow backdrop and there is a sense of disembodied levitation. Or perhaps it’s a floating bridge of sorts, whereby the notion of a bridge is not so much a transitional or connecting motif but a specific time/space worth recollecting and monumentalising.
Whilst shear size may assist in enveloping the viewer into an atmosphere of contemplation and visual engulfment, ‘Chalk meadow – high summer’, the largest work on view also had this effect, the smaller works were as compelling. Take for example the series consisting of ‘June’, ‘July’, ‘August’ and ‘September’ at just 20x20cm each. The compositions are identical but are rendered in a variety of colour palettes that record not just different months and times of day and/or weather conditions but may also register four quite different studio sessions. For these are not en plein air landscape paintings but they catalogue the engagement with the practice of painting within the confines and solitude of the studio – the peculiar but positive form of social distancing that many artists experience. The studio can be a difficult and challenging place to survive within and the endeavour to be productive without recourse to repetition and falling for the formulaic (and commercial) is a tough call. But this stubborn resilience is one of Cobbin’s strengths and accounts for diversity and range in her imagery.
The consistency and sense of development and transition – which should by its very nature traverse ups and downs in outcomes – embraces the contradictory successes and failures of the rough ride of studio practice. Arguably, it’s a condition of painting that maintains its protean and variable spirit in a media-driven world of formulaic pastiche and cliché (and painters of lesser talent). This is, unavoidably, a pertinently welcome aspect of a solo exhibition from a painter who is clearly making this sometimes arduous journey alone – but with a generous desire to share the endeavour with an audience in a spirit of celebration of visual observation and perceptive awareness of the natural world. But there are no weak paintings in Transitions, none are superfluous, for disciplined studio practice has probably buried less resolved and unsatisfactory paintings beneath the surface in the more built up layers of paint. The installation and curatorial achievement is spot on too.
This link to an audience is partly initiated by the titles of the works. ‘Barley and chalk’, ‘Glimpse of Hawkweed’, ‘Dandelion Love’ and ‘Walking through Knapweed’. These experiences and subjects are available to anyone willing and able to make the effort. During lockdown many of us became aware of street weeds and there was a campaign originating in Nante (check out Frédérique Soulard and her Belles de Bitume project) that enabled us to appreciate the intriguing beauty of what was literally on our doorsteps. This active meditation, a tuning in to one’s surroundings, bares fruit. For a local audience we learn the lesson that the South Downs that extend into the city are a place of discovery. Not, so much, a place of escape, but of finding aspects of thought and feeling, from the sublime to the everyday; and potentially even from our personal geographical histories (for Cobbin, her native East Anglia) that collapses time and space into the here and now.
But if that were too metaphysical, the best advice would be to visually savour the immediate spectacle of the paintings on view. There’s more than enough to contemplate and perhaps just one image would suffice. The painting I kept returning to was ‘Barley and chalk’, a square composition that intrigued me for its simple brushwork (from a wide, flat brush) and understated simplicity. The initial register of a subdivision into two dominant rectangles is given a slightly suspended, vertically floating sensation by the background of acidic yellow. The broad white horizontal stripe in the lower half calmly moves forward from a light grey/blue veil behind. There are subtle shades of pink that are barely noticeable too (confession: I only notice this contradiction of colour from looking at a photograph later on). ‘Barley and chalk’ demands more than a handful of short viewings: a lifetime of meditation might be in order. Such is the potential of a humble painting, or a walk on the Downs.
Leaving the gallery some 45 minutes or so later the gloom has lifted, the expected storm has abated and it’s a glorious sunny day – right here, right now.
The initial working title for this essay was ‘Meditation on a Cross’. The religious connotation was tongue-in-cheek, but I first thought of the cross in general terms. On a mundane level a mark in the sand that a child could make with their foot or a stick came to mind. Getting deeper, the beginning of written languages, such as the scratched sign on a rock will forever fascinate. As if to say, “I was here”, the pre-historic hunters in Upper Paleolithic Europe 20,000 or more years ago may have been continuing to develop one of the earliest forms of code that have lead to what we now call visual culture.
In a refreshingly modern and contemporary environment provided by the saasfee*pavillon space, this body of new works from Dennis Loesch will surely feel at home. When I heard that Loesch’s new body of work was to be staged there it felt appropriate, not only because this is his home city and he studied at the Städelschule Academy of fine arts, but also because of his personal interest in avant-garde and cross-cultural musical genres.
