It would appear that Stewart Geddes’ abstract paintings have little to do with landscape. However the urban landscape, the rural and the cubist motifs of cube circle and triangle are deeply embedded in his work. Just out of art school Geddes pursued a successful career making painterly Plein Air landscapes. However the subject palled and as he looked at the abstract flattening of the picture plane in Lanyon and Alfred Wallis, and the way the same motif in Lanyon became a signifier of multiple meanings, the importance of Lanyon’s paintings became, ‘not a copy of a view but a painting of an experience’. In a revelatory moment Geddes reconnected with the cubists, and moved into abstraction.
Living in London his source material was the urban landscape with occasional forays into the Dorset countryside where the original beach huts near Portland Bill, before gentrification, yielded rich pickings. His subject was rooted in the concept of The Modern Ruin, ‘something by which you can experience the remoteness of your childhood’. Buildings which had existed for barely fifty years and which when constructed ‘were the last word in newness’ were now undergoing demolition, offering views of broken interiors, collapse, deterioration and destruction. The bleeding walls of peeling wallpaper in torn rooms represented the memories of lives lived in those spaces and were frequently a cue for a yearning for the irretrievable. For Geddes, an object in the process of breakdown attains a new meaning and he replicates this natural or human-precipitated process in his work. A constant cycle of addition and reduction, degrading the surface, tearing, scraping, the addition of colour, collage or mark-making which is then subjected to further degradation.
Shippen. Oil on panel, 30 x 23 cm
He subscribes to Picasso’s maxim that making art is a process of ‘not seeking but finding’. A statement that relates to Stewart’s methodology and to the ‘the found painting’ as an object which has become increasingly central to his practice. He does not seek them out, it is almost as if these ready-mades find him. He relishes the moment when a change in orientation decontextualises an object leaving it devoid of its utilitarian function, ‘yet liberates it to hold a simultaneity of meanings’. Then comes the delayed realisation that it is actually what you originally thought it was. Hob is a decommissioned cooker hob, with the look of a ‘60s spirograph drawing, but re-positioned, hanging in a domestic interior its faded damaged surface attains poignancy.
Hob. Ceramic cooker hob, 49 x 44 cm
It was Matisses’s paintings from his most cubist phase around 1910 that stirred in Geddes an interest in collage, further fuelled by the research he did for his M.Phil at the Royal College of Art into the French Décollagist group, in particular, the work of Jacques Villeglé and Raymond Hains. Geddes’ approach is constructivist and the build up of collage, mark and paint has an affinity with the idea of layers of history. His method relates to his view that time is being held on the surface.
His paintings are improvisations, not in a musical sense with that swiftness of change generated through performance, but rather spread out over a long period. They stretch out time because the processes are so slow. The improvisation occurs through the use of a visual language that gradually emerges through the experience of a generic landscape, acquired via the constant exposure to and absorption of the urban terrain. He gathers information through photography, the act of a moment, rather than drawing, which takes longer and which he sees as ‘a physical, empathetic performative act’. His palette is observed, coming from his constant garnering of images whilst walking through the streets of Bristol with a camera, recording buildings, hoardings, graffiti. He values the city for its amalgamation of the urban the pastoral and the maritime.
By a process of subtraction and editing Geddes filters out and discards the unimportant areas of a painting. His curved edges are informed by the ipod aesthetic as well as the notion of children’s round-edged school slates on which they would draw or write in chalk. More recently, only the tops of the paintings are rounded revealing his desire for a greater sense of stability. His process is methodical, organisation followed by disorganisation, followed by application and subtraction that “is nudged into a form of resolution, which is found through the negotiation with the process.” His motifs continue to be the circle the square and the triangle which can be linear, solid, manipulated, broken, echoed and repeated ultimately achieving multiple meanings.
