What is it that makes a painting exhibition so memorable? It could be the whole collection of works or just one item in particular. This show at the Phoenix Art Space Window Gallery offers so many possibilities for that first ‘visual hit’. A viewer might be struck by the strong and forceful imagery wherein the subjects stare relentlessly back at the hapless viewer, or by the acute feminist rhetoric that challenges the ‘male gaze’. In more formalist terms the audience could be impressed by the sheer abundance of colour that, though so varied a palette is employed, the ability to place one colour beside another in contrast or harmony reveals visual decisions that are not diverted by narrative content. Coaxed in by the colour and/or the subject matter, by getting up close to the painterly surfaces the confident paint handling keeps the imagery in check and tempers sheer expression that could otherwise overpower the project’s central message of female empowerment within a patriarchal society.
The notion of the viewer, as an individual or gender based, is particularly interesting in the context of seeing a one-person show. We might attend an exhibition to see the work of a specific artist, whatever the various potentials for subject matter may also present. In this instance the show’s title, ‘I’m Like Other Girls’ could draw attention to the artist herself or to notional characters, real or imagined, who are presented in the imagery. But, as well as these personalised references and dramatis personae, the viewer’s gaze is brought to the fore too.
This viewer/writer can only, really, react and write from his (my) own perspective and knowledge base of course, even if objectivity is genuinely sought. So I found myself scribbling down a few words and phrases as I pondered the possibilities of reviewing the exhibition. Negatives were recorded first: Don’t like. Not my thing. Unsettling. Unnerving. Daring. Shocking. Uncomfortable.
Then the notations became more conciliatory: Look at the paint handling. Clear decisions made. What does the paint do? The colour too. Confronted by the image and the colour/materiality of the medium. Narrative?
I suspect that at least one of Malcomson’s objectives had been confirmed by my initial reaction, particularly as a male viewer. From a statement on the University of Brighton blog at the time of graduation she wrote:
“I don’t want my paintings to be ‘nice’. I want them to hurt. I am testing the boundaries of taste. I am playing with the contradiction of attraction and repulsion. The figures in the paintings are strong, powerful, larger than life, not delicate, fragile or ‘nice’. They are not the way the male gaze has often portrayed women in art history. Throughout this history, women have been painted as passive objects.“
What will be memorable to me about this exhibition, in addition to confirming the relevance, and therefore the role of the viewer, is that Malcomson’s work does not reside in that compromising area where the ideas are stronger and more engaging than the physical outcomes – a phenomenon that is not unusual in ‘emerging artists’ work (and maybe a few established artists too) – but for the great skill and maturity displayed in the painting at such an early stage of her career.
‘I’m Like Other Girls’ is a celebratory event after being awarded the CASS Art/ Phoenix Art Space Studio Award for 2020/21. Since graduation this is Malcomson’s second solo show (the first, entitled ‘Sisters, Sisters, Sisters’ was held at New Art Projects, London in June of this year).
Jonathan McCree, Bruce Ingram, Jonathan Goddard and Joe Walking
APT Gallery, Deptford
2 – 12 September 2021
It was Thursday 9th September and Up For Grabs had been open for a week. A performance had already taken place some days before and the Private View was tomorrow. This was a two-week exhibition of painting, dance, sculpture and film. I had missed the dance and the film too, but a projector was being installed to show a video of the performance, but I couldn’t stay too long as I had a timed entrance ticket for something of apparent importance at the Royal Academy. So this would have to do, and thank goodness, it was probably the best part of the day. *
The front space was conventionally organised for an exhibition of sculpture and painting and Bruce Ingram and Jonathan McCree had three works each on display. By conventional I mean some works were placed on the wall at a comfortable viewing height and three more pieces were arranged on the floor with ample room to walk around. There was a balance. They were, it appeared, ‘finished pieces’ and ‘final’ as we expect artworks in exhibitions to be. As a first impression there was surely something going on about construction and deconstruction, about placement of the works and relationships within the works themselves. What was ‘up for grabs’ at this stage I wasn’t sure – maybe an opportunity to take something away from the show, or to suggest potential.
This initial selection and indeed this space could be complete in itself, but it proved to be something of a threshold to pass through, for in the next space that precedes the largest room at the rear, a clue to some playfulness was sensed from encountering an apparently disfigured column, a strongly vertical element, that was placed on the floor but had unexpectedly been folded at 90 degrees to fix itself to the wall to form an archway to tempt someone to stoop under and squeeze through. This piece was quickly followed by another of McCree’s stretched box forms wrapped around the protruding corner into the next space. Clearly an intervention had taken place at some point and as the artist was on duty to greet visitors today he explained to me a little later that one of the performers had previously indulged in interacting with the sculptures to adjust them to the gallery environment.
Also in this middle room were more of Ingram’s works and by now there was more of an obvious or staged interaction between the two artists’ works. Typically, Ingram’s works explore found materials in assemblage and collage-type painted forms employing plaster and various paints (household and artists’ acrylics) to fuse the various elements together. Placed on the floor rather than on the wall one of Ingram’s constructions formed a framework to look through to see another work beyond. A sense of destruction as much as building the artefacts of the environment was taking shape. As a visual tease, Ingram’s works have remnants of colour applied, similar to McCree’s suggestively ‘out of the tin’ coatings, to link the works. Contrasts of smoothness and rough surfaces distinguish the two to some extent but the pairing is not incongruous.
My daughter and I walk around a while, tuning in still to a display that has transformed from calm quietude at the main entrance to visual and spatial cacophony in the largest room. I pick up a press release (which I shall read on the train back to Brighton later, as I want the work to speak to me first and foremost) and start to scribble some notes on the reverse:
Enter the labyrinth, parts, bits & pieces…
Plenty to see, though not too much…
Image / Object – which will predominate…
What is an exhibition for?
What is an exhibition for? Now that’s interesting. In this instance, Up For Grabs is certainly entertaining, exciting and memorable. The individual paintings and sculptures work on their own terms, but as an arranged event (sadly for just over a week) the exhibition comes alive as a happening of sorts as much as a static display. I imagine the missed performance and projected film work that preceded today’s visit, which isn’t enough, but will have to do. The finished and unfinished, or work in progress nature of the works, suggests a similar modus operandi for the viewer. There is method in looking, in relating to the artworks physically, spatially and psychologically. Visual art is not exclusively about seeing; it offers possibilities for recognising the power of one’s own imagination (and sometimes a lack of). There are formal relationships to find or be presented with. There are colours and textures to indulge in. Likewise there are parts that seem to work perfectly and others that the viewer might desperately want to change – even to improve. The visual aesthetics provide a way into potential readings that could suggest social interaction, notions of community, interdependence, the built environment (including furniture) and the politics of choice, indulgence and creativity.