It’s a late Friday afternoon in early-August, and Dennis Loesch and I exchange comments on WhatsApp about his forthcoming installation at the saasfee*pavilion. I have asked what will be in the show: “…all unique. 3 huge ones, 4 a bit smaller, 10 small ones… leaning, floor and hanging”, he replies. “X Cellant”, I respond, trying be clever with the X from the English word ‘excellent’ (ausgezeichnet in his native German). I don’t know if he gets my reference to Germano Celant and Arte Povera. It would have helped if I had spelled the Italian art critic’s name correctly. Not that the use of ‘poor materials’ are especially featured in Loesch’s work but there is something of the everyday in his choice of subject matter (including artefacts such as memory sticks and SD cards from digital technologies). As a contemporary artist with an attraction to bright, vivid colour and graphical, geometric visual forms with Photoshop quality gradations of colour or flat but painterly surfaces, Loesch embraces the digital realm, its appearances and production techniques, with great enthusiasm and ongoing engagement. Even in reproduction the form, surface qualities and colouration is attractive – even sexy.
One of the larger ‘State your position’ (SYP) forms has fascinated me for several weeks now. Not just as a visual artefact but for the title too. Is this a question, or an instruction? It could be a phrase requesting a point of view or it could be a geographic location that is sought for safety reasons. The titles of artworks typically pertain exclusively to the subject matter, as in a portrait or landscape work, but SYP purposely acknowledges the viewer who thus becomes a more activated, self-reflective, participant.
‘State Your Position’ presents seventeen ‘X’ forms in a configuration that will undoubtedly engage the audience both visually and physically as they negotiate the gallery space. Although for safety reasons none of the artworks can, after all, be positioned to lean against the walls, using the floor as well as the wall space will actively undermine pictorial notions that generally command wall-hung works. A degree of minimalist objecthood will possibly prevail, although the indicative subjecthood from such an open-ended and multiple meaning sign as an X is surely present, compliments of the viewer.
Despite being so skilfully manufactured with the aid of Computer Numerical Control to control the movement of the cutter and highly skilled technician assistance for completion, these particular ‘one-off’ Xs are unique. As objects that have been produced to Loesch’s specifications they each reproduce a digitally handwritten gesture made with the computer mouse – a fascinating contradiction of technologies. Another paradox I find is that the imagery suggests two-dimensional delineation, but these are also moveable three-dimensional forms that could as easily be defined as sculptures, albeit in the unmonumental camp. But any Dada-istic tendency is subverted by rather wonderful colours and subtle textures across the front and sides of the forms. They are eye-pleasingly pleasant with a decorative energy that induces enjoyment.
Alternatively, Loesch might be playing with his audience, commandeering an innate sense of humour that embraces irony. The X form, with all of its semiotic potential, can mean anything between the poles of seriousness and triviality, sign and symbol. Just how meaningful can a strong graphical and visual statement be? Placed into a gallery/fine art context do we assume profundity in whatever ‘message’ might be invoked by such a simple form? Or is the artist undermining the sophistication of an audience that is attracted to contemporary art by a token of innocent banality? Alternatively, art can be fun, like fashion clothing. At once visually entertaining and pleasingly simple, reminding us to accept that since Duchamp fixed formulas and old world hierarchies are now disempowered in art. Which leads me to wonder if Loesch’s Xs in SYP are paradoxical Readymades? Virtual digitally derived realities, returned to substance.
Unless the artist makes an honest statement of intent (and let’s hope he does not, for the sake of the viewer’s imagination) it appears that a speculative environment is made manifest by this assembly of Xs in the saasfee*pavillon space. After all, despite the high quality aesthetics and design profile of these forms, visitors will be encountering ‘art’ forms, not artefacts or a scattered stockpile of road signs from the Frankfurt City Council.
Returning to the notion of audience the context of the gallery/cultural space might shift the balance of interpretation for sign to symbol in the SYP collection/series. In Jung’s final piece of writing, aimed at a general readership, ‘Approaching the Unconscious – The Importance of dreams’ he explained that signs:
“… are meaningless in themselves, they have acquired a recognizable meaning through common usage or deliberate intent. Such things are not symbols.”
“What we call a symbol is a term, a name, or even a picture that may be familiar in daily life, yet that possesses specific connotations in addition to its conventional and obvious meaning… Thus a word or an image is symbolic when it implies something more than its obvious and immediate meaning.”
