The 138th Annual Exhibition was once more installed on the 5th floor of the Ulster Museum. The installation is always a problem, given the number of exhibits. While the installation is not a riotous visual assault, the quantity evokes fatigue that traps – in the words of John Updike – a certain breathing space for spirit.
The current president Betty Brown writes in the catalogue: “From an online submission of 1604 works, our Selection Committee of five, work to whittle this down to what in their professional opinion are the top 425 artworks to be pre-selected. These are then submitted to our office on Hand-in Day…..The chosen works then face a second selection and physical presence comes into play.” (catalogue p 6)
There are two limits: one is the rule that every Academy Member has right to exhibit two works of art, the other is the size of the exhibition space. This time there were 388 exhibits.
It is a kind of “Salon” for the members of RUA with generous invitations to outsiders, namely young generation and chosen high achievers, e.g. Cathy Wilkes and Abigail O’Brien as President of the Royal Hibernian.
Alongside the display there was a rich program of events: e.g. Meet the Artist, Sources and Inspirations, Art of curating … For the first time the exhibition will travel – to Enniskillen.
Ready for the public. However, raising the issue of the “refused” and of limits of the space available. Perhaps – a comprehensive exhibition of all work submitted in several editions installed in different places deserves to be considered?
All installations can then circulate Banbridge…Portadown…Newtownards…Downpatrick etc etc… well any suitable place on offer. After all many people live outside Belfast and in a not easy distance from the Ulster Museum. It is desirable to make visual art accessible where it is not. Also – refusing to exhibit a work of art of a living working artist is not desirable either. Every selection is likely to mistake something unfamiliar for bad. I am enthusiastic about the work RUA has done so far – but the constraints they face are neither essential nor desirable condition for their work.
A thousand different forces are killing interest in the arts, and cultural interest in high culture, and both their preservation or recovery depend , at least on the ideas that certain books and arts and forms are superior, transcendent. It often starts with manual work. At times it crosses over many established boundaries, playfully, spontaneously.
The sample of the exhibits has been made available to me by Keith Wilson in photographic documentation by Paul Marshall. They are equivalent witnesses of what appeared – not of my own value judgement. Chris Wilson’s fusion of painting and sculpture is crowned with tiny houses, a motif from his very distant degree show. The blue, which appeared much later in his landscapes, sparkled in the artificial light; sorry, the image does not show it. Some art is not photogenic.
This superb, highly skilled hyper-realistic painting, transcends the mode of representation by becoming beguilingly hypnotic.
It reminds me of surrealism, and a statement by Leonora Carrington:
…we have art because there are things unsayable”
Not many exhibits matched it.
Indeed, there are submissions which made me cringe – as they screamed Me,Me,Me… rather than anything more substantially valuable. Male/female bravado has unbeatable impact on memory, but its visual noise forbids any aporia of giving. Excess does not equal intensity. They all seek the same: to address a viewer while not compromising their own priorities, which appears healthy until the schematic calculation stops you believing in those priorities. On one hand, it is expected that an artist matches her or his output with his sincere views about life, art and beliefs, on the other we have this suspect hierarchy of the best, good and bad art. I feel sorry for those three adjectives, they have no single firm ground – they depend on the sort of “power” game between aesthetic judgements. It is impossible to use them without naïve enthusiasm or cold calculation. Both useless in relation to aesthetic experience and its fluidity.
Aesthetic experience is a self-directed oscillation between what is made visible and expectation of what should be made visible. And how. And why. The value of visual art is also in what happens when it subverts what you know. Art at times is nurtured by the makers as a tool not only to provoke attention but to evoke critical powers in the way people think. Radical honesty coupled with humour serves well at times.
The flash of the visual wit slips into the social, political engagement of the title. Even without the words, it focuses the attention on absences, on unfinished process of understanding the rewards and obstacles of a change.
A membership based exhibition depends on respectable support for “tolerance of differences” in philosophy, aesthetics and among the artists, even if some artists systematically reject what is different to their preferred art practice. Just recall W. Kandinsky’s attack on figurative painting in Munich when he supported his choice of abstraction by thinking about spirituality in art.
Perhaps more helpful for group exhibitions like this one is still Charles Baudelaire, his theory of correspondences.
Wilson’s colour scheme corresponds to an older European canon, more French (Barbizon) than Italian or Dutch, while it and the composition come from walked observation and drawing the “seen”. The marks, be it by brush or crayon, harmonise effortlessly with shapes and space, in a melodic partnering of light and shadow.
The access to collections in museums, galleries and online perhaps inspire visits to a historical precedent, older style, or re-working of a composition e.g. T. Gericault in one case and pointillist light in another. Even if it is a tribute to the invention of the technique, it still matters that another artist makes it alive again. It is the matter of matching the how to the what.
Its sensual authenticity is sincere, not staged, believable and inviting.
There are quite a number of atmospheric landscapes and trees displayed – I hope as a sign of our new priority vis a vis climate change – presenting various takes on narrative, mimetic approach.
The poles supporting the blossoming crown signal humanity as caring for nature. Or manipulation?
The choice is with the viewer.
Visual art appears the last vestige defining the grip of manipulation of attention, in somewhat playful manner. There is a radical honesty about staging composition as a critique of manipulation of thinking. The sweet touch of surrealism become its own truth: they both dance.
There is never too much of observation – the trinity of eye, mind and hand, hailed by Leonardo as a condition for being an artist still holds its power.
While majority of exhibits were two-dimensional, some smaller sculpture, assemblage and relief made it in.
These two are visually noisy assemblages of layered shapes with intense stimulation of the difference between the wood and bronze. Each presents “own truth” about anxiety of being now and here while displaying remarkable attention to the medium. Actually- that faithfulness to the medium could be perceived in all exhibits, whether they were grounded in scenic elements, historical valence or anthropocene’s impacts. In summing up: an overall impact of this exhibition on me was the tension about the fragility of human condition gazed at through imagination and observation.
This essay is only a fragment of my experience with this exhibition – even so it is too long already!