My daughter described the assembly as “rocks and trees”. Jonathan McCree talked perceptively about “… delaying uncertainty in or from painting to the sculptures, which are moveable parts”. This gave his three-dimensional work edginess, like it was finished but not really. Or resolved, but hopefully not so as it invited some form of change.
This exhibition, no – this environment, concocted a landscape of sorts, an active space demanding an audience to interact by looking, moving, pacing, stopping; head up then head down, confronting occlusions to find surfaces, then seeing variously coloured or textured planes morphing into three-dimensions giving way to silently laughing, then becoming equally engrossed or bemused. Performing a journey, in effect, as an exhibition is not necessarily a final resting place for particular works – anything might be up for grabs; even our expectations.
* This statement is a little disingenuous as I was also impressed with Mind’s Eye at Flowers in Cork Street where Carol Robertson’s geometric works had been displayed with Terry Frost’s. My review of this show has been published by Saturation Point. See the link below.
At Campden Gallery, Chipping Campden, Gloucestershire
18 September to 9 October 2021
In preparation for Mary Grant’s exhibition entitled The Distance at Campden Gallery I had access to some of the works selected to enable me to write the catalogue essay. Here I present an extended version:
Looking at this body of recent work from Mary Grant’s studio in Sussex I am somehow more conscious of the past and present. There is a sense of clock-time imploding into the apparent contradiction of the past, yet still fused with the here and now as one visual manifestation. Via the individual memory of the artist, seeing and experiencing the landscape as any of us might, then transforming and translating this into a labile but fixed image. Any one of her paintings creates a memorial of sorts, a testimony for a time of looking and feeling. A landscape painting, especially a figurative one, might be considered a kind of snapshot, particularly as we are so accustomed to photographic imagery. But the painter, and the wise viewer, knows otherwise. A canvas holds the potential to be a palimpsest for feelings, whether joyful or sorrowful, celebratory or despairing – or simply captivating and inviting contemplation of the imagery over time.
The English Landscape Tradition continues apace, though its longevity may prompt some to look for the ‘shock of the new’ in media beyond painting – especially oil painting. But you do not necessarily need to be acquainted with or particularly well informed about late eighteenth or early nineteenth century painting to find meaning, relevance and inspiration in contemporary painting that engages with what we generally refer to as the landscape genre. Critically, we have to remember that this imagery is loaded with reference to its own times – from any century. The art historian will have a handle on the picturesque and romantic enthusiasms of the painters from the past and this may well be part of the DNA of numerous contemporary painters – of whom Grant is one. But the best painters avoid pastiche (unless irony is their thing) and produce work that is genuinely set in the present day avoiding the trappings of shallow decoration or safe imagery, to express that which is contemporaneous. There is often a sense of risk taking in Grant’s paintings, whereby she might lose the vitality of the image but is supremely able to know how far to go and when to stop. Her work includes the viewer, indeed needs the viewer, to realise the project.
If you were not sure where to start with contemporary landscape you might take a look at Grant’s work, where an undeniable indebtedness to the history of her pictorial subject matter is acknowledged but is not derivative. Grant’s imagery is typically honest, recognisable and everyday – but the commonplace is surely as astonishing as the unexpected or rarely observed. If only we might observe this intensity of visual phenomena more often. We might take notice from a walk or from the car window as the world rushes by, in leisure or work time, but being ‘in the moment’ is an understandable challenge to the senses as we journey to or from other aspects of our busy lives. Perhaps this is why the prosaic is often unusual or unexpectedly powerful in Grant’s imagery. Figures seldom appear but these places are there for us. A road, street lamps, a view that implies the viewer through eye-level in the composition, a sense of the gaze that breathes life into the paintings.
An important aspect of Grant’s paintings, which delivers the imagery, is the controlled but high-energy frisson in the paint handling. Put the notion of subject matter aside and engage with the immediate, unfussy, raw and expressionistic application of paint. There is tactility and colour to connect to, plus an engaging tonal impact to engage with. Such concrete qualities provide a transitional experience for the viewer. They are more than Romantic tropes because they are concrete and felt in the here and now. You might literally touch the sgraffito surfaces with your eyes and in some imagery the heightened colour intrusions of red, yellow or pink adds a tantalising hint of Magical Realism to the scenery. In these instances the content is also psychological, not only recording the painter’s psyche but also the viewer’s potential mental and physical experience. For sometimes the landscape is quietly exploding or churning, or it envelops us in a misty, comforting shroud. We are here in the works, but we are inevitably going somewhere from somewhere. Grant leaves a door open for the viewer to interpret at their will. The everyday – reminding the viewer of what visual glories are in front of us, often right here, right now.
“The initial meaning of work is increasingly lost, as it becomes a commodity or a product, reflected by its monetary value. This presents creatives with a moral dilemma. Art is more than a commodity; it is a movement, it is expression, it is power.”(Editors’ Letter, Gatekeeper, issue 01, Autumn 2020)
For convenience and convention, Siân Lester might be described as a textile artist but as a freelance textile designer, who finds her practice segueing from applied design to fine art via post-graduate study at Swansea College of Art, a less specific labelling might be ‘visual creative’, with functional distinctions being irrelevant or outmoded. From a fine art perspective there is nothing unusual, especially nowadays, for the painter or sculptor to develop their practice from a particular discipline (painting might be the obvious one) into the ‘expanded field’. Hence terms such as the un-monumental (re-sculpture), the ephemeral (a development of performance and the ‘happening’) and a celebration of non-hierarchical materialism (explored in Modernism as the objet trouvé, the collage, the Combine and the Readymade – leading to Conceptualism) where all and any media are worthy of the message they impart. This expansion of the artist’s role would also include curatorship, most especially into the domain of the ‘installation’ where project and praxis combines theory with materiality as event as much as for object production.
In the current world-wide political and economic climate that at long last is starting to consider environmentalism seriously, and slowly but surely questioning the way we all live with industrial and post-industrial technologies, we notice the visual arts community externally thinking things through in their various choices of materials, processes and outcomes with explorative vigour. Lester has identified that her local environment has much to offer up in the form of oak bark, fallen lichen, gorse flowers, nettles, madder root and birch leaves; she also utilises a knack for gathering, carefully manipulating and presenting her materials, including match boxes, artefacts such as string, matchsticks and woven materials in a variety of simple vessels. There are seed heads, dried flowers and other fibrous materials too – even a small Bosch saw blade. Her gatherings accept an environment’s history and character, whether from inside or out. She ‘goes with’ the selected materials as if it was a two way process where she has invited the remnants of her environment to participate.