Loesch’s SYP Xs might be playing with this definition.
The adaptation and confident interest in digital processes and formulations certainly states the position that Loesch occupies as a contemporary practitioner. He accommodates the digital, whilst more than referencing the tactile visuality of form and the unashamed rapture of colour. One way to approach these works might be to follow Daniel Buren’s advice that, “My painting, at the limit, can only signify itself… It is. So much so, and so well, that anyone can make it and claim it.”
Works transcend themselves and individual experiences let us know we are here: it’s a sign o’ the times…
Despite holding reservations about on-line exhibitions, even in these days of full or partial Covid lockdown, I surprisingly found myself intrigued by John Taylor’s current website initiative. Ideally, exhibitions should be seen ‘in the flesh’ whenever possible, but of course since the reproduction of images became technically possible, this has never been sacrosanct – thank goodness. I last wrote about Taylor’s collage/paintings shown at the Jeannie Avent Gallery, East Dulwich in the Spring of 2018 after coming across his work via my iPhone, which prompted a day out to see if the actual works were as impressive as the miniature versions were on-screen.
As if to challenge the logic of the notion of a current show ‘The Circle’ brings together twenty-five unframed mixed media works from 2011 and is best viewed on a computer or tablet for decent sized reproductions of the works. Having not been able to attend his last show, ‘Abstract Realities’, at Westminster Reference Library just before last Christmas I was pleased at this opportunity to see more of Taylor’s work, albeit nine years after completion. Not that this time element is especially problematic and in fact there is a sense of circumstances being just right for this particular project to leave the studio. For though it’s not a retrospective in the conventional sense, it is something of a treat to see works that were made purely for their own sake, privately as it were, and not for commercial reasons.
Clearly with the convention of a small gallery in mind, the indicative model of the solo show has guided the simple but effective structure of this exhibition. In a sense the display or the event is not at all ‘virtual’ as it only exists in reality as a digital platform, although the original works are solidly ‘real’ as we would normally understand mixed media works on card. Divided into three rooms (there’s no need to use the term ‘virtual’ anymore), the similarly sized works are split into groups of eight or nine images that might be comfortably viewed in three modest salons or vestibules. Thankfully, the works have not been presented to look like they are hung on a wall with some clever Photoshop technique, but are photographed in a straightforward manner lying on sheets of paper with subtle shadows indicating the gentle curve of unstretched paper. They will not be perfectly flat until someone has one framed.
From a recent Instagram exchange of messages the artist confirmed that the works were produced on a daily basis throughout the year in question as a “365 project”. This daily assignment suggests a degree of perseverance, discipline and resolve that, if my own experience of similar tasks with collage and drawing is similar, calls for the contradictory necessity to often see what happens with the process in an informal manner before attending to other forms of studio practice. Taylor also revealed a usefully relaxed attitude in saying that, “It’s my kind of sketchbook really. Bits of cardboard and paper rather than a book of ideas.” But let’s not be deceived by any notion of indifference or impassiveness, as Taylor’s engagement with the selection, disparity and handling of the media constitutes an active form of research that allows for far more than a simple process-lead endeavour. Taylor’s undeniable Constructivist tendency also reveals a highly intelligent ‘eye’ that is a pure pleasure to witness in his work generally. In this selection of works, cutting up, colour-scribbling and the use of linear sub-divisions and boundaries is controlled by impressive skill in the placement of rectangular and circular forms to attain asymmetrical balance within the compositions. In other words, the works are highly sophisticated and exemplary examples of a particular territory of abstraction.
The works could well function as small studies for larger works, significantly grand and spacious canvases or even sculptures set in a large garden or parkland as a feel of the monumental pervades the imagery. Typically, the circular forms float in front of solid colour or sketchier, hand drawn backgrounds, although in two compositions, ‘Combinations’ and ‘Balance’, there are circular forms that might be described more appropriately as discs. By the time I had reached the penultimate image in Room 3, I started to read the titles and found ‘Circle Myth’. Having just read about the newly discovered giant Neolithic structure on the Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire, I could not avoid thinking about the fascination that many artists and writers still have for our ancient landscape. With the Summer Solstice just passed and Paul Nash’s ‘Landscape of the Summer Solstice’ also very much in mind a notion of landscape as a fundamental subject in art history (even if ‘landscape’ is at a low ebb at the moment) now imposes itself on my thinking. Nash’s ‘Equivalents for the Megaliths’ also springs to mind of course, which contains centrally placed geometric forms set in a simply rendered, painterly range of light yellows, ochres and greys that might be sensed in stronger colouration in some of the images in Room 3 of ‘The Circle’ (most especially ‘Sculptural Landscape’). Briefly letting my mind wander still further from the show for a while (an inevitable consequence of sitting at the computer rather than in a normal gallery context) I also recall the ‘Circle: International Survey of Constructivist Art’ publication involving Ben Nicholson, who surely must be a positive influence on Taylor’s work. In fact when I asked about a Nicholson link, Taylor confessed that he “…hesitated showing them for ages because of the inevitable comparison with Nicholson”. But he continued to explain that, “…they show my roots”. This is quite understandable and, I would argue, something to allow to unfold over time as a worthy lineage.