The catalogue entries do not give dates
The images courtesy of P Marshall, unless otherwise indicated.
Sincere thanks to Keith Wilson for emailing the jpegs to me.
White Cottage 16 Jan 2020
In her kind reply to an incorrect point in my essay above, the President of RUA included this correction:
“…a smaller collection of Members work travelled to Enniskillen and was exhibited at Waterways Ireland during the month of February 2019. Although an exiting venture which was well attended and well received, the associated costs make similar forays into far flung venues prohibitive.”
Forty four works of art, the oldest Abstract Painting 81 by Charles Walsh is a replay of sensitivity to shades of black, an ability to recognise quite a multitude of black shades noted by F. Engels among the workers in chemical industry. I compared once the Walsh’s mastery to graduate the hue to a whisper in a nursery. It also ages remarkably well, while turning into a classic.
The installation is airy, “minimalist”, allowing the privacy between the viewer and the viewed, not on offer in most current exhibitions of visual art. The images do not rain on you, do not jostle for an aura, even if some were given preference for taller visitors. That little speck above the row of three, is a small Seed of painting by Natalia Black. It is her autograph, pastose layers of paints dragged across a thought of composition. She is not alone in preferring this specific technique for its power to define an image by pushing out the ground and instances. I came across three more painters who are devotees.
Conrad Jon Godly applies impasto to mountains on large scale to reveal their “spirit”.
Downstairs, a tiny Spiral Star by Dan Shipsides silently plays hide and seek well above the eye level, while the large Rattler and Badass by Ronnie Hughescommand the whole space and attention with support of seven smaller paintings. Small format is favoured by many, by Fionnuala D’Arcy, whose paintings appear both here and upstairs.
Rigorous process feeds the variations on sensuality of the sameness of the format – akin to a musical fugue. The attention to the medium allows the sense of atmosphere to engulf sharp edges of angular forms. I deliberately avoid to identify these images as made by female or male artist. Instead, I hope the viewer to engage with it, with the painting, not with the maker, as is the habit in this culture. “In 2018, male artists created 95 percent of the total value of art sold at major auction houses across the world. And from 2008 to 2018, only 11 percent of the artworks actually bought by major American museums were by women. The art world can posture but, where it counts, less is changing than it might seem, because the underlying idea of the Artistic Genius maintains its hold.”
Peter Burns prefers similarly hot palette to stretch, ambulate and contort his busy landscape.
Scenic elements hide a seek on a diaphanous layered surfaces of David Crone‘s paintings. David Feely intoxicates the rule of right angle with letting the observed to hover between figuration and abstraction.
Reduced composition intimates rather than narrate a story in several exhibits. It appears as preferred mode of Wilma Vissers and Felim Egan.
Languid misty high tones embrace the right angles with empathetic tenderness.
Tender delight with details keeps them mischievously playing hide and seek with meaning, date and technique in the page manquee below.
When abstraction borrows enigmatic quality from an imagined story or performance, it contaminates itself with a narrative. The freedom of choice is left with the viewer’s imaginative habits.
Holding the imagination to revoke the real, is often assisted by illusion of space, depth, here between the figure absorbed in contemplation of the cloud and its reflection in the water while that illusion is targeted by the red tree. It is poetic to the point of sweet illusion, perhaps hence the smirking right angle to subvert it a little.
Shrinking the world to a table op scale is a pre-eminent part of growing up while playing, or playing while growing up. The value of play for cognitive powers is well understood but not often respected. Art has the eternal power to object on its behalf.
Visual art shrinks not from being decorative while it distances itself from similarity with the observed.
If only rarely, the fear of the end of the world visits people every so many hundreds of years – and the humanity’s impact on nature at present triggers our take on it. The metaphor of darkness, of a night for end of life is not out of date yet.
As if not facing the predicted impact of people on nature, art still potently flirts with freedom of thought, be it as a nod to predecessor or to the enigmatic quality of colour.
It is perhaps telling about human condition when the Shelter, 2019 by Zoe Murdoch has no opening, no entrance. A closed box on a pedestal.
Closed form also governs Bill Saunders’s Hide Tide, 2019
Visual art often partners ethics, even if it not exactly follows the kallos agathos…
Images courtesy of Helen G Blake on Facebook. Without you, Helen, I could not do this essay. Thank you.
Watson’s bronze casts of hands of politicians who signed the Great Friday Agreement also known as Belfast Agreement in 1998 echoes some concerns central to Situationists, Fluxus. “social sculpture” of J Beuys as well as the question when is art. When an “object”when in the gallery is art, and outside it is not. Warhol and the institutional theory of art opened up that issue.
“Hands of History” (left below) aspire to be a reliable document, do not aspire to be beautiful like A Rodin’s modelled hands of Burgher’s of Calais below right.(pierre_et_jacques_de_wissant_main_droite)
It is as if Watson shared the following reminiscence:
‘Bitter’ by Sajida Um Mohammed, from Open Shutters Iraq, Eugenie Dolberg, 2006
Labrando Memorias, Edwin Cubillos Rodríguez, 2011
Desapariciones (Disparations), Helen Zout, 2009
Entries, Chad Alexander, 2016
Ursula Kroeber Le Guin coined a term “active human interface” for each local history when placed into an international continuum, perhaps with a hope for a more comprehensive and complete renewal. The screen with the Invitation to observe is placed at the end of the Watson’s exhibits, mimicking, evoking, a music notation – da capo al fine. The hearing is already engaged by the commentary.