Keskeys. Acrylic on panel, 30 x 39 cm
Chandos. Acrylic on panel, 46 x 60 cm
Stewart Geddes Feature published simultaneously in Evolver 86 March and April 2015
© Fiona Robinson 2015
I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;*
The siren call of the sea has a willing captive in Tania Kovats. Water has been a recurring theme in her work. There has been an inevitable progression from Meadow, the transportation of a wild flower meadow from Bath to London via the inland waterways, to Rivers, a collection of water from 100 rivers from around the uk, to collecting sea-water from around the globe. Breaking boundaries, connecting territories, bringing the outside in, Oceans transports the sea into the confines of Hestercombe House and contains it still further in bottles.
Walking up the main driveway towards the grandeur of this stately house, an array of windows are partially masked by blinds, marked by lozenge shapes that evoke the still waters of a calm sea. Marks which are repeated inside the house in Sea Mark a technically challenging wall installation of ceramic tiles and in Sea Mark for Hestercombe a vast site specific installation of small ink drawings which paper the walls of the stairwell fusing with the fabric of the building. Glass and water pervade the spaces. Looking out from the first floor, the transparency of these components, the liquid and the vitrified, are repeated in the straight Palladian waterways of the garden designed by Gertrude Jekyll and Sir Edwyn Lutyens. The clear glass of the magnificent windows confines the interior, outside the clear water contained in the rigid arrangement of channels mirrors clouded skies. But water will not always be contained.
The human body is made up of around sixty percent water, it is the connective medium that flows through and lubricates the different parts of this complex mechanism. Great Britain, this country in which we live, is surrounded by sea, it is an island whose interior land is connected and divided by arteries and veins of water. Kovats is interested in water as a conduit and in its relationship to time. Her concerns are landscape, seascape, movement through the land on water, experiences which encapsulate the slow unfolding of time, a progression that slows time, that offers a breathing space away from the hectic noisy speed-dating with life that goes on in urban spaces. And yet water, our seas and rivers can be violent treacherous fast moving and tumultuously noisy. Canals our inland waterways are slower moving but they too can flood and invade our landlocked territories.
Tania Kovats All the Sea (2012–14), Courtesy the artist. Photo: Ruth Clark (Image at the Fruitmarket Gallery Edinburgh)
As with Rivers, the installation, All the Sea was a way of stilling water, arresting its movement. In drawing in waters from all the seas around the world, it effectively drew in people from all the lands that bordered those oceans. It became a huge, collaborative artwork. Her call to people to send her samples of water from the seas where they lived had an astounding response and people from all over the world sent her bottles that contained seawater together with histories, anecdotes, information, all of which data has been archived. But the water itself has been filtered and transferred into glass bottles of different shapes and sizes containing different amounts of water and displayed on an enormous open plan shelf.
Tania Kovats, Only Blue (Antarctica), 2013. Courtesy the artist.
Empty bottles signify the missing seas. The pages of books of maps piled on tables, in which the land has been whited out, are a poignant reminder of the falsifying of records, the airbrushing of inconvenient cultures by early cartographers. Salt drawings, experimenting with speeding up the process of evaporation to leave increasing levels of crusted salty residue, are a memory of the water that was there.
Kovats has captured the sea, making something permanent out of something fluid and ungraspable unless trapped in an impermeable container. She has divorced these waters from their histories, containing them in an alien environment but, filtered, not distilled, they still hold the memory of their origins and represent a moment in time, a moment of time in the history of their captor. She has stilled the perpetual motion of these tiny samples of the world’s seas.
Tania Kovats All the Sea (2012–14), (detail) Courtesy the artist. Photo: Ruth Clark
© Fiona Robinson 2014
Originally published in Evolver Issue
Tania Kovats Oceans at Hestercombe, curated by Tim Martin from the original exhibition at the Fruitmarket Gallery in Edinburgh continues until 11 January 2015.