Whatever the associations, intended or otherwise, one must always return to the work of course. So having become aware of the addition of titles (note: Taylor has revealed that the titles were added before going online, which is fascinating as I wonder if stepping back from production allowed a usefully distanced overview away from process and production for different a mode of contemplation) I returned to Room 1. This navigation of the exhibition is a habit I commonly adopt for actual exhibitions, as a sometimes hurried overview requires one to retrace the initial journey. To find myself doing this online was certainly a surprise, though a reassuring one.
Looking again, giving more than cursory glances that may happen in walking around a show, an initial impression is formed of non-perspectival space compositions in which shape and placement is paramount. In these images visual space is essentially flat, although some of the rectangular forms could indicate perspective rendering. But on closer inspection vertical and horizontal lines also suggest spaces or areas receding. Occasionally a rectangular, trapezoid, form literally overlaps a drawn line to also create a sense of recession. Ins and outs, adjacent to, atmospheric backgrounds and bodily foregrounds are generated by the content. The circles, relatively large or small, often create a sense of floating but in a very slow motion akin to our experience of the moon or notions of the planetary. More forcefully intimating a notionally ‘real world’ are the titles. In Room 1 ‘Night Circles’ references a time of day and ‘Circle Talk’ could allude to a relationship between the three circular entities or the smallest group of people beyond a pair, with whatever narrative or consequences one might imagine. In the next room, ‘Sculpture Clouds’’ and ‘Sculpture Circles’ reference structures that could well be constructivist forms or ancient standing stones that predate what we culturally call ‘art’. ‘Dusk Moment’also summons a specific interval of time between day and night. Back in the final room, ‘Circle Myth’ again attracts my attention and now I am further intrigued by the various combinations of circular forms that feature in all of the works, but perhaps more emphatically here in Room 3. The works are suggestively intimate as two, three or four and a half discs converse in a rectangular environment. Perhaps these are conversation pieces, alluding ever so subtly to the eighteenth century English painting tradition of group portraiture in landscape or interiors. So, once more, the works take the observer on a digression by design or unintended intimation, fascinatingly open to the imagination.
‘The Circle’ prompts me to re-think my aversion to the online exhibition phenomenon – particularly as it’s here to stay, pandemic or no pandemic. But for an even more satisfying experience of the works another option would be to invest in one, and without a gallery mark up, there are bargains to be had from this show.
June 8 to August 3, 2018 at 24, Grafton Street, London
The Covid-19 pandemic has closed galleries for many weeks, and a plethora of online initiatives for displaying art, both contemporary and historical, have been taking place. From virtual tours of our major galleries to shows specifically curated for the digital platform there has been much to see, albeit in understandably compromised and impaired form. I must admit straightaway that the increased online content has not particularly engrossed me, probably because I have not tried hard enough, but in my defence, I just prefer to see the ‘real thing’. These would be not only the exhibitions I may have seen last week or even yesterday, where the experience would be fresh in my mind, or the shows I anticipate for tomorrow or next month, but also the shows from some time ago. This wishful thinking is due to focussed reminiscence, rather than some quirk of the lock-down effect on the deeper layers of consciousness, but is a welcome indulgence.
So, as I contemplate exhibitions I am now missing – most especially ‘Titian: Love, Desire, Death’ at the National Gallery in London and ‘Young Rembrandt’ at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford – I also recollect exhibitions that I would love to travel back to see and to experience again. My initial wish list, though never possibly definitive but inevitably autobiographical, would include the tenth John Moores show at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool from 1976, where John Walker’s ‘Juggernaut with Plume – for P Neruda’ won first prize, and The Hayward Annual 1980, selected by John Hoyland.