In this comfortably sized space for the installation at Studio Cennen, situated underneath the main gallery housing the Borrowed Landscape exhibition, Brigid Loizou, gallery founder and curator, has given Lester free reign to organise and display her symbiotic samples where the spider webs have been left on display by the artist with her various examples of dyed cloths and natural objects (free gifts) placed carefully into small circular vessels made from packing sourced from her kitchen. Many of the offerings are placed on a central tabletop with other items lined up on a long shelf-like construction or the window shelf. Opposite the windows a line of botanically dyed woven samples are suspended from a piece of rope to suggest a washing line. These domestic suggestions are enhanced rather than disrupted by a sense of a place of worship in which relics have been stored and placed for the visitor to appreciate in relaxed reverence. Symbiosis might be seen as an installation that forms a hybrid configuration of temple and garden shed as a display case to walk into. This could be a secular place of worship that marries the natural environment with the human dwelling; or the holy shrine with the everyday stuff we seldom notice as a celebration of a form of Wabi-Sabi – the Japanese aesthetic of acknowledging the everyday, especially the transient and imperfect.
This ostensible storage area has been transformed into what may come across as a tidied up workshop wherein collections or categories of object and matter are neatly displayed. The visitor might walk around as if in Fortnum and Mason’s, enjoying the visual and textural delights of lots of goodies on display. Some are identifiable, other not so straightforward. Some content is pure (seeds and shells), whilst others are processed (especially string and twine) to prompt a sense of awe and reverence or even humour. The installation can be viewed as a diorama of sorts but the engagement is best explored as a visual journey to be taken by inspecting the parts that make up the whole. The temptation to touch is mitigated by the simple arrangement of material content that is a pleasure to observe. Some items line up or bunch together, whilst others act alone. The vessels may invite the viewer to pick up, even to shake or pour, but a sense of stillness pervades that slows the viewer down, edging towards meditation. Observation is ideally performed in silence, despite the road traffic outside, and the material objectness of the display goes beyond commodity offering the viewer an experience to ponder the world beyond the individual sense of self as observer in the direction of an opportunity to appreciate plant-type material whose historical ancestry started 500 million years ago – and will probably continue long after the humans have gone.
In the meantime, if you have the chance to visit Studio Cennen before mid-August you will not be disappointed.
“Textile is distinct, offering a unique opportunity to consider both the material and immaterial.
As part of the MA Contemporary Dialogues portfolio, you will be encouraged to engage with contemporary issues and material investigation, including critical and theoretical dialogues as fundamental to your progression and individual practice.
We offer workshops across disciplines, including photography, glass, ceramics, surface pattern and textiles, encouraging you to develop an interdisciplinary approach, involving those traditionally associated with textile practice and beyond. Hand-made as well as digital processes can be considered, as can writing and text as forms of textile making and thinking.”
“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.
Immersed in the ocean, when varying degrees of coldness have been adjusted to, and when relieved of the weight of one’s body to counter the substance of our normally earthbound physicality, swimming in or just floating in the sea must be a wonderful place to be. Or if strolling on the promenade, in leisure time or between tasks and expectations from work or family, time and space can merge with the visible if we allow it to. Such experiences are freely available, though we may need reminding of this from time to time. Sophie Abbott’s current show, Shoreline, at Phoenix Art Space does just this.
On my third visit in as many days I sat in the gallery and felt calmed after an intensive few weeks spent preparing for and invigilating other exhibitions. This was a ‘time out’ experience that induced an unexpected ‘time in’. On my first two visits, when my mind was on other matters, I wondered if there was too much on display – albeit out of shear enthusiasm from the artist and her assistants to create a visual feast for the increasing number of visitors now able to attend exhibitions.
In the main Window Gallery space thirteen paintings are displayed on four white walls. Clusters of work, two, three or four paintings at a time, are punctuated at even intervals by the double doors that lead into the teaching spaces. Yet all of these paintings considered together create an immersive corridor to move along, prompting a viewer to switch back and forth. It could well be too busy a hang for some but, for me, maxes out to provide just the right impact to enable individual canvases to be contemplated, or to experience the whole frieze affect. But this is mere stocktaking.
Sitting down at the central point of the corridor I found my gaze shifting from what was immediately in front of me to a work I had only notionally glanced at as I entered the show from the coffee shop (one of two entrances). Some literal perspective was pulling me in to ‘Pink Sunrise’. Colour-wise this work is the odd one out and a distinctive placement on a dark grey wall emphasises some kind of divergence. On the other hand the rising sun represents the generally considered start of day and so the show thematically begins here.
The all-over scan might be the way the viewer steps into most paintings but for this work I suspect that a relatively small, orange oval shape placed in the bottom right-hand section almost instantly commands a roving eye. I wondered if unconsciously and symbolically this was someone special in the crowd. The intensity of colour in relation to the rest of the composition is certainly strong. But it’s a momentary focal point from the experience of seeing as a larger but fuzzier orb mirrored on the left-hand side repeats the shape as if to provide balance. Amongst the eponymous pinks in this sunrise are crimsons and blues as well as larger but softer clouds of pink and orange in all areas. These vie for attention without recourse to hierarchy of size or saturation. The small orange shape that first stood out is a punctum of sorts (though Barthes identified this phenomenon in photography of course) as there is a subtle aura of subjectivity suggested by the abstract qualities of the work as a whole. Yet step back or shift your head around if you stay close by and this orange blob of delicious orange is subsumed into the whole composition and other, initially less noticeable, colour shapes stand out too. Visually, the viewer could be stilled by one shape or by the alloverness of the work. The phenomenology of sight perception can contradictorily oscillate between the gaze and the focus.
There’s often a feeling of joy in Abbott’s painting, typically communicated through an exuberance of colour and a painterly glee. But it’s also the handling of the paint and an acceptance of its simple qualities of thickened or thinned; intermixed or stand alone; opaque or transparent; forceful or anonymous that lends a sophistication that can be overlooked if the decorative interior design feel is given too much credence. Although liquidised enough to avoid a literal heaviness the subject matter is never forced in her work. But there is often an everyday profundity at play.
In the lengthy Window Gallery installation the colour scheme is markedly, though not completely, different from ‘Pink Sunrise’. Here we engage with watery blue-greens and more ultramarine sky-blues, often contrasted with pinks and oranges. Fairly strong hues shift to mixes with white (sometimes approaching chalkiness but not too much to kill the colour effect). This fine-tuning of colour adjusts the surface tensions and contributes to the visual and physical layers, including flattened labyrinths of atmospheric form.
Controlled drips of paint – never over indulged in, but enough to remind the viewer of gravity (which even makes water earthbound) – plus seemingly independent colour patches form islands and archipelagos that ultimately add up to fully integrated and holistic arenas. Abstract reality is developed from the external environment, along and within the shoreline, with the potential for a frame of mind that, arguably, only visual abstraction and music can recreate. The viewer is invited to enter this (literal) acrylic/canvas space as an immersive experience. The result is an elegant state of grace.