* From Sea Fever by John Masefield
Ian Middleton’s sculpture is passionate, sometimes angry and often humorous. It is certainly not indifferent. As a self-confessed ‘media junkie’, he works from observation taking themes from current affairs, religion and environmental issues, using found objects to stimulate his visual ideas. However, he says, ‘the work is not constrained by these forces but is free to evolve independently while maintaining the intensity of its origins.’
Take Away Bronze 33h x 51cms
The view from Middleton’s studio is breathtaking: a parceled landscape rolling out across the valley up towards the hills above Lyme Regis. Below, his garden is filled with sculpture: stacked white cement pillows, a meerkat in typical stance surveying the vegetable patch, a Parthenon horse’s head guarding the terrace. His workshop is crammed with objects, tools, working materials. Molds queue up on the floor; a scatter of bronze long-necked chicken heads litter the bench waiting to be released from the residue of the casting process and a plastic giraffe sits incongruously in a boat.
Growing up in the flat Fenlands of Cambridgeshire, he early on, became aware of the big skies and low horizons, which silhouetted everything against a pale background distorting perspective and scale. That perception of scale has stayed with him and is central to his arrangement of objects. As a child he visited Ely Cathedral, that magnificent English Perpendicular structure reaching up endlessly and impossibly to the heavens. In the Lady Chapel, he came across stone statues, their heads severed and faces battered in a shocking act of desecration by Cromwell’s men. It gave him a lifelong distrust and dislike of religion, feelings that came to the fore again with the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan in 2001.
Mayfly Bronze, 17h x 34cms
Middleton’s sculpture is figurative. He casts found objects and constructed pieces, often in multiples, assembling them into strange hybrids, which play with scale and question stability, real and metaphorical. His work is process based, time consuming and technically challenging, reference the casting of the boat into the bronze surface in Mayfly so that it floats across the cover of the book. Rough visual notes give way to process and response to materials once the making is under way, or ‘I may try things out in wax, and different elements come and go as the dialogue evolves.’ His is an art of juxtaposition, sometimes of serendipity: a gathering together of apparently disparate things, which suggest associations, which topple preconceptions and ask questions of the viewer. An art of change and experimentation, of random couplings and risk takings which bring to mind the Surrealist sense of dislocation typified by Lautréament’s often quoted line ‘beautiful as the chance meeting on a dissecting-table of a sewing-machine and an umbrella!’ His work is critical of politics or religion but never proselytizing, didactic or polemical. Alternative scenarios for serious issues are often mediated through humour.
Tea Party Bronze, 35h x 32cms
Constantly re-inventing his own sculpture and refining his ideas Middleton challenges people to step out of their comfort zones. The distortion of scale where boats and apples, buildings and books occupy the same space is deeply unsettling. In Mainline a skyscraper, emblem of capitalism or financial crisis, sits impossibly on soft pillows. In Tea Party, a response to the American gun lobby’s intractable attitude following the Sandy Hook massacre of twenty children and six teachers, a large tea urn floats on supplicating tiny hands. Only a couple of these little fingers are holding up this large unwieldy object, such a simple way to say something quite profound. Middleton’s iconography is idiosyncratic and original, and open to interpretation. There is something grotesque and suffocating about an apparently innocent plaster Madonna cast in bronze and gagged or maybe saved from toxicity by a tiny gas mask. Cast bath-toy ducks with targets tattooed into their sides swim along the top of a full size ciment fondu mattress or perch on top of a pile of bronze egg-boxes.
Pot Luck Bronze 35cms high
Experiencing Ian Middleton’s sculpture is destabilising. World-views shift, certainties are just out of reach. Weightlessness is suddenly synonymous with bronze. His ideas are illusive; they require and repay the time spent on them. He plays with viewers’ perceptions on many levels making them repeatedly adjust their idea of what they are looking at; nothing is quite as it seems. His art is one of impossibilities and improbabilities, at each glance it presents a different front. No surprise that he sees things in the round and is always interested in what is going on behind the object in front of him.
© Fiona Robinson 2014
Header Image Figure in a Landscape Bronze, 44x27cms.