In Liverpool, Walker’s ‘Juggernaut’, a collage of painted canvas segments is still lodged in my memory, albeit without detail or the ‘plume’ that I am reminded of by seeing it again on the gallery’s website. Along with a visit to Manchester Art Gallery and The Whitworth during the same academic year as a Foundation art student in Shrewsbury, the pigment encrusted surface and painterly physicality of a small Camille Pissarro landscape definitely propelled me towards applying for a fine art degree. The real thing, before the advent of the digital-visual and a more mainstream understanding of hyperreality (beyond anything the surrealists may have conceived), was physically and visually rendered as form, surface, colour and materiality. Not that this was an intellectual realisation for a fledgling art student; it was simply emotive and felt intuitively.
Having completed my Fine Art (Painting) degree at Farnham (WSCAD) the year before, the Hayward Gallery show rejuvenated my post-graduation period of rudderless struggle without the luxury of tutors, fellow students, workshops and a well-stocked library. Several decades on, a lingering sense of something significant about seeing canvases by the likes of Gillian Ayres, Frank Bowling, Jeff Dellow, John McLean, Mali Morris, Fred Pollock, Terry Setch, John Walker etal that was subsequently scuppered by the following years of conceptualism and a diminishing lack of faith in abstraction from the art world power brokers, still niggles. But Hoyland’s choice of Albert Irvin’s ‘Bodicea’ for the Annual made a great impression and this exuberant painting still resides prominently in my mind’s eye as an overwhelmingly visceral experience of paint, colour and shape celebrating an unashamed abstract visuality.
As I linger at the keyboard, there are other shows from the past that bob-up to resurface in a state of lock-down reverie: ‘Ian McKeever: Recent Paintings’, at the John Hansard Gallery, Southampton 1984; ‘Francis Bacon’ at the Tate in 1985; ‘Georg Baselitz’ at Wiener Secession, Vienna 1986 (the upside down imagery was clearly more than a gimmick when viewed in the flesh rather than in the magazines and catalogues); but I must stop here, as Constable, Blake and Patrick Heron shows from the Tate emerge from the depths of memory.
What links these exhibitions for me is not only the pictorial content but also the impact and tangibility of the materiality of paint (including Blakes’s watercolours). The pre-digital ‘medium specificity’ of art works, before reading Greenberg years later for consuming his purist/modernist angle, has never been quite satisfied by the digital screen. Hence my predilection for first hand experience.
A relatively recent show that I recollect, albeit from 2018, is Carol Bove at David Zwirner in London. Had I not been so busy on other projects I chose not to review this colourful and impactful show, despite the temptation. I was already fully committed to reporting on Patrick Heron at Tate St Ives for AbCrit and was on this particular day heading for Gagosian in Grosvenor Hill for ‘Howard Hodgkin: Last Paintings’ and later for the opening at Assembly Point in Peckham of ‘Everything – An artist multiples event’ in which my eldest daughter was participating. It must have been Thursday 26 July.
There was, I realise in retrospect, a personal conundrum implicit in this decision not to explore Bove’s work further, as I was not sure if the work was abstract or something else. Had I made a little more effort I would have reconciled any questions of abstract purity issues with Heron in mind as his work was so embedded in qualities of local landscape from Eagle’s Nest, his Cornish enclave, that references or echoes from the world beyond the canvas or sculptural form do not necessarily undermine abstract intent.
If there is already too much anecdotal content in the story so far I can only defend my position within what is still a semi-lockdown mode wherein subjectivity might understandably outweigh a more objective line of conversation. Whilst taking time out, as it were, recalled images of Bove’s objects resurface more than from other exhibitions. A faint memory, gaining visual strength as I ponder and allow something to come through, gains colour and form with a sense of a long-lost video replaying in piecemeal fashion. Deliberately letting the slenderest of re-imaginings take hold and become concrete is the luxurious order of the day, as these sculptures, as memory traces, somehow change from lying dormant to becoming visually active.
