Black Fireworks: Mike Edwards
At Window Gallery, Phoenix Art Space, Brighton
5 – 27 October 2019
“He came home from the war with a party in his head and an idea for a firework display.” (‘Swordfishtrombone’, Tom Waits)
One of the earliest Black Fireworks paintings (‘Black Firework Painting’ – not exhibited here) was produced on 20 January 2017. Nearly three years later Mike Edwards has created a distinctive body of work throughout September 2019 from which eleven of the 30 paintings form the centrepiece of this show, plus three associated works. A potential benefit of a gallery at a studio complex is for displays to reveal explorations of new ideas and work in progress from the incumbents, rather than just exhibitions of fully realised periods from an individual’s practice. Arguably, any distinctive period of an artist’s oeuvre is still, in some way, a selection of work in progress but ‘Black Fireworks’, provides a fascinating departure by Edwards from his ‘bread and butter’ works. The change is not wholesale as there are undoubtedly connections with his earlier works, but current preoccupations and future possibilities have been examined and explored in what could turn out to be a preliminary body of work.
Edwards completed his September 2019 series of ‘Black Fireworks’ barely three days before the show opened – with framing still to do. Such a move may have been foolhardy or brave: either way the transitional nature of the collection provides an insight into the creative process that might often be overlooked by an audience expecting ‘the best selection’ from a body of work from a sustained period of time. It also provides a spur to other artists to revive their practice by encompassing the risk factor that may have lain dormant from their formative student years. This is not to suggest that ‘Black Fireworks’ is in any way reminiscent of an undergraduate’s body of work. It’s too sophisticated for that as, for example, the seemingly random splatters of black paint (burst from a paint filled balloon that might double as a fist or a cushion for comfort) that are repeated in the paintings are likely to have been washed off and reinstated, or carefully adjusted throughout the month-long project. There is also a distinct possibility that one or two ‘failures’ or unresolved compositions have been allowed to remain in the series (one of my favourites, ‘Black Firework Painting 21.09.19’) – though it’s all quite subjective.
In some instances elements from older works resurface, most obviously the personal iconography of the skull and the energy inducing zigzag motif. Some, such as ‘Black Firework Painting 04.09.19’, have an additional graffiti-like rendering. In this work the word ‘Paris’ has been daubed onto the blue-grey ground before the black burst of acrylic paint was applied. The imagery is further enhanced, and completed, with a neon-like rendering of a primitive human skull, complete with cast shadow to visually push the skull into the viewer’s space. Purposely or not, the dot over the ‘i’ in Paris doubles as one eye for the skull. There is nothing slapdash or random about this painting as it combines a rendering of informal lexicography with abstract, mark making, intensity. Referencing Paris also gives the work a specific historical dimension after a year of protest in the French capital and beyond and is granted a little more particularity by the choice of yellow (from the gilets jaunes) for the two lines that constitute the street-art type skull. Edwards loosely appropriates, as visual metaphor, the skull for the mind that thinks about the world and what goes on in it. ‘Black Firework Painting 04.09.19’ is a visual morpheme, wherein differing language systems combine successfully to produce a coherent whole.
Frustrations at the way things are, or how others act, can irritate. We might literally hit out at others, shout out loud or scream inside. In painting, especially in an expressionist vein, one option to the artist is to throw the paint at the canvas, constituting a deliberate act of unbrushworthiness (sic). This ultimate and totemic symbol of pent up frustration may well be the splatter that smashes against the barrier between the inside and the outside: self and society, me and you, us and them. These Black Fireworks are sneakily contradictory as they appear as a personal (visual) attempt to be integrated into the ever developing body of the artist’s work, but as active participants with some impatience and informality in addition to the well established degree of control normally associated with his work. For example, the inclusion of ‘Magna Carta’ and ‘Thrills, Skills, Kills & Ills’ shows evidence of Edward’s highly disciplined painting abilities. So too does ‘Black Firework Painting September 2019’, a 60x60cm oil painting on canvas that is both completed and undermined by the particularly aggravating intrusion of a weighty black splatter over geometric zigzags and a sublimely dramatic cloudy sky as theatrical backdrop.
The smaller and more speculative acrylic on board ‘Black Fireworks’ (which at 40x30cm suggest the page of a sketchbook or preparatory study) are a productive response to external circumstances, proposing a painting surface that constitutes both a resistant skin and a site for testament beyond simple materiality. It’s the contradiction of the material and the mental that might be both engaging (for the viewer) and frustrating (for the producer). Even as personal exegesis to attempt to come to terms with current affairs, ‘Black Fireworks’ undoubtedly reflects contemporary events and potential states of mind (depending on your personal point of view, of course) at a time when the shift to extremes in politics and the burgeoning ecological crisis leave so many people feeling guilty, helpless or angry. The capricious and volatile scenes that the digital interface of the TV, iPhone or computer screen (perfect formats for the fictive) that can equally entertain and distress an audience, now creeps into lived daily experiences in many forms including the pernicious Brexit argument, poverty and homelessness, exaggerated weather conditions, constant surveillance and party-political turmoil, notwithstanding the acceptance of such conditions as perfectly acceptable from some sections of society and government. This compelling work has the hand mark and effect of the personal and provides evidence of a genuine sense of the visual artist who feels that he must respond/react in some way to the violence and unpredictability of the times in which we live. It’s a political act. That reaction may ultimately be fruitless or self-centred, even though shared and made public. But this provides the frisson of creative danger that hopefully results in a successful outcome. In his own way, as a popular and successful painter, Edwards makes a visual diary of sorts for the times we live in by using the metaphor of ‘black fireworks’, which paradoxically darken the sky, as oppose to illuminate it. These may not be paintings that sell as well as colourful and decorative popular-image-type paintings may often do – though here there is a contradictory polemic at work that is redolent of individual angst, but may well resonate more collectively and find space in personal collections that are more than superficial.
‘Black Fireworks’ may well constitute a period of transition – not necessarily to radically replace, but to refresh and invigorate an esteemed practice. These 30 little windows on to the world, including those not selected for the show due to space restrictions, through the non-digital medium of paint, initially stresses the handiwork of the individual who works with the seemingly chaotic explosive imprint of the painterly splash. Mediated by varying instances of additional images: the red lightening strike in ‘Black Firework Painting 19.09.19’, the scrawl that emerges from the black mess of ‘Black Firework Painting 29.09.19’, or the pin and balloon that remains in ‘Black Firework Painting 16.09.19’, indicate that this series clearly has plenty more mileage left to explore.
‘Black Fireworks’ are a History Painting of sorts, where facts vie with interpretation.
All images © Mike Edwards.
Mike Edwards – www.mikeedwardsartist.com
Phoenix Art Space – https://www.phoenixbrighton.org/events/mike-edwards-black-fireworks/
Tom Waits – ‘Swordfishtrombone’ – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rDGhJtEsmj8