Note: Approach the exhibition from the main entrance to the Phoenix Art Space for an extra painting from Sophie Abbott in the Plein Air exhibition in which her work is accompanied by works from fellow studio members Jane Campling and Julian Vilarrubi.
What started at the Phoenix Art Space at the beginning of 2020 as a critical discussion group for ten painters has now developed into an exhibiting group named The Ruminators Arts Collective (RAC), our collective public designation. Whilst our main raison d’etre will be to encourage the sharing of practice based ideas and outcomes through constructive feedback as we meet up in our respective studios, we are also open to new developments and opportunities.
Many artists may well have inadvertently stockpiled their wares over the past fifteen months or so as exhibiting prospects were diminished as galleries closed for now or for good. Some artists prospered to varying extents from the Artists Support Pledge, an amazing Instagram based initiative instigated by Matthew Burrows, though this life support system cannot replace the established gallery system however either may evolve from now on. Back at the Phoenix Art Space we were disappointed to not being able to participate in the last two annual Open Studio weekends during the Brighton Festival. As a small but determined group within the larger community we felt that a desire to exhibit could only be resolved affirmatively by an enterprise to take a selection of works into the city centre with a ‘pop-up’ show. Closely missing out on a council lead initiative to fill otherwise empty shops with exhibitions of locally produced art eventually lead the group to take a more direct initiative and to approach Henry Gomez at the Dynamite Gallery for this inaugural show.
Eight of the RAC have been able to contribute to BOOM at this time and, as the member who also writes reviews, I suggested a feature here on fineartruminations. As a participant it would be inappropriate for me to scribe a glowing review, though I have waxed lyrical about solo shows from Philip Cole and Michelle Cobbin in the recent past. Reviews of the HARDPAINTING showpieces held at the Phoenix Art Space over the last few years also included my own responses to contributions from Ian Boutell, Patrick O’Donnell and the aforementioned Philip Cole. But given that media coverage of contemporary art, especially painting, is limited to the select few (you can make your own shortlist) it seemed like a reasonable decision to share the work of my accomplices on this platform.
Without consulting the rest of the group for affirmation it seems obvious that what we all have in common is a love of painting. The term ‘love’ is a loaded term of course but, in this context, I optimistically believe that a serious commitment to the cause of painting can be recognised in everyone’s work however diverse our practices may be. No one should be embarrassed by the term. There is also a strong sense that other worthy media never diminish painting, whether ‘expanded’ or even as a direct challenge within the post-modernist era, and that relationships are there to be forged in varying contexts. I therefore would hope that an underlying manifesto-type imperative in each Ruminator’s actual work is registered by potential viewers to pose an argument for painting beyond the merely decorative and the ‘on trend’ manifestations of the commercial sector that sits more comfortably with easy access imagery. Typically, the works from the RAC demand time for contemplation from an audience so that a casual scan would be insufficient to do justice to the work in question. It is unapologetically incumbent upon the individual viewer to complete the work in a sense, not a new argument of course, which necessitates some degree of faith. But do bear in mind that this ‘completion’ is just the beginning of a journey as a painting, akin to a living organism, is ideally something to live with and to re-visit over time.
The words that follow (not all mine) are simply intended to provide some helpful context with minimal biography, if any, so as not to fall into the contemporary trap of pushing the personal so far in front of the work that good old-fashioned aesthetic standards (even anti-aesthetic positions are valid) might be allowed to drop. If this assertion draws criticism, so be it.
My essential curatorial decisions are three-fold for this feature: to take each artist’s personal statement that I requested and to change the text into the third person if this had not already been done; to add and weave in my own thoughts and interpretations where relevant; and to include one image for each artist. Correctly, I appear at the end – so this section will be conveyed in the first person.
Harrison’s bold and colourful work focuses on landscape subject matter and a sympathetic emulation of, or rather from, the natural world. On smoothly seductive surfaces, Harrison’s colour range often blends or juxtaposes local hues with atmospheric and subjectively ethereal colour-shapes that mix the observed with the felt experience developed on the canvas. An often-understated painterliness also creates a tension of sorts with brash yet confident colour combinations. This distinctive feature relates to synaesthetic conditions that lend some delicious configurations of colour choices that ‘pop’ to make the surface feel lively and visually active. In these instances the abstract characteristics of such works might temporarily disengage the viewer from the ostensible subject matter – what disrupts these glimpses of paradise?
Harrison has not indulged in a purely colour obsessed jaunt through the landscape. Enquire of the work a little more and, beyond the immediately visible, a cultural awareness invested in imperative ecological concerns emerges. For Harrison is particularly interested in eco-systems and conservation spaces that are hidden or discovered on walks. Many people’s interaction with the physical landscape may often be for superficially picturesque pleasure (not necessarily a bad thing) but her on-going project aims to bring attention to these spaces and the work that is or is not being done to maintain sustainability.
June Frickleton is known professionally for being involved with curating and consultancy as well as for her own practice as a painter. The Boom exhibition gives visitors an opportunity to see and experience her distinctive imagery developed from a visit to Iceland in early 2020 before the Covid-lockdown, which typically has a strong visual impact that combines landscape sources with painterly abstraction. Her palette is often, and intentionally, reduced to just two or three colours. Crimson reds and ultramarine blues dominate the recent works, which have a sumptuous and richly Baroque feeling of visual movement which the viewer may well feel physically and internally as much as visually.
Frickleton’s studio activity responds to the process of painting from an improvised and performatively enacted engagement with painterly qualities from working on the studio floor as well as with the conventions of the wall mounted canvas. From internalised experiences made during and after travelling the engagement with the paint medium develops the imagery in the studio environment and, though sometimes looking spontaneous, is cultivated and evolved over extended periods of time using a mixture of deliberate brush marks combined with thinned down layers of oil paint. By a process that involves pouring washes of turpentine over the surface to stain the canvas, Frickleton builds these various interlocking, overlapping and strongly tinctured fields of pure colour up into layers until the desired image emerges. The final result, particularly in her larger works that engulf the viewer’s gaze as spaces to float or fall into, might well convince the recipient that the experience of looking and engaging becomes their active role as much as the artist’s intention.
In a similar vein to Frickleton and Harrison, Michelle Cobbin’s work explores the relationship between colour, form and mood. She is interested in how her own mood dictates the colour palette she chooses to work with on any particular painting journey. She might start a painting in warm tones for example, and then feel completely out of sync with those colours the next time she is in the studio, so she either puts that work aside or paints over it. This surely frustrated her to begin with until she realised that her approach to painting is overtly visceral and intuitive – therefore choosing the right colour for her mood was essential and not arbitrary.