Though a little indeterminate, I can see the sculptures in my mind’s eye quite strongly. In terms of writing this down a handwritten list will have to suffice before flowing prose tidies things up. I sense ‘modern’, perhaps ‘abstract’, pre-formed architectural forms, at once toy-like and yet suggestive of a larger scale, carefully arranged and mounted on white plinths in two rooms. Elongated steel boxes set at various angles seem dominant. Previously vertical forms that are no longer upright, but now bent and twisted by gravity or some calamitous circumstance. Careful placement, a degree of deliberate arrangement holding back from over indulgence – yet not minimalist. Some component parts painted yellow and green (is there red?), or rusted, that’s not so clear. Is there orange too? Yes, and black. Out of the tin colour, decorators’ pigments I guess (hints of Caro), rather than organic and earthy; satin rather than gloss finish, although I think the rust was real. Where did the rust come from – can you paint it on? Here I am uncertain – and holding back from searching for Bove imagery on-line or visiting the gallery website too soon.
Related to and arising from the experience of seeing the works in situ, lasting impressions are generated: a sense of collapse, of degeneration held for a while. A sense of time stalled, at least apparently so. Natural change is often unnoticeable from a human perspective, as we seem to live too fast. Nothing is permanent, is this implication generated from the work intended by the artist or from my own interpretation two years on? Not so much the flux of nature that Heraclitus pondered, but the impermanence of the built environment comes to mind.
From form and imagery I have shifted to associations. The work is certainly suggestive – though this might be the beholder trying to make figurative sense, literal definition. This is always an imposition on the abstract in art, until you tune in to what you are actually looking at. But any judgment of the works in terms of a simplistic like or dislike; finding the purely formalistic or recognising narrative content; or suggesting (especially as this is sculpture) monumentality, perhaps undermined by a sense of the mundane are put on hold. Despite disparity of form and colour the works appear to be coming together rather than disintegrating. Pleasingly composite forms that reference industry and applied design rather than nature, but somehow neither too big nor too small for the human scale of experiencing, tie everything together. I am neither physically overawed nor obliged to enquire close-up. There’s something about these sculptures that give more joy than promote fear, despite knowing that collapsing steel would mercilessly crush my bones. The addition of colour seems to imbue lightness and movement.
Is this ‘abstract’ sculpture? The works appear to be constructed from recognisable artefacts, designed, ‘modern’ forms – architectural, toy-like. How are they assembled as if they are virtually weightless, cardboard box forms? These disparate but related parts feel kind of wholesome and complete in themselves, though they could as easily be 3-D fragments collected from a skip and reassembled by some chance process. Experiencing (as well as seeing) several together in the same space emphasizes the artist’s dexterity in combining forms with visual as well as physical balance. I get a sense of humour, or is this an engagement with the unmonumental? (Which I shall later discover that it is.) There’s a sense of refined sophistication on display, if only because the sculptures look effortless. Others may disagree, but these are seriously playful pieces.
So, if they are not abstract are they figurative? There is an essence of bodily physicality – a sense of lying down, fallen, at rest or in flight. The works could be made to live outside as well as inside a home, gallery or public space. The plinths could be discarded, though I see the forms placed on a surface beneath them rather than suspended or attached to a wall. They are confidently themselves and could look good in any environment; urban or rural; homely, public or corporate.
Recollection, particularly from memory, can appear crystal clear or play tricks. But when I finally allow myself to search on-line for these works I see that all I recollected was reasonably accurate. The interpretation of the works might be way off the mark but I am pleased that I allowed myself the indulgence to revisit the show via my memory and further gratified by seeing the works brought into sharp focus and clarity by the installation shots of the exhibition kindly sent to me from the gallery on request. There’s a purpose and place for the virtual after all.
Given the current Covid-19 lock-down gallery visits have been curtailed and so on-line presentations of exhibitions are a welcome substitute for the ‘real thing’. Or rather, a regular alternative as we are so used to viewing artworks on our mobile phones – perhaps even more than on the computer screen – that the ‘virtual’ experience of art during this pandemic constitutes a reinforced normality. But where this increased reliance on the tiny digital screen might prove salutary as we miss out on visiting the galleries is in emphasising the loss of the material reality of the work of art. We might need reminding that the physical impact, embracing surface qualities, visual weights and textures, the correct colour and the actual size of artworks in relation to the viewer is missing from the digital experience. In a curated space (let’s assume in one large room) we could view individual works close up and from afar, or consider one or more works in juxtaposition to others. We might be satisfied with the choice and arrangements of the artworks or critical of the curator’s decisions. Furthermore, we might be impatient and in a hurry, or ideally attuned to a slow contemplation that the best quality works inevitably deserve and demand. Either way, seeing and experiencing an object as curious as a work of art are beyond the capabilities of the digital, but creative and intriguing possibilities are still available to the medium.