Almost on the other side of that wall is a commercially sleek video of reading from the text of Agreement titled
Lyrical Agreement (2018) is an animation created for the Institute of Irish Studies,University of Liverpool by Alt Animation around the excerpts from the GFA text read by persons of all ages and both sides of the border. The expectation was that a viewer will be compelled to realise the power of that Agreement. It harnesses, as if effortlessly, two registers: serenity of hope in the statements and commercial sleekness of the visual design the best adverts are accustomed to. If you think that the link between political and commercial is vulgar or out of place, consider the reality wherever you are. Even the cover for that Belfast Agreement was chosen by the commercial partner selected from a bank of commercially available images. (We also examine the photographic image sent to every household in Northern Ireland on the cover of the historic political agreement. We reveal its location and the identity of the uncredited photographer. viz editorial in Source, 1998, issue 15 )
The photographs and the reading are still partaking in verism, not in the loftier classical Greek ideal of kallos agathos in art. Verism has its roots in the idea that art is the way of doing something, a concept with roots in triumphal columns of ancient Rome telling the stories of the battle and triumphs, e.g. Trajan Column, AD 107 -113, photo courtesy University of St Andrews)
The next part of the exhibition would have been welcome by William Morris as a support of his late 19th C lecture on Lesser Arts, those rejected by academia but significant for supporting life.
Your Legacy LivesOn is a set of three Memorial Quilts courtesy of the South East Fermanagh Foundation makes those who lost life the subject of their visual art. They do not lionise the signatories of the Agreement, they do not include them.
Your Legacy Lives On, Memorial Quilt, H: 188 cms x W: 254 cms ( with stands H: 213 cms x 330 cms), 2014
Patchwork of Innocents, Memorial Quilt, H: 175 cms x W: 269 cms ( with stands H: 213 cms x 330cms), 2016
Terrorism Knows NO Borders, Memorial Quilt, H: 175 cms x W: 290 cms ( with stands H: 213 cms x330 cms), 2016 (with additions 2019)
The Memorial Quilts hope to encouraging viewers to consider the Troubles from the point of view of lost life. We shall never be offered the chance to know what those murdered would have invented, developed, cherished, cared for. The quilts installation is accompanied by a brochure Terrorism knows no border. In it it reads:” The Memorial quilt is a piece of living history...”(p 4) By chance I found an analogous image from another country where groups of people make art as a way of coping with their living history. A young man recites poetry calling for revolution in Khartoom, on June 19, 2019. ( Yasuyoshi Chiba,Getty Images)
Look at their hands – even in the meagre illumination by mobile phones the hands are powerfully evocative. In comparison Watson chose non poetic approach, moreover, direct casts.
The installation of the whole exhibition of work by Raymond Watson’s Hands of History +20. consists from bronze casts, sculpture, performance, video, painting, sound and light installation. found objects, a print, and short story with close up lens based images.
The Hands of History
Material: Bronze and Mourne Granite
Years: 2000 to 2019
The hands are mounted on granite bases
First group are bronze casts of hands of the signatories of the Agreement, subsequent casts include group of politicians, Watson perceived as significant in relation to it.
So for ex. In the smaller group are all the signatories who actually worked on the Agreement and took the courageous decisions to stop the runaway violence.
The bigger group includes those who followed their example. This ethical distinction is not made visible. The names indicate the later stage of support for the Agreement.
The Good Friday / Belfast Agreement was signed on Friday 10th April, 1998
The Referendum was held across the Island of Ireland on Friday 22nd May 1998
David Trimble and Seamus Mallon were designated First Minister and Deputy First Minister on Wednesday 1 st July 1998
The NI Executive took power on Thursday 2nd December 1999
The bronze casts are standing for each of the signatories, thus the disembodied hand is a tropos of synecdoche for those who signed that agreement. Initials at the lower edge of each indicate the identity. The hands are “imprints” of a living tool, of hands that signed that agreement, which in turn allowed to old “world” to meet the one that did not exist yet.
A tropos, esp the metaphor or synecdoche, according to I. A. Richards in The Philosophy of Rhetoric (1936), consists of two parts: the tenor and vehicle. The tenor is the subject to which attributes are ascribed., here the hands of the persons. The vehicle is the subject from which the attributes are borrowed,i.e. the text. The text, the agreement amongst them all.
The preference for the hand as a tenor has been documented all over the globe, since the earliest cave paintings.
Durham University researchers identified a link between hand prints (tenor) and the rock(vehicle): “Using morphometric data we were able to show that in all cases only a small number of individuals – 3 or 4 – left prints in each cave, and the size and finger ratios of these were consistent with these being female. We were able to show that in all caves studied the greater majority of hand stencils were associated with specific features of the cave walls. An association with small bosses on the walls which the hands appear to be ‘gripping’. Watson makes his hands “voting” not signing the document.
The key words are ” the points at which this world meets another“. The similarity among all cave paintings be it France, Spain, Balkan(2018) or Borneo (2018) points to shared experiences in decisive mapping up of shared rules: human figures just as dark silhouettes, animals strong and alive.
The hands are “imprints” of a living tool. That idea appears in the casts made by Watson: hands that signed that agreement allowed to old “world” to meet the one that did not exist yet.
The cave paintings have emotional force, which Watson’s casts have to do without. E.g. In 1928, the artist and critic Amédée Ozenfant wrote of the art in the Les Eyzies caves, “Ah, those hands! Those silhouettes of hands, spread out and stencilled on an ochre ground! Go and see them. I promise you the most intense emotion you have ever experienced.”
The whole of the current exhibition approximates that insight with some effort, it is a cold art. Whereas, below, Ken Bartley’s photographs responding to his viewing animate the small bronze sculptures which silent on a pedestal reduce themselves to a document. It means, every viewer’s experience is open ended, changed by moving around, looking closely.
The significance of hand as visualisation of a fact thus satisfies its use even when the legal text is its real defender and guarantor. As an exhibit, it obtains freedom to associate with noisy disagreement at one stage and elation when resolved.
This exhibition anticipates the focus entertained for The Armory Show 2020 planned as “the ways in which artists construct a version of reality when the boundaries of fact and art are shifting”. Indeed Watson casts the real hands without modelling, like death masks. In comparison, for example, with 40 sculpted portraits the difference becomes obvious.
Both Watson and Edwards give up a significant part of their imagination to strengthen the documentary value of their subject.