Article originally published in [Evolver] 81 May/June 2014
Like Alice in Wonderland, Phyllida Barlow’s installations fill the spaces of the new galleries at Hauser and Wirth Somerset, but unlike Alice, Barlow has no desire to use a magic potion to reduce their size. She wants their heads to touch the ceiling, she wants to take them beyond human scale. Her sculptures have taken possession of these interconnecting areas so that we as humans have to negotiate the space remaining to us. Barlow’s work is often concerned with the negotiation of physical things in an urban environment. Here, in this rural context, it is not the object which is trapped, it is the space which is left fighting for breath, hardly able to move. She confronts the assumption that one should be able to wander at will in the countryside. Her premise is that the Arcadian idyll no longer exists and that the land is now an exclusion zone, humanized and proscribed. Farming is more factory than the great outdoors. The romantic ideal of landscape, observed from a distance in all its majestic beauty, a silent black and white photograph of an experience, has perished. It is a figment that comforts those suffering the toxic fumes of the big city. This Somerset location has elicited a response that highlights the ambiguities of how we live our lives and the awkwardness of the gap between what the reality is and what is in our imagination.
Hauser and Wirth Somerset is a stunning conversion of former farm buildings into a gallery complex which is sympathetic to its rural location. But with this spectacular opening show these galleries, play second fiddle to Phyllida Barlow. On entering the first room you are assaulted by a cacophonous riot of joyous colour and texture: giant pompoms in all those celebratory fabrics in glorious gorgeous hues. Weaving through these hanging objects, which impede your progress, prepares you in a funny way for what is to come. It is akin to the summer blindness of coming indoors out of bright sunlight.
untitled: grinder. 2014
By the time you move into the Workshop Gallery your spatial awareness has been tampered with you are more prepared to skirt around the edge of a work constructed, ceiling-height from studio detritus and plywood. Next, entering the Pigsty we come to Untitled: grinder. It is both voluptuous and aggressive, its seductive curves draw you in and then you become aware of its spikiness, its voracious appetite for nastiness. This encapsulates the countryside’s beauty and the beast dual personality. The Main Gallery contains the least available space as huge rough-hewn planks launch themselves upwards, guarding their enclosure, excluding intruders as successfully as any razor-wire fence. Despite their massive scale, a scale gifted them by the size of the space – it is all about relativity – these sculptures, these installations, deny any sense of monumentality. They are impermanent and will have to be dismantled at the end of the show.
untitled: postscorral. 2014
In translating the negotiation of objects in an environment into sculpture, which has to be negotiated in the same way, Barlow creates a situation where her work cannot be marginalised, it is impossible to slip past without engaging with it. It confronts you, as determinedly as someone who stands directly in your path and will not step aside to let you pass. Not for her a celebration of the minimalist white cube, its pristine surfaces adorned with polite work constrained by frames. In a magnificent way Phyllida Barlow has temporarily upstaged these new galleries and their white walls will have to await their moment in the sun! However if this challenging exhibition is a measure of Hauser and Wirth Somerset’s intended programming it will be a superb addition to the cultural landscape of the South West.
© Fiona Robinson 2014
Article first published in [EVOLVER] 83, September / October 2014
Phyllida Barlow ‘Gig’ at Hauser and Wirth Somerset Until 2 November 2014.
Header Image: untitled: holder, 2014
Red Growth. 2012. Watercolour
It is often the small, apparently inconsequential things that give the clue to what concerns an artist. Pinned to the wall in John Eaves’ studio is a group of found objects: a flattened toad, a tiny bat corpse, an elongated frog, its legs dangling, and a couple of pieces of rusted metal. The metal pieces are strangely angled, cut-off geometric shapes. A random arrangement perhaps, added to in an ad hoc way but it is intuitively composed, the rich orange redness of the rust reveals how attuned Eaves is to colour and each component of this small installation has a autonomous existence which connects it to its fellow objects.