With a mode of operation that is reliant to an emotional response to colour it is no surprise that abstract images emerge without the necessity to formulate a figurative or recognisable ‘picture’. Cobbin’s practice is both brave and dependent on faith in a sense. She surely has to allow herself to psychologically, and certainly self-consciously, leave the painting process somehow, which sounds like a weird contradiction. This seeming loss of self that, probably, many painters experience (whatever their visual language) is a major component of Cobbin’s practice that might be better witnessed than explained in words – though it might be a necessity for the poet too.
In physical terms, some of Cobbin’s paintings are many layered, as their colour narratives develop and change as she works. She has revealed that, “other pieces that appear are born complete – rare species that flow through me occasionally when the stars align and I’m without ego or self-consciousness.” This necessitates the hard-won skill to recognise when a painting is finished relatively early, before subsequent layers are added out of habit or expectation. From this point onwards the work develops its own potential narratives that are projected on to it by the viewer, though one might be warned not to project into the work with one’s gaze, but to accept what is projected wordlessly by the visual impact of the work itself.
It seems appropriate to follow an appreciation of Michelle Cobbin’s painting practice with Nina Garstang’s as their working practice employs huge faith in avoiding over indulging in any form of didacticism and instead engages in a heavily subjective and autonomous approach to visual creativity that bypasses ego and self-absorption. Her work contemplates a middle ground between what is real and what is not, pushing the view of the objects she paints to the point where they lose their identity, thus revealing an altered view that suggests looking into the universe or travelling deep inside the body.
When immersed in her studio practice, Garstang carefully ponders the medium of paint and/or inks as if little else exists once the realm of painting as both noun and verb, thing and action conjoined, takes over. Her work explores the qualities and viscosity of coloured media as primary material with which to explore not only a state of mind but which are also evocative and redolent of current opinions of the tradition of painting in an increasingly ‘virtual’ world. This notion of the virtual is, arguably, inherent both historically (from the moment women made their hand prints on cave walls perhaps) to the on-going psychological experience of creating a painting at any time. For example, flirting with the idea of Rorschach cards and likening the state of mind to that of the theta brain wave state, which is akin to daydreaming and is free flowing, Garstang’s work presents both a thought provoking and aesthetically fabulous indulgence in painting that truly engages the viewer’s seeing experience beyond the here and now. Author and poet Richard Lewis’ description of Garstang’s glass paintings is evidence of this potential in her recent work:
“The colours hit me up with their intensity, like chemicals chasing through my blood. It’s a visceral thing at first and then meaning emerges: I get rivers, seas and mountains, then into cells under microscopes, maps of the earth from space bleeding into brains and embryos, soft tissues and weather systems all on a single sheet of glass, yet it is still. I’m getting flashes of old masters too, like faces and scenes from other things I’ve seen dissolving away from me.”
Ian Boutell, whose work reveals his architectural training and interest in Modernist pioneers including Malevich and Tatlin has influenced his investigations into how space is re-presented for the viewer as concrete fact rather than as perspectival illusion in his painting practice. Boutell incorporates Perspex and other materials, including paint, into his work to explore the shifting territory around contemporary and expanded painting. The relationship between displayed artwork and the physical space the works appear in acknowledges the physical context intentionally as integral to the conception of the works, albeit in the knowledge that venues and spaces may change between the institutional and the domestic for any particular work at different times. Such an intention requires any one work to function actively as an object as much as an image irrespective of the placement which conjures the paradoxical materialist necessity to be independent of yet very much part of the immediate environment.
For Primer02, a recent online feature with artist-led group epox_contemporary, Boutell commented: “I did a few of these ‘corridor constructions’ where, when walking past, the vertical strips are revealed then hidden by others that project further and momentary flashes and reflections from bronze Perspex mirrors reveal the room, corridor or oneself. The onlooker, the viewer, the audience completes the work.”
Speaking further of his practice, Boutell also says, “Science and art each seek ways of understanding our world in concordance with these new ideas of cosmology and subatomic physics, and I am seeking visual metaphors in paintings and constructions for these ideas that are not directly visible. This is the paradox in both science and art; making objects and forms that are metaphors of their opposites, the abundance of space and the energy and waves that fill atomic space…”
As with Lewis’ reaction to Garstang’s ethereal imagery, Boutell’s more architectonic constructions act as a starting point for something sensed rather than spelt out as a diagram or illustration, thus engaging the mind in conjunction with the eye – yet demanding the viewer’s full focus and attention.
Like June Frickleton, Patrick O’Donnell is also an artist and curator. His work has become increasingly non-figurative with an ongoing investigation into the perception of 2D shape in three-dimensional projected and real space creating a dynamic tension, both visually and conceptually, between the two phenomena.
O’Donnell has been largely working on tondos (circular paintings) for the last year after fellow tondo-enthusiast, Ian Boutell, kindly passed a batch his way. The circle was a blessing in disguise as it offered him a neutrally balanced compositional arena with multiple orientation options allowing him to focus his enquiry into boundaries and opacities of colour, line and edge. The distribution of shapes in a specific kind of space, without the visual weight of any physical corner of the picture support, avoided the more commonplace phenomena of a portrait or landscape format. In this sense the disc becomes a model form to challenge the ubiquitous rectangle, although such shapes will appear within the physical parameters of his work alongside triangles and rhomboids.
If this sounds a little too systematic and brings back memories of times spent struggling in geometry lessons (that was my experience anyway) a more personal and subjective element is formulated into the mix by O’Donnell’s use of either straight or torn edges of tape, or a combination of both, to devise and realise his compositions. When using a torn line the tear has to be intuitively right or else it fails to convince him as an image. He started experimenting with the tension between the torn and clean line in charcoal works in 2016. A key work from this period was ‘Seven Sisters’ which consisting of seven essentially abstract shapes that echoed rather than depicted the iconic landscape features of the Sussex Coast. Working this way offers him the freedom to explore a variety of ideas through simple formal elements, including a highly sensitive choice of colour contrasts and combinations.
The ‘Toe the line’ series that incorporates straight and torn edges was initially prompted by observations of boundaries and territories within domestic settings, to then later include ideas filtered from the book, ‘Prisoners of Geography’ by Tim Marshall of natural / geographical versus political borders, imposed and accepted (or not). As we see in Harrison’s more organically characteristic paintings, O’Donnell’s geometric configurations that suggest a built or even psychologically constructed environment, there is so much more than meets the eye however pleasurable this experience may be.