Watson goes further when he applies self-confession about his jail sentence for belonging to IRA. He also gives up the visibility of it, burdening the sound with greater significance. Art as a confession has been with us for decades, think of Tracy Emin etc. Watson’ s resonates also with older cases – in literature. Dostojevski writes after his death sentence was muted to 4 years in a Siberian labour camp followed by compulsory service in the Tsar army with:” If anyone remembers me with malice…I would like to love and embrace at least someone…”. Watson chose less emotional reminiscence, reminding me of Maxim Gorki’s realistic confession : My universities (ie my life and experiences).
In another exhibit Watson performs to a camera. Consequently the aesthetic impact depends on both the performer and the operator of the lens. The Grappling Hook, made by an unnamed prisoner, is a found object. Watson uses it to climb so called Peace Walls.
It feels of now and essential. Also the artist making the performance is the man now, not that youth in the prison.
I suppose as it shifts from document to private experience, the performance hits the viewer with the impatient wish that Northern Ireland develops its future free of the inherited divisions. In places this video is poetic. It has a soul twin, made in collaboration with light, the installation, The Keys.
Metal Keys and Cables with Quadrophonic Audio, 13 Minutes 16 Seconds (2018)
Watson collected the keys after the Crumlin Road Gaol was decommissioned. He says that the aim was to examine the notion of imprisonment and freedom. That becomes visible on some of the keys carrying the label easily identified with the jail. However, it is not the sound, but the light source- as they project the shadows onto the draperies -that defines this installation as art. The sound track is almost able to stand on its own somewhere else, or not to be there at all.
When projected onto the curtains The Keys morph into human silhouettes, reminiscent of one Magritte’s painting, making up a mute chorus.
In addition, Watson installed six more exhibits.
A Cold Floor,2002, yew and mahagony, 20x30x45cm
The book indicates traditional belief systems, the disembodied feet allow both inherited trust in the old belief and its critique. as the disembodied feet recall martyrdom of irrational believers.
Blast Bomber,2002, bronze and sandstone, 35x15x15cm
In a visual paradox of the move, the figure is ‘playing cricket’ and ‘letting go’ of destructive forces. Your choice.
Visible mutilation of bodies by sorrow evokes contrary interpretations.
Not my Son,2002, limewood, snadstone, 45x15x50 cm
The motive of mutilation, of cut off limbs as sign of martyrdom, appear also in the painting with identifiable “holy” books as a ground on which some people feel safe standing.
Holy Books, 2019, Oil on Canvas 60 x 80 cm
A kind of bitter irony feeds the increased loss of identification in the only print exhibited, The Legend, 2001, photo etched, 95 x 127 cm
The confessional exhibit twins images and speech in Unlocking. Close up photographs of keys and identification tags describe Watson return to the de-comissioned jail. Watson shares his memories and reflections about them.
His preferred mode is relational aesthetics as he gives up autonomy in service to devotion to the grand and impressive historical facts, in service to documenting politics and self as its part. Reminiscent of socialist realism? Yes, in being dominated by the ideology of the day. It is as if he realised that the power of an object and a story fails to switch on that all important denouement, catharsis. As the exhibition battles against the anxiety of remembering it cannot win against the anxiety rooted in the gap between its intention and viewers current experience of the real. The multiple triggers of history then and now are similar and yet constant state of emergency to change.
Peter Bazalgette mentioned the inherent values of culture in defining personal and national identities through collective memory. Watson challenges that by stripping that idea down to the personal experience of material objects: It is only as good as the person who tell it or write it, or paint it, or sculpt it. I do not doubt that he also is acutely aware of the power of choices, and of necessary incompleteness.
While many people were involved in the lengthy process of bringing peace to Northern Ireland, journalist Brian Rowan assessed Fr Alec Reid’s legacy in the 14 Days documentary: “I think when the historians look back on 30 years of conflict here, and on the journey of war to peace, the story will not be told without the name of Alec Reid right in the middle of it all.” Also in 2013, the Irish president, Michael Higgins, led tributes to the late cleric “Fr Reid will perhaps best be remembered for the courageous part he played in identifying and nurturing the early seeds of an inclusive peace process…Fr Reid’s role as a channel for peace laid the ground for the achievement of the IRA ceasefire and created the political space for the multiparty talks that ultimately led to the Good Friday agreement.”
If there was a mention of Fr Reid somewhere in the exhibition, I missed it.
Carved out of lived past the exhibition opens entrances to synchronised resonance, that may impair spontaneous self-organisation of viewers own responses. In that it is similar in theory to Zhdanov doctrine of social function of visual art and to the Situationists’ stubborn struggle to obtain “denouement”. This exhibition whispers and echoes many other previous works of art, from Diego Rivera to Andy Warhol.
Images courtesy ArtisAnn Gallery who produced and curated the exhibition.
The calm of the display invites intimacy between the viewer and the viewed. Conspiracy even, to make what the gallery notes call visual conundrum into an intimate gamble to implant a meaning.
Observing the Cezanne’s faith into a diagonal some colours disobey as if intoxicated by the uncertainty of abstraction (e.g. yellow, blue) while others decisively cumulate into stubborn volumes, e.g. the boat and the kneeling figure while disregarding the visual logic of the receding planes. The pink smoky celestial body and foam are both behind and in front of the yellow horizon pierced by the blue silhouettes of skyscrapers. Reminiscing on Andre Derain’s Charing Cross Bridge, 1906. The city importance is dwarfed by two vivid multicoloured birds resting on an unbelievable round ground from which an incomprehensible stump reaches to the boat to become its part. The capture of the birds’ attention is mastery.
The diagonal of blue slivers on the dress and tree crowns succeed in denying the blue foreground (water) and the sky between the parting trees to flatten the space. Instead, there are the classical three distances, and sudden intoxication with volume – except the left bottom corner appearing like a forgotten canvas. The tree trunks feel like a homage to Maurice de Vlaminck and Andre Derain.
The diagonal composition allows a flow even if irrational and threatens with breaking down. Perhaps that determined the title of the exhibition Flop Sweat. Would central composition support that dynamics between observation and fantasy?