Rocks Cornwall. 1989. Watercolour
His work is fed by an empathy with landscape and the natural world. It is the structure that attracts him, the strata of rocks and the organization of form. He draws outside making close observational studies, but returns to the studio to refine his ideas. He abstracts from remembered and observed experience of place, deconstructs the geometry and then the shapes are manipulated, reconsidered, taken apart and reconstructed into beautiful abstractions that are in the nature of improvisations. As a musician, his instrument is jazz flute, improvisation is his modus operandi and although he does not work from it directly, ‘you can’t force connections’, music runs parallel with his art. He cites Cezanne’s structure as an important influence and having recently seen footage at Tate Modern of Matisse cutting large sheets of paper for his collages he was fascinated by his speed and accuracy. Awarded a Leverhulme Emeritus Fellowship to research Emil Nolde in the 1980s his attachment to Nolde’s fluid colours and swift execution has stayed with him.
Eaves is renowned for his use of colour: deep luscious ultramarine, inherited from those rich tones of lapis lazuli used for the Madonna’s cloak in Quattrocento altarpieces; jewel-like shifting tones of reds and yellow-oranges, pinks and purples line up next to each other in his work. From the experience of the landscapes through which he moves, vibrant intense shades emerge subliminally, their purity distilled from those touches of brightness barely glimpsed in the open mouth of a tiny orchid petal, the red of a wild strawberry or the reflection of sky on sun-lit water. Such tints, hugely expanded and glowing find their way into his powerful large paintings where they sing with joyous, pitch-perfect colour. In his collages the paper is cut, hard-edged at one point, then torn creating a rhythm of contrasting edges and vibrating hues. His materials are sourced from endless boxes of papers saturated in watercolour, which he mixes from dried pigment and stores in glass jars. For his painterly prints he preps his plate and often prepares his paper with swathes of colour before heading off to 107 Workshop to print.
Towards the Centre. 2010. Oil on canvas
Links and connections are what currently concern Eaves and in lieu of another retrospective, he had one five years ago, he is putting together an exhibition for the autumn, which will consist of small works. Drawings and landscape studies in crayon and watercolour, ‘litho chalk is lovely to draw with’, will be seen together with small oils on canvas in his signature abstract slashing compositions. A gift to those who will revel in seeing the clarity of his thought processes and the way in which he naturally moves from surface to surface, medium to medium and develops his themes, never repeating the same motif, but investigating each one until it reaches its natural conclusion before offering a way forward into the next work.
Quarry Stone. 1985 Gouache.
© Fiona Robinson, 2014
Article originally published in [Evolver] July/August 2014
John Eaves: Small Beginnings. 6 September – 23 November 2014
Victoria Art Gallery Bath.
John Eaves, Paintings and Prints since 1976. 8 – 20 November 2014. Anthony Hepworth Fine Art, Bath
Dorset Art Weeks 2014
Katie Shepherd Encounter with a Crow. Animation
Dorset Art Weeks 2014 launched with a great deal of razzamatazz at Sculpture by the Lakes on May 23rd. Costumed stilt walkers, jugglers and a brass band welcomed visitors to the Quick Draw Event. The first day of DAW was memorable for its downpours and then the sun came out as I set out to explore a selection of 285 venues, 1000+ artists work, make exciting new discoveries and revisit familiar friends. There were powerful and impressive prints from every period of Brian Rice’s outstanding career; immensely time consuming jems of tapestries by Jacy Wall; new painting in a darker palette by Gerry Dudgeon alongside his beautiful drawings; and ethereal and atmospheric photographs by Jill Kennington Courtauld. At The Courtyard Gallery and Workshop, Simon Pirie’s round dining table in English walnut, was clearly the star of the show but the refined elegance of the Rosa Dressing Table quietly shone. Jim Hunter’s watercolor and collage paintings are responses to India, France and the Purbecks. These deconstructed landscapes abstracted into their essential forms revealed an intuitive fluency, the result of working swiftly and surely, direct from the subject.