Philip Cole is a painter, maker and teacher. He has spent the past twelve years exploring the possibilities inherent in his chosen primary material, Polyester resin. As a Painter/Maker he uses unconventional materials and commonplace processes to produce qualitative painting objects. His use of polyester resin is intentional in order to elevate its status as a suitable material for ‘painting’. The work may be characterised by the use of simple colour combinations and tonal variations where the predominant geometric shapes are composed essentially of rectangles, and less frequently, discs. They sometimes suggest printers’ colour registration marks or aerial views of tins of paint, or even hints of perspectivally represented forms. But these associations are not necessarily of primary importance, even if a consequence is to reference similar organisations of colour and shape in the overlooked and marginal, or in architectural spaces (the interstices) of ‘real life’.
The production of a conventionally permanent object (a painting) is in contrast to the use of these materials to construct and mark temporary and throwaway vessels. His constructed, material/process-focused, object-type painting requires hard graft, perseverance and extended hours in the studio. Cole’s belief in the necessary work involved in the production of his paintings is rooted in deliberation and a craft aesthetic, rather than in a gestural approach to provide evidence of the painter or maker’s mark as a ‘personality’ is avoided. But the potential for a cold and indifferent outcome is avoided by the combination of wonderfully effective colours that could be contemplated forever and the sheer refined beauty of the ultra smooth surfaces.
From a review of ‘Making Painting +-’ at Phoenix Art Space in 2019 written for the Saturation Point website I commented:
“Cole’s practice may well have vestiges of the deconstructive and the reconstructive that more painterly practitioners might disdain, but this fascinating notion of ‘obtaining consciousness’ can be applied to Cole’s works from a viewer’s perspective. The experience of active looking takes the patient viewer into the work as a thing in itself, visually and physically, allowing the imagination space to breathe. Possibilities come alive, in explicitly authentic, concrete, non-virtual manifestations. These are characterised by instances of reduction and variation: geometry, regularity and logical developments, measuring and assaying exactitude, craft and reductive simplicity. Ingesting visually exciting combinations of colour and shape, with Cole’s carefully formulated contrasts, definitions and edges, produces end results which generate a rich and diverse encyclopaedic experience of possibilities.”
Since retiring from full-time teaching I have become involved in the short course programme at West Dean College near Chichester. I was asked to write a brief statement for potential students who might enrol on my ‘Abstracting from the Landscape’ three-day course. I wrote:
“I encourage students to work with a disciplined kind of freedom. As with writing you have to find your ‘voice’ and this often demands trial and error. The paint medium is on an equal footing with the potential subject matter and so you have to mediate and discover the real subject through the physical process of painting. Everyone will be encouraged to allow the paint to speak for itself.”
The paintings chosen for the Boom exhibition aim to fulfill this brief. I also chose oil paintings that I had not displayed publically before and which mark a shift in an even more ‘painterly’ approach to my practice.
Ian Boutell also curates Cottage of Modern Art at his home on the outskirts of Brighton. The gallery shows just one painting at a time inspired by Winifred Nicholson’s Cumbrian cottage with a Mondrian on the wall.
An exhibition of recent paintings by Julian Vilarrubi of the view from Studio 4S0 at Phoenix Art Space.
Window Gallery, Phoenix Art Space (2-25 April 2021)
With covid-related requirements morphing slowly towards some kind of normality, public access to one section of the Window Gallery at the Phoenix Art Space is gained via the coffee shop entrance. Here the visitor will be confronted by the largest work in ‘Shifting Moments’, a one-person show from Phoenix studio member, Julian Vilarrubi. ‘St. Peter’s Sunset’ (2021), as its title implies, represents the end of the day and so fittingly completes the sequence of nineteen works on display. This appears to be the most recent painting in the presentation but ideally, the visitor would start their promenade along the stretch of the gallery from the main entrance, though the obligation is still to view the exhibition from street level.
There is certainly a sense that the show begins, both logically and in a reminiscent spirit, from the northern end of the corridor where ‘Swan Hunter Shipyard I’ and ‘II’ are hung side by side. These are impressive observational exercises that Vilarrubi made at the University of Newcastle-Upon-Tyne in 1983 as a first year under-graduate. As monochromatic acrylic studies on paper they could be categorised as drawing or painting. Although made some 38 years ago they do not look out of place in relation to the recent paintings and drawings of St. Peter’s Church and its surroundings as they set the scene for the artist’s probing and inquisitive eye that has maintained such dedicated practice for almost four decades. The majority of the recent paintings are from 2021 and are essentially acrylic on paper (though sometimes with additional oil), although the project began in late 2020 and will continue beyond this exhibition.
As if to press the point home that this project is also ‘contemporary’ in a technological sense, there is also a selection of six iPad drawings (or are they ink paintings?) on display. Notionally these are original studies drawn from strict observation on an iPad at the studio window and it is intriguing to consider how the virtual sketchbook/canvas is actually something non-virtual/actual, even before the resulting prints have been produced. These are not playful simulacrums imitating photographs either, but are hard-won images requiring extended periods of time to produce. Given the appropriate resources it would have been a bonus to have an iPad or screen on display too, as this would be an intriguing development for realising this expanding body of work with due consideration for the digital aspect. Should ‘Shifting Moments II’ follow at some point it would be of great interest to see the imagery pre-print, as it were.
‘Shifting Moments’ is certainly a thought provoking title for the exhibition, suggesting fixity and flux at once. When engaged in looking at a subject, in a time-based physical mode, it may well seem that there is some sense of the film-still being frozen in time out of a continuum of images that otherwise ceaselessly flow around us. Then there is our cultural obsession with the photograph as visual memento, abundantly developed by the shift from film to digital technologies, most especially now with the Smartphone that almost every person on the planet appears to own and which produces images that typically remain in a digital format only to be shared from screen to screen. Since the 1840s it has been claimed that painting is dead; is printing dead too?
When we view time-heavy projects such as ‘Shifting Moments’ (including the digital medium that Vilarrubi employs), we see that there is something experiential going on, for artist or viewer, that an immediate exposure or impression does not record – or create. These are works that could only have been produced over many days or weeks, culminating in one final state, which seems like a contradiction against any notion of ‘real time’ telling the whole story of appearances. Time therefore might be better understood as a meta-medium that can be physically manifested and explored in whatever forms the artist chooses. In the instance of Vilarubbi’s work, most especially the paintings, the notion of the moment inexorably ‘shifting’ becomes visually and psychologically experiential – demanding time and effort from the viewer. His paintings, in effect, offer a visual journey that puts the observer in the driving seat. But this is not an A to B linear trajectory, it’s an extended moment in the shifting continuum of the here and now where it would be best to avoid the cursory glance – for then we would be wasting our precious time.