The soft tenderness of the brushmark manoeuvres between heavy illusion and ironic detachment as if the drama of the hues aimed to disable the risk of sentimentality. Subverting Paul Henry through a precarious integration of opposing pictorial energy of keys like in a Kandinsky’s Murnau paintings.
Someone, like H Bergson, thought that art never simply is, it is always becoming.
The clumsy, wooden, figure is modelled with instinctive care to let the caressing light bring it to life, visible in close-up. The messy ground competes with the figures chance to live – as if a quasi -Titian like maniera of patches failed openly to tell the grounds apart and remove the cartoon facial definition. The resulting sense of restlessness leaves also the landscape undefined between observed and imagined and ignored. Composed in a high key the composite landscape can not survive without demarcation lines and outlines, and the apparition of the man with a moustache becomes more defined and humorous.
There is a clearer resolve and control in drawings that form a part of this exhibition, thirty of them.
Some embody the memory of 19th C verism, others are flirting with Twombly’s whispers, both harnessed to deliberate distortion of the observed.
I hesitate to conclude that drawing allows this painter some defence against anxiety, yet they embody what I see in the assured historical Chinese brush drawings: to give value what looks like of no importance. And yes, McGreevy’s are talkative versions of the decidedly western idiom.
(The following four images taken kindly by a visitor Joen from Denmark on my mobile to illustrate the brilliant flow between the observation and free imagination)
Quizzical images aspiring to confirm the value of imagination made visible.
All other images courtesy of the curator Hugh Mulholland, MAC, Belfast.
Clemenceau writing about Monet’s Waterlilies argues against Louis Gillet: Trois Variations sur Claude Monet thus:
“When we see Monet’s brush-tip breaking the natural world down to such elemental particles, it is enough to delight in these transfigurations, so much like those revealed in the modern sciences. I won’t pretend that Monet is showing us “the dance of the atoms”; I affirm only that he has helped us take a great step towards an emotional comprehension of reality through heightened awareness of the dispersions of natural light—in line with what physics has discovered about oscillations, frequencies, waves. If our scientific understanding of the universe changes again, Monet’s achievement, this progress for us all in our intuitive response to nature, will always merit our respect, no matter what the future brings.” (https://iopn.library.illinois.edu/pressbooks/clemenceaumonet/chapter/critique-of-the-critics/
The younger artist, born in 1952 , claims to be inspired by John Cage while he applies a sophisticated twist to what appears similar to the above.
On his website (www.mickydonnely.com) it reads:
“Micky Donnelly’s art practice is exploratory and multilayered. His paintings, drawings, and installations are notable for their innovative and slightly ironic reworkings of familiar genres. They concern themselves with the poetic possibilities of everyday perception and often include playful references to art history. His work resists a signature style, but employs various ongoing threads and connections, along with elements of chance, to maintain its distinctive momentum.”
The claim offers a thread to consider, a sort of trinity of values: irony, play and chance. At first – none seems applicable to Monet until you experience the installation at Marmotan museum (https://www.marmotan.fr/en). When looking at any of the paintings of waterlilies or of the Japanese bridge from near – it is messy energy of brushstrokes with incompatible hues.
Searching for an example I found Jaclyn Rayman’s close-up online, she does not state what painting it belongs to. It may be either from Marmottan installation or Orangerie. From a distance that messy cosmic force becomes one of the waterlilies. Monet achieved that in the garden at Giverny. He placed his easel on the small platform from where he saw both the willow on the right and the Japanese bridge on his left. Embraced by his subject, he embraced it in turn, in the now-famous waterlilies. (I stood there, and vouch that it is possible.)
Another example of Monet’s “abstraction” is even more confident. Viewed from a distance the sensuous values return to represent, they heighten the joy of viewing.
Viewed from half the length of the gallery, all fall into an optically correct rendering of what is meant to be visible.
I sensed another link – the sincere joy of seeing one Monet’s painting in two versions, and playful recovery how that older artist worked the tonality by mixing two primary hues into the “melange optique” ,e.g. Waterloo Bridge, 1903
In Donnelly’s “melange optique” the divided brushstroke is charged with defining the moving water, everything deliquesces.
The aesthetic of silence called for a move away from the possible narrative to time defined optical differences. Both Monet and Donnelly replaced earlier practice focused on contemporary subjects by a timeless one: “One instant, one aspect of nature contains it all,” said Claude Monet. Donnelly echoes that.
Is Donnely activating the fashionable appropriation akin those practiced by Jeff Koon and Damien Hirst? I am not convinced. Rather, I see a similarity with a long term interest of a number of artists who huddle around a Facebook page run by a painter John Crabtree:
Happenstance has its roots in psychogeography and the indeterminacy of Cage-it embodies the idea of purposeless wanderings and happenings. It is about the incidental and the democracy of seeing -I often think that the biggest obstacle to ‘art’ is the word itself as it presupposes /conditions and structures perception. This is obviously a Yes/No statement at best as art involves the contemplative and cognitive aspects of perception and meaning. It is often said that we all work out of tradition but must not be hidebound by it and in my view and approach that looking/seeing and beholding is a local and intrinsic activity. If you can’t see it in your local bus-station you won’t see it in Tibet -the wonder is before you and within your own heart. The aspect that I like about this process is almost a Taoist way of seeing -what appears ‘found ‘ is almost like an ‘alert’ that awakens a mode of seeing that is not a forced or focussed way of perceiving but arise as a natural event in oneself and environment
Donnely elegantly entertains that concept in a statement on his website:
Happenstance And Celebration: A Way of Working My work has always relied on some notion of ‘cultural memory’ as part of its momentum. There has been regular use of references to things known and half-known that condition our thoughts and feelings in all kinds of ways…..….The more recent paintings have gradually moved into a different area of ambiguity. They have now progressed to the point where they can be said to manifest an attitude towards their making that corresponds roughly to John Cage’s ‘music-as-weather’ analogy. Cage said that he wanted to create ‘music-as-weather’, meaning simply that he didn’t want to control what was happening in the production of his music; that it should unfold by its own means, just like the weather. Thus, he often relied on apparently random processes.
