Alice Wisden: Off The Rails
At Rêver Gallery, Brighton
22 July – 5 August 2021
Go Ask Alice
“Rêver Gallery is happy to announce our latest and newest collaboration with the very unique and talented Alice Wisden. When we first met Alice we automatically gained to understand the type of ‘realness’ that she brings to not only the Art industry but to how tangible the emotions and passion are behind the paintings.” (Gallery website)
The burgeoning art scene in Brighton continues to develop despite the underlying presence of the Covid pandemic. Excuse the cliché, but there’s a buzz about the city that owes more than just to the busy streets and the swarms of Deliveroo scooters that plague the roads. Life really does go on.
Brighton’s newest gallery is the wonderfully named Rêver, which has opened with a show for Alice Wisden from the local Phoenix Art Space studios. Off The Rails is an intriguing title for the exhibition, which might resonate with viewers generally as opportunities to see art in the flesh and to socialise at private views slowly comes back on track. Digital presentations and selling platforms are here to stay but you can’t beat seeing the real thing. This ‘realness’ that Rêver Gallery identifies is palpable in Wisden’s challenging imagery, most especially with the cartoon-like addition of big red happy or sad lips set within white masks that replace real people’s faces from old photographs. At least they were real, once. For the cast of hundreds, or even thousands, that have resurfaced into the world are resurrected from found photographs and prints, many reclaimed from the local council rubbish dump by her dad.
Enter the gallery and at once images of people, from recent but past generations, surround the viewer. At first one will notice the unforgettable white masked faces with contorted expressions and those aforementioned red lips. The largest work in the show, not a photographic piece, but a drawing with the addition of blue and red neon components is ‘Gameface’ has very thoughtfully been displayed to pull the passerby into the exhibition space. But this title, which describes the blank, deadpan face required in a game of cards so as not to give away any clues to the opponent, is instantly undermined by the combination of a huge teethy smile and bulbous tears bursting from the cartoon character’s eyes. This work sets the scene for all that follows to either side, not in a superficial sense, but in setting up the viewer to reconsider the apparent appearances we enact by facial expression and unconscious body language. Taken further, our thoughts and behaviour might be viewed as those of the actor. William Shakespeare recognised this in his play, ‘As You Like It’ when Jaques’ well known speech begins with the immortal lines: “All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances…” Surely we all sensed this in those mundane periods of lockdown during the last 18 months or so?
The various stages, or everyday settings, in Wisden’s constructed scenarios appear to be dredged from the everyday, albeit dated with the richness, and sadness of times gone by. The works invite the viewer to engage in the quotidian calamity with a cast of every Tom, Dick and Harriet. Their mums and dads, their children; countless cousins, uncles and aunts; the great British family it would appear. We find them in familiar settings too: in schools, at home, in the back garden or at fairgrounds; or to add a little more drama, in swimming pools, burning buildings and churches; and of course the countryside or the seaside. Add many weapons, especially guns; plus aeroplanes, bicycles and even the proletarian classic car – the Hilman Imp – and psychodrama abounds in the everyday. But that which might first appear bizarre is, in reality, quite ordinary. If only we noticed a little more often: or perhaps not.
Do we laugh or cry with Alice? Remove yourself awhile, as if you were a visiting Alien from another universe, and question what is going on in this potent imagery. You might think that the Earthlings take this fascinating drug called humour. It’s both darkly repressive and lightly refreshing at the same time. It must be intoxicating and is surely imbibed on a daily basis to ward off evil spirits. Even the daftest, or darkest, humour keeps the spirit going for the inhabitants of this strange little island. You have to laugh, inside at least.
Throughout the collection in Off The Rails, tying everything together, there is always this fiendishly smiling, anxious or sad mouth. Their function goes way beyond any women’s mouths that Willem De Kooning embedded in his abstract expressionist frenzies. There’s more of an affinity with the characters from Otto Dix, the German Expressionist if historical precedents are sought. These over sized and contorted additions to Wisden’s imagery might initially look jokey. But the boy in the deck chair in ‘Brotherly Love’ isn’t smiling convincingly, although the naughty big brother who is about to shoot the kid in the head sheds tears for the tragedy about to reach its climax. The viewer knows it’s a fiction, but then maybe everything else is too?
I don’t know Alice personally, but her welcoming speech to the audience at the exhibition opening settled everyone down and gave us all a laugh. She spoke a little about her medical condition that, it seems to me, gives her a perceptive insight into existence and the stages and scenarios that we occupy awhile. She must have a wonderfully supportive group of family and friends that encourage an individual’s humour in the face of the mystery of life and all that we foolishly, and sometimes wisely, get up to.
Returning to Shakespeare’s final scene for us all: “Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything”, all is not necessarily lost as Wisden re-presents these ghostly souls, our de facto relatives, for our serious entertainment. Thanks too to the camera that required film and analogue printing; thanks to our elderly forbears who kept this stuff in old suitcases in the attic or garden shed. What’s it all about? Go ask Alice and give her work time. You will be rewarded via that crucial sense of humour that insanely keeps us going in adversity.
Alice Wisden – https://www.alicewisden.com
Rêver Gallery – https://revergallery.com
“All the world’s a stage” – https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/56966/speech-all-the-worlds-a-stage
Phoenix Art Space – https://www.phoenixbrighton.org
Jefferson Airplane – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ug2EcWkb26I