CVAN South East: 2020 Platform Graduate Award
Phoenix Art Space, Brighton
“Yes! The show must go on after all…”
“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 Charlotte Guérard, 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.
Phoenix Art Space (PGA Award)
Ursula Vargas (Website)
Leanne Jones-Starr (Website)
Jessica Davis (Website)
Charlotte Guérard (Instagram)
Rachel Atkinson (Instagram)
Freelands Foundation (Charlotte Guérard)
a-n review (Kitty Bew / Charlotte Guérard)
Hunting hound petition (Jessica Davis)