The current series of Donnelly’s River as not stands as twelve painting of the same theme, format, colour scheme, divided brushtroke and rendering of space, they all share evocation of Claude Monet, whom Pontus Hulten (1924 -2006) included in five parallel exhibitions in 1992 as one of the “key work of 20thC art”.
I cherish his challenge to the dictate of the new, to the endless craving to possess what is available only to the rich, to the insecurity of individual aesthetic judgement, i.e. to the art establishment’s power over individual aesthetic experience. Donnely charges the viewer with one condition: have the courage to value your own taste and judgement. In that, he sends his work to the world on rays of trust and courage.
The installation at Fenderesky did not use all twelve parts of this series, only 1 -7, adding three from Enclosure Series, one Untitled and nine Overley Series.
Donnely’s painting series forges support to Henri Focillon (1881–1943) who describes how art forms change over time. He argued that the development of art is irreducible to external political, social, or economic determinants. Instead, he worked out a concept of autonomous formal mutation within the shifting domain of materials and techniques. His Life of Forms in Art emphasizes the presence of nonsynchronous tendencies within styles that give to artworks a manifold and stratified character.
In this series, Donnelly offers a splendid variation on Monet’s concept of visibility.
In addition, I recognise a significant difference: I do not need to move away from the picture plane to perceive distinct definitions of forms – there are none, just short solitary abstract tones of one hue at the time. Each hue touches the surface briefly and disappears. Except the pale blues that define the water and sky.
Something else is at work. You may recall M C Escher virtuoso constructs of figures and ground.
Birds and fish -black and white.
It is not possible to see both the black pattern and the white pattern at once. This shortcoming of our visual perception is invited to play, a little, on Donnelly’s series of river views. The eye focuses either on the illusion of the depth (be it sky or water) or on the floating brushstrokes, the debris of reflections and objects that sit on the river surface. Not on both equally at the same time ( see M D Vernon, 1954, The Psychology of Perception).
These vivacious brushstrokes are augmenting spontaneous reveries.
If you think that the installation looks like many other exhibitions in Europe over the last two decades, you may be acutely aware of the spirit of the age, borrowed from the German language as Zeitgeist. Philosophers associated with that idea include Herder and Spencer and Voltaire. It counters the Great Man theory popularized by Thomas Carlyle which sees history as the result of the actions of heroes and geniuses.
For compariosn I selected an image available online from the 2018 exhibition by two Slovak artists
Roman Ondak (b 1966) and Štefan Papčo (b 1983), from their exhibition titled Sky Gravity (19 Jan – 16 March, 2018, Zahorian and Van Espen Gallery Bratislava) Ondak called his exhibition in South London Gallery (2026/17) “The Source of Art is in the Life of a People” – a claim easily adapted to Platform members, e.g. Aoife Earley: Street Series 1-3 (Digital photo on c-type photo paper), 2018 taken by iPhone7; “I enjoy the convenience and connectivity of my phone camera” (gallery handout)
Earley also explores the chance mobile phone photography harvests while the photographer is mobile, i.e. driving or driven. It may appear obvious for now and here. The implication is that the viewer’s mind drives the aesthetic experience.
Let me digress to test that.
In 1966, the philosopher Karl Popper conducted an informal experiment: During a lecture at the University of Oxford, he turned to his audience and said: ‘My experiment consists of asking you to observe, here and now. I hope you are all cooperating and observing! However, I feel that at least some of you, instead of observing, will feel a strong urge to ask: “What do you want me to observe?”’
Then Popper delivered his insight into observation:
‘For what I am trying to illustrate is that, in order to observe, we must have in mind a definite question, which we might be able to decide by observation.’
The question for Earley appears to be the value and power of spontaneity. Of a flow which she arrests.
Andrew Glen(b1981) makes the “curious relationship between object, experience and artist” into a locus that facilitates the choice of a found object. Yes, it nods towards the Arte Povera, yet, it has an up-to-date root: Glen’s personal collection he started in 2015. On the far wall the blue-green Bute wool&found objects is a part of the ongoing series ATOMICA.
Andrew Glenn is recycling a useful object into a free art by canceling its usability, not miles away from Duchamp a century ago.
When a person visits an art exhibition they carry in their mind both “closed” and “open” questions.
The closed questions are “a priori” thoughts, likely to be connected to their previous experiences with and memories of art. They refer to similarities and differences. The open ones are those formed by dynamics of curiosity and creativity of the viewer on one hand and the power of the work of art (the artist).
It is not a straightforward process – ‘All observation must be for or against a point of view,’ is how Charles Darwin put it in 1861. Hayley Gault included two long paragraphs in the gallery handout to explain how her curatorial practice which focused on environment and landscape was supposed to champion “ the value of exchange and types of transparency”. She printed a stack of sheets listing similarities between her father, a farmer, and herself: an artist, curator, activist, researcher, writer. She named this installation Things me and my father have in common.
Its roots are in installation art, in conceptual art, in early modernism minus Dada, in the art and language tradition of the 1950s. It also echoes, perhaps unwillingly, the not so glittering removal of specific talent as the indispensable protector of visibility. (I have in mind those periods when we see the hegemony of ideology). Her exhibit confirms Ondak’s statement that “The Source of Art is in the Life of a People”. That includes the visual artist’s ingenuity in crafting questions, expectations, hypotheses, and theories to make sense of their subject – visibly.
This exhibition strips the objects of flattering their makers’ importance. Instead, it matters what is vitally located in each exhibit.
Christopher McCambridge revives the conviction of William Morris that so-called lesser arts are equal to the rest because they are life supporting. Except, he moves in the other direction – towards the removal of the original practical use see http://www.chrismccambridge.wordpress.com/
Hand stitching the fabric aims to remember the hand weaving of the cloth before it was more often machine – made. Both processes (sewn by machine and by hand) are legibly there, so it is not a case of canceling one and replacing it. It is a method of a metamorphosis of one object becoming another. Remember Ovidius Naso? He seduced even P Picasso to illustrate metamorphoses…
Here, it occurs by replacing the very value of use championed by W Morris. Yet, McCambridge entertains a similar aim: to make an object recognized as an aesthetic object by replacing the machine with a hand.