In terms of mainstream art history we might recall the work of the French Impressionists (in the 1860s) gloriously attempting to record a particular scene at a specific time of day with their hog-hair brushes, canvases and oil paints. With the advent of photography (initially a scientific methodology) preceding the painters by 30 years or so it may be erroneous to connect the two historical developments in visual representation too keenly, but both endeavours are connected by an interest in recording ‘the everyday’, a kind of inversion and subversion of History and Salon painting that prevailed in the nineteenth century. In this respect the everyday is a subject matter that can engage us in reflections from the monotonous and unchanging (particularly in Covid-related lockdown periods) to the metaphysical and the philosophical. As the Greek philosopher Heraclitus informed us: “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” Gender issues aside, no academic inclination towards an interest in Ancient Greek philosophy was necessary for those of us confined to a prolonged observation of life outside our places of confinement, for it is likely that we all noticed even more how ever-changing and plenteously detailed our world is when we are forced, or take time, to observe the view from the window – every day.
Vilarrubi’s imagery, irrespective of the chosen medium, offers this same range of pondering possibilities. The studios at the Phoenix Art Space, at least for those artists who have a studio to themselves, this self-isolation chamber or place of refuge became strangely significant and certainly not taken for granted, if it ever was. For Vilarrubi the adaptation to the vicissitudes of the pandemic prompted the ‘Shifting Moments’ series as an extension of his predominantly landscape based practice (Italy, France and Spain have been typical destinations) with the ‘stay at home’ simplicity of the view from the window.
Fortunately, perhaps, this view is from the fourth floor at the very top of the building and faces towards the impressive St. Peter’s Church and the cityscape beyond. The view is west facing too and so the daily sunset provided, at times, spectacular changes in light and would sometimes drench the backdrop to the church in colour. Add an equally glorious Elm tree to the foreground and the stage was set for a continuum of changing scenarios, underpinned by the still-life constancy of architectural structures and forms enveloped by an ever changing light show from dawn to dusk. Some expanded category of subject matter, beyond physical location, was always in plain sight.
On the face of it, what ‘Shifting Moments’ offers the viewer is a collection of views of St. Peter’s Church undergoing restoration, built, by coincidence, at the same time that Nicéphore Niépce invented the photographic process in the 1820s. As the church is slowly but surely being restored (these projects are typically of long duration and are probably never ending) the building might be considered as battling against the elements, erosion, and time itself – just as we are as mortal beings. But the church is not necessarily the main subject for this observational project. Vilarrubi also records the buildings (a block of flats and a multi-story car park) beyond the church, teasingly decorative in their modern, banal, mundanity, repeating the repetitive forms of the scaffolding on the church. The view of architectural structures, seemingly solid and formidable, under the canopy of the ever-changing sky is also foregrounded by the most wonderful tree. Along with the changing light, here is ‘nature’ epitomised by the leafy foliage of the tree – a subject that would seem a monumental task to record faithfully in any detail by drawing or painting: why not just take a photograph? But, as every artist understands, you inherit and invent a methodology: a visual system or language to approximate what is observed, or needs to be communicated as best you can.
Playing the devil’s advocate for a moment, the subject matter of the project is satisfyingly prosaic and, if it were this simple, a sequence of good quality photographs would surely have sufficed. But things (or observations) are never this straightforward. To give due credit, and appreciation, to any painter’s work the viewer must consume slowly. Vilarrubi’s paintings physically pull the viewer towards their surface and the detail of colours, shapes and patterns wherein they engage the eye to the point where the ostensible subject matter is secondary. Then again, step back, and the various scenarios are pictorially strong enough to engage the viewer just as satisfactorily. In this respect, Vilarrubi has painstakingly emphasised a multitude of often quite intricate shapes that ‘work’ from any normal viewing distance. Some are obvious brush marks, repeated or varied as the scene or prospect demanded for he is not enslaved to photorealism. The viewer could be struck by a fusion of minimalist repetition and a decorative Rococo-esque surface pattern that is Japanese in spirit, despite the use of western perspective. Engrossed in the paintings, the eye may rest only briefly as a dot or a dash with the brush invokes a visual dance routine taking the eye into a contrasting colour or tonal field where detail is replaced by a simple coating of thinned paint. One is constantly aware that these are paintings, rendered by hand, not illusionistic devices.
For example, in ‘St. Peter’s, Brighton I’ (2020), the image chosen for the exhibition poster, the viewer can start the journey I mentioned above anywhere. Centrally from the expected greens and surprising blues in the foreground tree; or in the architecture where there are various greys and blues in yellows (one mix with a hint of orange) are linked to the pinkish mauve on blue for the sky. Alternatively, start or finish at the bottom of the composition where a band of local and atmospheric colour creates a variegated ribbon of orange, brown and yellow on the top surface of a low wall. This slightly bending strip sits atop a wider band of blues and pinks that are echoing the early or mid-morning sky above, reflected on the inside of the wall on the terrace immediately outside the studio and (maybe) on the flat surface inside the window space – a watery blue stream that would only distract with additional detail.
Vilarrubi’s project is very localised both in terms of subject matter and his personal visual language that is forged from observation. Seeing so many studies of the same view (is it really the same view, Heraclitus may disagree) undergoing constant change helps to insist in the realisation that nothing is actually fixed – it’s an illusion that we sometimes fool ourselves to believe. ‘Shifting Moments’ strikes me as a meditation on time, place and seeing. The time-based act of seeing, especially through and making observational drawings and paintings – an active meditation – vastly extends the apparent immediacy of the photographic exposure: though perhaps 1/250th of a second is an eternity? The photographic references just will not go away. But this is not because of the inclusion of the iPad drawings (that I mistakenly regarded as being photographs when I first saw them) but more associatively from the suggestion of the viewfinder that crops the views provided by the window of the studio. Vilarrubi accepts what he sees, whereas painters from the past would re-arrange the ‘furniture’ (landscape props, most especially trees, glades or a mountain range) to represent the world idealistically or to conform to the Academy. From Degas onwards the view is conceptualised and modernised, thanks to the photograph.
The initial conflation with the photograph (whether from film or digital file) was also partly suggested by out an of focus representation of St. Peter’s church in some of the paintings and iPad drawings. In photographic parlance this is due to a limited ‘depth of field’, which is often how a camera ‘sees’ and distorts the focus by the physics of light and lens and is a commonplace phenomenon within the fiction of photographic representation. As a visual language the oddities of photographic imagery (the blur is another example) may well affect how we perceive the world but it could be that the reflective pane of glass in the studio window becomes a site or place of separation.