Jim Hunter Red Fort. Acylic and watercolour, 83 x 84cm.
Painter and film-maker Katy Shepherd has recently returned to a painstakingly slow, old-fashioned hand-drawn process to make her evocative animations of a Tasmanian Wolf, a Dodo and her poignant Crow, its wings slowly starting to move after being knocked off a roof by seagulls. Her animated figure rubbing itself out then being redrawn over smudged charcoal amidst bits of eraser and torn masking tape, encapsulates her process. Tucked away behind a suburban house front in Dorchester a real treasure was to be found in the exquisite pencil drawings of Rodney Hubbuck, many of them dating back to the seventies. His subtle, meticulous work is done from memory. Flying buttresses, stone-walls, churches and manicured topiary set in imaginary landscapes with an occasional figure to give a sense of scale. You enter the world of Rodney Hubbuck’s imagination, experience his almost Betjemanian sense of humour and find a mysterious other-worldliness.
The number of artists communicating their enthusiasm and actively demonstrating how they make their art was one of the highlights of DAW 2014. Printmaker Ruth Ander was rolling luscious shades of oil paint onto Perspex to make her subtle mono-prints on fine Japanese tissue. Ceramicist David Walker had just taken one of his dramatic hand-built raku pots out of the kiln and was picking off bits of burnt glaze to reveal the cracked lines underneath and in Bridport, designer/maker Jack Draper explained how he used ammonia to achieve the rich tones on his simple but beautifully stylish fumed-oak desk. Painter and sculptor Mike Chapman shared his thoughts on his relationship with carving, the need to have a conversation with his materials, to wait for them to give something to you, so that working with them is a collaborative effort between artist and stone.
Near Blandford I stumbled upon Jo Burnell’s charming decorated pottery. Fish, flowers, stick-leg strutting cockerels and bashful hens, were busy dancing across the surface of jugs, mugs and bowls. The Hedgecocks, father Anthony and daughter Aisling had filled the garden and studio with sculpture and drawings. Lurking in a far corner of the garden was Anthony’s Guardian, in steel, parts of it extracted directly from the crusher and used as found, imparting a vulnerable quality akin to folded paper. In the studio, After Boccioni, his small bronze homage to Boccioni’s Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, strode purposefully into the future accompanied by Aisling’s sculpture using painted steel and polystyrene beads. Filling the whole of the end wall Aisling’s immensely complex layered pencil drawing We Are Stardust, defied the conventional limits of her medium.
Anthony Hedgecock and Aisling Hedgecock
Near Lyme Regis Duff Pearce was showing linocuts with collaged cut and pieced shapes in strong reds and blacks. Jane Hedges lyrical geometric paintings are landscape based but had strong suggestions of Islamic pattern making and Ian Middleton’s latest work is intriguing with beautiful colouring emerging in the patination of the bronze. In drawings variously using ink, collage and photography David Smith explores the interplay between chaos and control and has set himself a project, Letter 365, making a drawing a day for a year and delivering it daily to Bridport Arts Centre where they will all be revealed on 6th March 2015.
Sculptor Lisa Lindqvist’s alter ego, Katerina Rose was down a very steep road leading towards the sea and the rain was again bucketing down. Tin boxes filled with jewels and collages of dancers, little figures, plastic animals and stuffed dead ones were an extraordinary delight and the tales she told to go with them just as moreish and irresistible. Finally, coming full circle, as part of Sculpture by the Lakes impressive series of lunchtime lectures, was Andrew Graham Dixon’s fascinating and wickedly entertaining take on Caravaggio. He contextualized the supreme naturalism of Caravaggio’s work and his extreme lifestyle within the social mores in Rome at the turn of the seventeenth century.
Lisa Lindqvist AKA Katarina Rose
Sculpture by the Lakes DAW Opening
© Fiona Robinson 2014
Article published in [Evolver] 82 July and August 2014.