Something similar to a replacement appears on the surfaces of Dreaddgerm, which Gerard Carson describes/defines as ” a manifestation of stratified oily techno objects, dredged from antediluvian sludge territories morphed into objects that speculate on the dark forces of techno-capitalist time”. (Gallery handout)
Quite! I give up, but do not deny the link to the 1918 manifesto by Tristan Tzara quoted below.
To impose your ABC is a natural thing— hence deplorable. Everybody does it in the form of crystalbluffmadonna, monetary system, pharmaceutical product, or a bare leg advertising the ardent sterile spring. The love of novelty is the cross of sympathy, demonstrates a naive je m’enfoutisme, it is a transitory, positive sign without a cause. But this need itself is obsolete.
Gerard Carson may agree with some of Tzara nonsense as nonsense, but in visual terms, he is a dead serious player for tacit communication between optic, haptic, and illusionary.
Consider his Statement
Stretched like elastic, it’s untethered from hermetica, blooming from conjunctions.
A speculation on futures via a tenuous materiality that is constantly on the verge of dissipating.
(Re)Mixing from the mutating jungle of matter, feeding through a viscous interstitial mesh.
I see the chain and I read a sculpture, a rough immobile silent sibling to the chatting mobiles by Alexander Calder. Its prettiness gives way to terrorizing sadness of broken lives, broken by those dark forces, he mentioned. In between the cascading down and never reaching the ground, it seems to stutter J’accuse (thinking of Emile Zola). And then it wiggles out and pretends that nothing matters, whispering: I am a construct.
Rachael Campbell Palmer
exhibits installation with sculpture and print. It may be thought of as three objects not connected, but the way they are placed is softly considered to signal togetherness.
She gives it all one title: “Untitled (Inventory), 2018 (polyester casting resin, concrete, plaster, digital print). Maybe she entertains the thought of a chain, and not just of grouping. After all -she prefers traditional techniques – a kind of a chain, a thread, between now and before. In her statement on the gallery handout she singles out the connections to locations and memory and preference for multiples, both an association with time. The supreme chain.
Her trees(or magnified weeds) are like personages – meeting in a meadow … I hesitate to rule out conflict, or an accident.
Moving away from the back wall, the visible space is dominated by Damian Magee.
“Theta Waves”,2018, Graphite on paper, brass eyelets, paracord
Its dorso is empty.
He suggests that it is a “depiction” of Gigantomachy from the Pergamon Altar, based on a low resolution digital image. (Gallery notes, image downloaded from Wikipedia))
It would appear that the drawing selects a perceived rhythm of the volumes as a wave of subjective attention. Magee makes another claim for his drawing: ” This treatment of a fragment …seeks to explore the ways in which time has informed phenomenological shifts in the experience of cultural objects.” As I understand it in relation to Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit published in 1807 and based on a precious philosophical intuition: consciousness is not a completed institution, it is constructed, transformed to become other than itself. As if the selected wave is how the sculptural fragments appeared to Magee’s consciousness when he aimed to capture the essence of what he observed. That subjectivity is one of many possible.
Iolanda Rocha lets her subjectivity move on and on, claiming equivalence for each state of what she saw, recalled or imagined. Those rich pickings are downsized by the summary title “Schema”.
The seven small paintings/prints (cyanotype and gesso on wood (all 2018) do not tell a story that has one beginning and one end. Each stands confidently alone and together as if there were identity between the two states of being.
However the absence of nature – beyond signaling the atmosphere – become a significant sign of anthropocentrism and anthropomorphism.
Hannah Casey-Brogan aims at the intimacy of seeing, viewing, by altering the expected, normal, when observing a small format image. Her “Untitled” (oil on aluminium, 2018) does not fully escape into abstraction, allowing the red become an arch above a melee of either a very distanced crowd or some insect, or just a multitude of dark traces.
Another small-scale object is made with several materials: text, paper, vinyl, glass and frame. Jane Butler ‘s School of Thought #4,2017.
Reminiscent of the preoccupations by the Art and Language of 1967 -70 – it seems to be re-visiting the group’s early conceptual concerns as shown in the example below.
Alex Brunt installed a digital video, 19 mins, 2018 titled Spit and Honey,
both those materials descending onto a head of a willing person.
Reminiscent of cinema verite it exposes the visceral, the setup, the observed, fragmenting the whole, perhaps in a hope of lessening the chance of absence of any subversion of the intention, by sympathy or its opposite.
The exhibition felt like a sanctuary of vanishing ideals. Subdued.
The gallery calls it a “simultaneous solo exhibitions” connected to “the current themes (….) explored by the GTG 2018 – 2019 programme of approaching ways of looking” (Gallery handout). Like Humpty Dumpty I – you- GTG may give those words different meaning. One is that the gallery programme aims to present some distinct ways of looking. But – by who? The curator? The artist? The viewer? Is it not always the case? Seduced by the 20th C obsession with “la différence”, often that becomes the main value. However, these exhibits allow for sameness to enter.
Painting or drawing a person transmutes a sentient person into an inanimate object. Nevertheless, verism holds on to more of the “soul”. Nothing new about that. Look at Gentile Bellini’s self- portrait, how similar his way of looking at the live body is to that of Somerville above. I am not suggesting the debt of the younger to the older artist. Rather, a comparison of pose and modelling illustrates that the ways of looking do not depend on temporal context. Whereas, using vintage cotton pick sack as a ground, does, as do references to a Soviet gas mask and bag.
Bellini also added accessories in a portrait of another: In line with the trends in European portraiture of the time, Bellini depicted the sultan in resplendent detail, his three-quarter profile framed by an illusionistic archway.