We are back to the metaphysical; take for example ‘Midday’ (2021), an iPad drawing that is at once viewfinder, window, portal, and self-reflective mirror. In the top half of the composition two vertical smudges of a glue-like substance are similarly rendered like the clouds beyond. Gravity wise there is a sense of falling, a downward movement split between arriving at the church and the tree. In the bottom third, placed more-or-less centrally (this is important) we might be seeing the artist observing, reflected on the iPad screen or in the window. The imagery here is so subtle and out of focus that it could be anyone: you or I.
Vilarrubi’s distance from the window portal alters slightly from study to study as he frames afresh for each session. A foregrounded shelf in his studio, sometimes visually tight to a safety railing just outside the window four floors above the pavement, makes brief appearances. Most content in the foreground is on the glass surface where inside and outside appears not to matter. This invites a meditation of sorts. The glass screen (no more than a filthy window) thwarts the connection with the outside world. Between the observer and the quite non-picturesque environment outside (tree and church appear to occlude and vie for attention, at the expense of a romanticised picture postcard vista) is the pane of glass. Smeared by rain, glue, sticky tape or bird shit mimicking an abstract expressionist gesture; or actually behind a knotted curtain, determined not to be sidelined, that soaks up and emanates the setting sun in one acrylic study (‘St. Peter’s Church I [diptych]’). These are predominantly outside views but we are always inside: trapped observers who will never freeze time into a moment.
Even if the notion of ‘outside’ needs the ‘inside’, celebrate and be amazed at what is outside the window, for solitude is a fiction. Here is the evidence.
Following the CVAN South East exhibition at Phoenix Art Space last year I wrote a speculative rumination about Ursula Vargas’ paintings. I say speculative because I have not been able to sit down and talk to her in person, although we have exchanged a few messages via Instagram. The speculation also pertains to the notion of Magical Realism in her work. It’s a labelling that enables a route into the work which might at first appear rather knocked-off, casual or relaxed. There’s a surrealist element too but I am loathe to misrepresent a body of work that essentially derives from her student work – although despite the move to a new studio there is developmental work in eager production. As what might be expected from a ‘mature student’ the work also has an established feel about it rather than the provisionality that can pertain to a younger graduate’s work.
Vargas has now included this writing on her new website and so I print it here, with the addition of a quotation from the artist at the start and finish. I include some recent images too, but for more details do visit her website.
“The road is always been a fascinating place for me… the drone of the tyres against the asphalt… becomes this hypnotic chorus taking me back to places I rarely go… places where my imagination goes wild while having all my senses in that place creating memories… realising that we cannot paint what we don’t see but we can paint the in-between.” (Ursula Vargas)
Vargas’ current engagement with pictorial narrative is clearly contemporary, presenting often eccentric and sometimes bizarre magic-realist scenarios. But the ‘contemporary’ of course is a symptom or consequence of the past and Vargas taps into a rich heritage from her cultural South American routes, plus her own childhood. The carefully selected visual material, assimilating characters, artefacts and landscapes, invented, appropriated, real or mythical from past and present cultures consolidate a pan-historical vision when presented within a story-like visual framework. After all, human societies have thrived on tales and fictions across millennia whether spoken, written or visualised. As a contemporary practitioner with an acute awareness of the challenges that face the planet today her bold visual narratives reference climate change, the human exploitation of natural resources and its effects on populations. In this sense the work is futuristic too, though maybe in the sense of a ticking time bomb given the possible consequences of environmental issues.
Her subject matter is characteristically personal and shared by many. From a family history, which included many extended motorway journeys and recollections of ancient archaeological sites, she is able to utilise various narrative sources into a kind of play for today, where “all the world’s a stage”. Yet the players can include often-humorous visual references to Coyote and Roadrunner cartoons or figures from pre-Columbian art. Landscape scenarios and often-repeated ingredients (mountains, tunnels and roads; San Pedro cactus and road signs) are principal ingredients in Vargas’ neo-surrealist scenes that invite and provoke personal readings and translations from the viewer. But this apparent playfulness, where visual engagement might feel direct, easy and uncomplicated, transforms into a conduit leading to a cinematic, cut and paste, sense of time and place of both experienced and imagined ‘reality’. Vargas is fascinated by and curious about the relation between what we see and what we think we know. Coercing a creative response that may never be settled or certain, her various works often challenge the viewer to suspend routine judgments to allow the imagination to play awhile.
For example, the road motif might represent modernity (albeit now linked with a post-industrial questioning of energy usage and air pollution) but also functions as a prompt to travel imaginatively into the past, present and future. This is a demanding journey where the medium grapples with the message, as paint and collage, or recycled cardboard waste replacing fine canvas, vies with potent imagery. Another motif-type prop is the San Pedro cactus, which the Incas used to drink to connect with their Gods. Nowadays, on a secular level, the placing of a cactus at the doorway of homes throughout Peru and surrounding countries acts as a guardian to protect against intruders. As content in Vargas’ imagery the association is truly more magic-realist, psychedelic even, in invoking rituals of the shaman. Affected by alucinaciones (hallucinations), from drinking mescaline derived from San Pedro, the intensity of the colours of the perceived world may well resemble the colour palette chosen by Vargas.
As a conjurer of such fascinating content in her work, Vargas utilises pictorial tropes as signs (simple instructions) to indicatively become symbols that we might now read as warnings. Spectacle may initially subvert substance but a strong semblance of narrative, however magical or super-real, prompts a desire to make sense of current times and places in which the existential realities of life on an endangered planet inexorably dominates the natural world from urban litter to oil pollution. Such a message could be conveyed subtly or associatively – or even ‘in our faces’ as the use of litter suggests in some works.
The viewer might read Vargas’ staged narratives as demonstrations of a contemporary folk tale, warning or prophecy that even the trickster Coyote would struggle to adapt to, comprehend and accept. For a moral allegory, in what might initially appear to be a linear narrative, turns out, on reflection, to resurrect rather than travel to the past and to conjoin eras initiating a sense of time that is overarching. These apparent flashbacks or hallucinations are repeated, cyclical echoes rather than fragments of memory – only now the end game becomes a reality.
The artist today might be best placed to address the task of leaving room for the viewer to engage and self-question. This goes against the grain of the mass media dominated political and economic terrain that binds us all as consumers to a capitalist system (conjoining the political evils of Left and Right) on the brink of self-destruction. A hopeful interpretation might be that the power and potential of the individual, armed with a fertile imagination, may well succeed in undermining the corporate hegemony that hurtles the planet towards a point of no return.
If you are willing to jump on board Vargas’ time machine, occupy a window view and be prepared to participate in the action. But be proactive, not passive: for only the audience can save the day.
“In my work I kept the same motif, the road trips, but now due to size restriction and sense of confinement, I put myself inside the car, creating these viewings of climate change landscapes from inside of it, bringing this way the viewer into the car and creating a stronger connection with the painting between them.” (Ursula Vargas)
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.