Image: Jo Millet Overflow. Two screen video and sound installation 2014
The The Power of the Sea exhibition at the RWA is quite simply stunning. Moving between artists’ interpretations of the sea spanning more than two hundred years it evokes the sea in all its guises. The only thing it lacks is that distinctive fishy-salty smell of small boat coves at low tide. Otherwise it is all there. Downstairs in the Cube Gallery you can sit and watch Jo Millett’s mesmerizing video and sound installation,Overflow,in which waves run in all directions spilling out onto the floor in front of you – you almost feel as if you could get your feet wet. Upstairs you can watch a small wave machine and depending on your height and viewpoint, if you are not a good sailor, prepare to feel seasick! One of the most moving works in the exhibition is Ama by Rona Lee. Braille readings in English translation from Luce Irigaray’s Amant Marine: De Friedrich Nietzsche are read by a blind performer and interspersed with footage from deep under the sea. Despite the weightiness of Irigaray’s topic, the language is direct and poetic, the black-robed reader, against a stark backdrop is simple, yet powerful and poignant.
However it is not all film and video, the vast majority of the work is two-dimensional and wall based. The exhibition covers artists, from 1790 to the present day, who have in some way used the sea as a starting point. The inclusion of historical works on loan was made possible by the installation of climate control in the side galleries. Turner, Constable, Joan Eardley, Lanyon, Paul Nash and Paul Feiler are some of the big names in this section.
The organization of the historical works reveals the changes in style and subject matter that took place from 1791 to 1963. Pre world war one the works almost exclusively focus on waves, tumultuous seas, rescues and shipwrecks. The post 1920 works see a dramatic change away from realism to the more stylised paintings of Nash and Wadsworth leading to the almost completely abstract works of Lanyon and Feiler, which come back full circle to Turner. Paul Feiler’s Porthledden Blue is an early work made before his palette thinned and paled away from his early expressionism. Its luscious paint and vigorous execution open a wealth of possible narratives: spume spattered sea wrack, reflected racing skies and the tarred woods and blinded windows of Cornish fishermens’ huts. Turner’s abstraction is evident in the dramatic swirling skies and seas of Rough Sea with Wreckage.
Image: Paul Feiler Porthledden Blue. Oil on canvas, 50 x 35 cm. c. 1963
There is much social and political history in the early paintings. Walter Langley’s heart rending Disaster! Scene in a Cornish Fishing Village depicts the women of a fishing village as they watch their menfolk drowning, just out of reach beyond the sea wall. Major shipwrecks are recorded or the wreckers themselves, as they plunder a foundered ship leaving its sailors for dead. Three Constable sketches, in particular Seascape study: boat and stormy sky have that wonderful freedom and freshness that was often lost in his finished, highly polished canvases. The side galleries containing the earlier work have a reverential museum feel to them, partly because of the closed doors and lower light necessary to protect these valuable and more fragile works.
Image: John Constable Seascape study: boat and stormy sky. Oil on paper laid on board, 15.5 x 18.5 cm. c. 1824-8
The main gallery, full of dazzling light and space, shows the contemporary work to advantage. Apart from Len Tabner, 1987, Terry Setch 1990-91 and Susan Derges 1998 it contains works made exclusively after 2000. It takes marine art out of the bucket and spade mentality and places it firmly in the twenty-first century as part of an ongoing investigation of topical concerns, stressing the vital importance of working with the sea rather than fighting it.
Image: Anne Lydiat Underway. Archival gel ink pen on watercolour paper. 29 x 21 cm. 2013
Underway, Anne Lydiat’sdelicate drawings made remotely by a pen suspended over paper on a ship, records the movement of the sea in exquisite layers of thread-thin spikes of ink. In contrast Marian Leven’s bold blocks of watercolour, From the shore are land-based. They explore the movement and fluidity of their watery ‘medium’ in both senses of the word. From these small works it is a huge leap to the majestic canvases of Maggi Hambling, Kurt Jackson, Janette Kerr and Michael Porter. In Kerr’s Holding my Breath II the tumbling water and crashing waves seem complicit in the painting of their fury.