Mehmet is also represented by the trappings of Islamic authority: His red caftan and luxurious fur mantle are accompanied by a headdress (a wrapped turban over a red taj) that indicates his rank and religious identity; a piece of jewel-encrusted Ottoman embroidery hangs down the front of the frame; and the three crowns of Constantinople, Iconium, and Trebizond flank him on each side.
Quite a few “samenesses” between the then and now.
I am not sure that the double meaning is intentional in the terms GTG prints in its handout: “approaching ways of looking” – from where? to whom? by what? Are ways of looking distinct from ways of seeing?
The verbs seeing, looking and watching, situate each activity in subtly different realms of attention and meaning. In life and in art. Yet – what I see I perceive as a process to make visible – even, particularly, the invisible, e.g. empathy, fear, insecurity. Human condition.
Drawing and painting, both have near hypnotising capacity to find correspondence between a fleeting perception and the unmovable marks on the ground. Between seeing and naming. Between observed and made up. I recall Paul Klee: “Art does not reproduce the visible, it makes visible.”
Therefore, thinking of the art, I tend to replace the words “ways of looking” with “ways of making visible”.
In the above drawing, the fatal experience of being “lost at sea” between escape and arrival arrests the retrieval of that experience in one moment. While the reality is inherently fugitive. As is generally the case with visual perception. It may imprint on memory if my eidetic memory is good. The rest is, as Balzac pointed out, indéfinissable.
On the image immediately above – a challenging 8-part painting by Travis Somerville that echoes Géricault’s Raft of Medusa, with its political charge. The Raft, 2016, demands to fragment perception into a stream of many partial views, resisting offering one all-embracing one.
It successfully transfers to me the impossibility of grasping it as a whole. Like any of Breughel’s “tableaux”. The event’s dynamic is not susceptible to one dominant view. This ragged composition mediates an experience of being inside a story. There is no sign of the order of Alberti’s disegno. Instead, the colours weep, accuse, make hope not to be swallowed by dark waves. The darkness of what it is they collectively make visible.
The choice of painting it in fragments removes the narrative from sliding into sentimental historical drama. Instead, it revives a mechanism of restraint akin to Zola’s “j’accuse”… and hits hard the central issue: the tragedy strikes and unfolds, strikes and unfolds … its duration unpredictable. Homeland Insecurity mirrors the experience as it would be lived, a part after a part.
Mediation of reality by subverting the convention by control and absurdity appears in a display of the five exhibits by Ian Cumberland in Gallery One.
The title A common fiction appears both ironic and wondrous. Is it a futile literalism that turns a portrait into a genre, à la Pieter Breughel the Elder? Just with one person, not as many as the 16th painter would do. Or is it turning a portrait into a still life?
The first “tableau” includes a carpet covering the floor, also painted on the panel with a fallen man. Suspended from a rough wooden support on the painting’s dorso, the body is seen from its back, moving its head slightly now and then, movement afforded by the virtue of lens-based media.
Higher up on the wall, two video screens run information about various health issues.
The All Consuming Selfie (2918) presents a tromp l’oeil of the carpet around the hyperrealist (photorealist) rendering of the body. The painting and its support are the mute, unmovable parts. The faith in the power of the painted image is immediately undermined by screens with words on the wall and projection of the pose of the man seen from the back. Is it a pleonasm? Is it needed because the trust in mute poetry is waining? Matching up the two modes of representation cannot escape the dominance of “la différance” in the perception of visual images and text.
Adrian Navarro (Boston, 1973. Living and working in London) pointed to a paradox inherent in painting practice.
“Man is an alienated being who thinks he is free. The same thing happens with painting, it is a free and expressive medium whose aim is the communication of a view of the world, where that freedom is not possible. This is the paradox I try to represent. “
Cumberland also explores the dichotomy between confinement and freedom inherent in painting and by focusing on a figure, extended to the human being.
To a certain extent, the installations are similar to still life. The presence of the human being does not violate the terms of still life, as formulated by 17th C Dutch paintings. Hypnotic ambivalence erases any chance of hebetude. Like Paul Cezanne, the painter is first true to the motif, but after that he plays with omens of impermanence. Spark -germinate-unravel. There are clues in brushtrokes and in attachments of real objects: flag, cage, wood, neon, carpet….
Quiet confrontations of representational accuracy and installed objects create less dissonance than the sudden “blind” gris-en-gris divided brushstrokes. Could be intentional or not. Make me think of decay.
Objects are there as if the painting needed them. As if without them it would be incomplete. Their “reality” results in estrangement of the painted part. The question arises – what kind of alienation is that?
Marxism defines alienation as hiatus between the worker and the product of work. That’s not the case here. Bertold Brecht established that estrangement enhances criticality and awareness.
That is applicable to these exhibits. The caged painting and the woman’s gesture align to indicate a court procedure. Only to be undermined by the domestic setting behind her. So this alienation is both similar and different from Brecht’s proposition.
Handwritten over the above painting is the cost of each item in GBP, e.g. material, the model, etc.
Listing the model is a significant marker, that the painter works in the European tradition – not the newer way of using photographs or video or cinema stills.
That leads me to conclude that this painter defends representational figurative painting by wishing it, letting it, win a competition with real objects. That is, what I sense to be foregrounded. Through exposing it to estrangement, alienation works like Shklovsky’s foregrounding or defamiliarisation.
In his 1917 text Art as Technique he distinguishes poetic language from ordinary language :
“The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. The technique of art is to make objects ‘unfamiliar,’ to make forms difficult to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged.” (Shklovsky 16)
Cumberland moves in the world of common reality, such as the animation of inanimate objects, but evolves defamiliarizing the viewer and provoking an uncanny feeling.
The slowing down of perception ( like the smear of the blind blue-grey of the pills onto the hand) injects energy into a physical system of paint to “originate” difference, change, value, motion, presence. Making painting strange (e.g. both by tromp l’oeil of the carpet and confrontation with real carpet) motivates comparison and recognition of “la différance”…
Images courtesy Simon Mills and Golden Thread Gallery.