It has been a few years since I last read the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, so a re-acquaintance with his works was timely when artist, curator and podcaster Lucy Cox invited me to contribute two images to her blog, ‘The Aura of Abstraction’. Presenting a recent translation of Rilke’s ‘I’m in a Window Mood’ (the original is in French) adds an intriguing dimension to the two-dozen images selected and presented by Cox. As arranged on the web page the poem serves as a thoughtful precursor to the images that follow, although the intention is clearly not to requisition them as illustrations, but perhaps to provide pointers and prompts to consider the works. Most usefully, a spoken recording of the poem is also provided with the text and you can read the poem as you listen, or close your eyes and truly experience the verse in your mind.
The 24 artworks that follow are, simply, to be looked at as no further commentary is added. Taking a prompt from Rilke’s poem, harmony will be perceived to varying degrees in the images, from the carefully arranged colour shape elements in Laurence Noga’s collages or EC’s more painterly conflations, in contrast to Ruth Philo’s or Johanna Melvin’s more pared down compositions.
Elements of a purposeful and positive inconsistency (compatible contrasts) characterise Karl Bielik’s, Lisa Denyer’s and Jeff Dellow’s works. If the image or idea of the window frames a ruminatory and framing perspective, then the shallow spaces of Kuai Lianhui’s and Andrea V. Wright’s works press on the viewer’s eye space to create a tight and compressed sensation. Lucy Cox’s pieces echo the loosely geometric disclosures and ambiguous spaces of Melvin, Noga and Denyer to hint at a future collaboration that would be well in tune with current trends in abstraction. Huang Jun’s two works initially surprised me by their inclusion as they fuse figurative imagery with a painterly and gestural application of paint, but each is very cleverly interspersed with images from Denyer and EC to play off the visual liveliness found in their works. Seeing my own pieces in similar proximity to Dellow and Lianhui appropriately emphasised the interplay inherent in visual language that has been pared down to essentials where much, hopefully, can be implicit in inferred understatement.
A rewarding and worthwhile poem, like its visual counterpart, is always open to translation shifting meaning for a variety of potential readers. During the reading/viewing time we consider parts within the whole as well as the totality of the work. Responding to and ingesting a phrase within the structure might focus solely on a part in a text or an image, but the overall configuration has still to be resolved by the producer and the audience alike. For example, is the ‘bird’ appearing in the middle stanza of Rilke’s poem a thought that unexpectedly appears, asking for or wanting (depending on the translation) attention? Of course, the contemplative poet or reader is not the object of the bird’s attention. The bird is not aware of any observer, just as an incident in a visual image (abstract or figurative) has arrived devoid of relevance until the observer is primed to take something from any given situation when the conditions are right – by design or circumstance. Consequently, the actual and the imaginary meet the abstract, non-verbal conditions of contemplation with the promise of the unexpected integration beyond the self in concrete reality, avoiding the alienation commonplace between notions of ‘self’ and ‘other’. This is what Rilke consummately achieves.
Potentially, I’m in a window mood, whereby the implied frame of the rectangular screen, printed page or artwork becomes a portal that comforts me in these strange and unaccustomed times.
Two slightly different translations of Rilke’s poem are presented here. I have added the italics in the Petermann version to link with my comments above.
I’m in a Window Mood
I’m in a window mood today –
life seems to consist of simply looking.
I’m surprised by all the harmony I see,
intelligence as great as in a book.
Each bird that reaches into my view
with its flight asks for my consent.
And I give it. Inconsistency
used to terrify, now it comforts me.
You might find me in the middle of the night
having spent probably the entire day
surrendering to the inexhaustible window,
trying to be the other half of the world.
Poem: Rilke, R.M. (2017) When I Go: Selected French Poems. Translated from French by S. Petermann. Cascade Books.
Today I’m in a window mood,
to live seems just to look,
astonished by the better taste
of all, the fuller insight of a book.
Every bird that flies within
my reach wants me to consent.
I consent. Such an inconstant
force doesn’t surprise me now, it soothes.
And when night falls, who knows
perhaps I’ll find I’ve spent all day
given to you, inexhaustible window,
to be the other half of the world.
Poem: Rilke, R.M. (2002) The Complete French Poems of Rainer Maria Rilke. Translated from French by A. Poulin. Graywolf Press.