Image: Marian Leven From the shore. Watercolour, 9 x 29 cm. 2013
Image: Janette Kerr Holding my Breath II. Oil on canvas, 180 x 210 cm. 2013
There is a sense of inviting the sea to depict itself. Susan Derges Shoreline 5 October was made by immersing photosensitive paper in the sea at night so that when it was later developed in the darkroom the sweeping waves and drifting sand had photographed themselves. The pillow-soft blacks of etching and aquatint are perfect vehicles for dramatic seas. Storm tossed birds seem to have been hurled into the maelstrom of light and darkness in Norman Ackroyd’s etching, Inishboffin Sound and James Beale’s scratched and darkly worked Storm at Coast captures the more frightening aspects of the sea. There are calmer waters to be explored. Occupying nearly ten square metres of floor space, Annie Cattrell’s rippling waves of vacuum formed acrylic, Currents, flickers with an unearthly, undulating light. Photographs too by Andrew Friend and Thomas Joshua Cooper show a calmer but deceptively benign sea.
Image: Norman Ackroyd Inishboffin Sound. Etching 18 x 26.5 cm. 2005
Image: Annie Cattrell Currents. Vacuum formed acrylic, 245 x 245 x 200 cm. 2006
There are multiple voices and viewpoints in this exhibition. There are works in which the artists speak for the sea and others in which the sea speaks for itself. Derges, Lydiat and Millett’s works come into this latter category, and Jackson, Maclean and Setch seem to straddle both camps. Will Maclean’s boxed constructions in which he deconstructs and then reconstructs found objects are elegant and quiet. Redolent of the sights and sounds and smells of beachcombing under a low winter sun they nevertheless go far beyond a simplistic interpretation. Less the fury of a raging beast, rather they are musings on the deeps and soundings of the mysteries, rich narratives and mythologies of his subject. Terry Setch’s huge three-paneled work, Above and below the tide, is so heavily encrusted that it stands proud of the wall by several inches. Concealed figures and rusty forms lurk beneath stretched and torn latex casting the viewer onto empty tide-washed beaches strewn with the water-smoothed detritus of abandoned rubbish.
Image: Will Maclean Navigator’s Box/Stormfinder. Found objects wood and bone, 13 x 38 x 64 cm. 2013
Image: Terry Setch Above and below the tide. Mixed media on polystyrene, each panel 300 x 120 cm. 1990-91
For many of these Contemporary artists it is still the drama of the sea that captivates them, its power, unpredictability and its capacity for destruction. In this exhibition, against the solid historical background of marine art the contemporary artists relationship with the sea is informed by politics, concerns for the environment and the challenges of global warming. Artwork which pleads for the need to accommodate these vast tracts of water, to work with them rather than fight them. There is an anguished cry for halting the thoughtless use of the sea as a cesspit for plastics and other waste, behaviour which causes havoc in marine environment and to the sea birds that haunt this watery waste tip. But what this exhibition also communicates is the enduring romance of the sea, its mystery and its power and its continuing role as a place of contemplation, solace and extreme beauty.
Image: Kurt Jackson An Mor Kernewek. Mixed media and collage on linen, 200 x 325 cm. 2003
The Power of the Sea: Making waves in British Art 1790 – 2014.
Exhibition curated by Janette Kerr PRWA and Christiana Payne.
Royal West of England Academy, Bristol, 5 April – 6 July 2014. http://www.rwa.org.uk
The accompanying catalogue: THE POWER OF THE SEA Making Waves in British Art 1790-2014 edited by Janette Kerr and Christiana Payne. Sansom £25 pp159 is reviewed by Fiona Robinson in [Evolver] Issue 81 May/June 2014.
© Fiona Robinson 2014