Last week I went down to Swansea to see this year’s Beep painting prize exhibition. The year the exhibition has been staged in the old Iceland building in Swansea high street which is currently in the process of being taken over to become a community arts space. Organiser Jonathan Powell has created a floating system of wooden display stands to house the exhibition and this has made for an unusual, rough space for the work to be shown in.
In contemporary art circles you will often hear artists and organizers talking about the ‘white cube’ – the traditional gallery space which consists of white walls and white plinths designed to keep the viewers eye trained on the work in a vacuum. In recent years there has been a substantial move away from the traditional white cube space with organizers at all levels of the art world looking for unusual spaces in which to display work.
However, often the work is installation work or film or a mixture of disciplines and Beep certainly the first show of just painting which I have seen use such an unusual space. For organizer Jonathan Powell this set up is an important element of the ethos and the spirit behind Beep. Powell sees Beep as an opportunity to bring painting back in to the welsh cultural landscape in a way which is organic and in keeping with the culture of culture in Wales.
The brief for this year’s international painting prize was A Portrait of the Artist as… and the work which has been returned covers a broad range of styles and mediums. Judges Iwan Bala and Ruth Cayford have whittled down the entries from around a hundred and fifty to the forty or so pieces that you can see in the show. The winner, Lee Williams, created a piece involving rust painting on industrial maps of Port Talbot – which is the town he comes from. The work uses materials and marks to reflect on the heavy industrial nature of the town and how the overwhelming presence of commercial industry competes with the evolving identity of the community who lives there.
Another highlight is two small paintings by Tom Banks. The pieces show images of trees in suburban surroundings. The work captures beautifully the orange-lit gloom of the nighttime subrban landscape examining the roll of nature in constructed environments. Barry Charlton’s The Artist as Lord Nelson lends a sense of humour to the exhibition while looking at how historical figures affect and help to form modern culture and identity.
Hannah Blight Anderson’s works are unnervingly intimate portraits which to my mind were a particularly poignant part of the show as they embody some of the pressing questions facing painting today. The shadowy nature of these portraits hints at the artifice of their creation – of the subtlety and the subjectivity – which we feel more strongly in contrast with the constant bombardment of photographic images which modern life entails. The pieces hint at what painting might offer in a world of disposable imagery.
Powell and Elysium gallery will show a drawing exhibition in the same space once the Beep exhibition comes down and they hope to explore the possibility of creating a Welsh painting prize to run alternately with the international, biennial Beep. With support also from Mission gallery, the aim here is to create a cultural space on the cutting edge of contemporary painting which will reflect the wealth of creativity here in Wales.
Last week I went along to the opening of Jonathan Powell’s new show When We Build Again at Mission Gallery in Swansea. The show consists of many large, rough canvases of architectural forms which are devolved and deconstructed into squares of matter connecting and disconnecting. The work all uses a similar palette and form with small variations between each piece marking them as different.
Powell’s paintings are deeply concerned with place – both in the immediate space and the wider landscape. Powell’s work is particularly interesting in that you can watch a very clear progression taking place through his paintings. Looking at pieces which formed part of g39’s Barnraising and Bunkers exhibition in 2013 it is quite fascinating to see the deconstruction of the images. Beginning with quite clear forms of houses and buildings Powell’s structures have broken down further and further with each new piece until the resulting body of work is barely recognisable as built structures. The buildings have fallen to pieces or been left half formed in smoky futuristic skies so that it seems as though you are witnessing a collapsing utopia.
The artist takes inspiration from the places around him in both the near distance and the far. The spidery interconnecting strands and hanging structural forms growing out of one another are partly inspired by the spider plants in Powell’s studio. The organic growth of the plants is sprawling and uncontrolled – sometimes it seems thoughtless in the way the plant sprouts new balls of growth – taking nutrients from its parent plant and causing it to wilt. Powell sees this process of organic growth and exhaustion reflected in the city around him. As Swansea grows and changes it cuts loose older buildings and parts of the city – constantly, ruthlessly making way for the new – sucking life from one part in order to power growth in another. The city evolves as the spider plants do sprouting buildings and roads and shops almost as haphazardly.
Yet what is interesting about this body of work and Powell’s collection of futuristic buildings is that there are never any people in them. The population of these imaginary cities is most notable by its absence and this perhaps reflects the way that buildings and cities sometimes seem to be built without their occupants in mind. The wider landscape of Swansea from which Powell takes his backdrop and his inspiration is an evolving townscape which, without one divine architect, is powered often by business and money and sometimes by government for tourists, for sales, for prestige or innovation. Yet it is the people who will use and occupy these spaces who will feel the influence of these structures most keenly and it is often quite a murky business deciphering whether they are a motivating factor in their conception and construction or an afterthought.
Powell’s paintings with their dark masses and smoky haze reflect a particular kind of urban anxiety where the buildings themselves are in contention with the population rather than in harmony. Modern high streets like the one where Powell’s studio is located are not built to create comfortable, habitable spaces which enhance the lives of the people within them. They are built to sway those people – to slightly confuse them so that they spend just a little longer in the malls and precincts as they find their way out. A few more minutes of advertising and potential sales has a quantifiable figure in the mind of a businessman and by extension a commercial architect.
The pieces bring to mind stories of the Walkie-Talkie tower in London whose curved glass face magnifies the light of the sun in to a beam which can melt cars or Leed’s Bridgewater Place which causes such forceful winds at its base that it overturned a lorry killing a man. Powell’s structures bring to mind these futuristic buildings which swap practicality for innovation – sometimes losing sight of the people who will use them along the way. Within this body of work the viewer can find a strange dichotomy where the artist seems to be drawn to ambitious, futuristic architectural forms but also repulsed by them – even afraid of them.
Ultimately to my mind Powell’s paintings occupy an interesting position somewhere between a shining, organic futurist landscape and the smoggy streets of a failed utopia. These imaginary cityscapes are a way to reflect on and explore the real urban sprawl around us. The paintings ask the viewer to consider the process of urban development and decline and to be mindful of the landscape around them and the pivotal role it plays in defining the lives lived around them.
When I heard that colony projects were going to be staging an exhibition in Cefn Coed Colliery Museum the first thought that struck me was that it would be a real challenge for the artists to negotiate the depth of personal and political feeling attached to the subject matter of coal mining in South Wales. However, I think I was quite wrong, after attending the exhibition it seemed to me that the much greater challenge for the artists involved has been how to work in the setting of a museum and how to blend artifacts and art.
When you think of an art exhibition at a museum you probably imagine a separate cordoned off room near the café housing a collection of art works. That is certainly not what’s going on here. With the incredibly generous support of the museum Colony Projects have created an exhibition which is around, within and mixed up with the objects and displays in the museum. These artists had a unique opportunity to be involved with an almost seamless blending of art and heritage.
As I walked through the exhibition I felt as though piece after piece was questioning the similarities between art and the work of a museum such as Cefn Coed. Both involve an element of presenting information and objects within space. Both have to negotiate what Walter Benjamin described as the ‘aura’ of an object – its uniqueness and its cult significance. In a museum this means walking the line between displaying objects in cases – untouchable and mysterious – and creating fun or interactive displays which are perhaps more engaging. For an artist this means always being aware of and confronting the duality of the contemporary artwork – contemplating the art object as untouchable icon in a post-modern culture.
Jonathan Anderson’s piece ‘Aggregates’ looks at these similarities. ‘Aggregates’ consists of small repetitive sculptures. In this case the objects are small featureless, concrete houses and coal dust encrusted light bulbs. At Cefn Coed Anderson has displayed these works in museum style display cabinets side by side with the museum’s own displays. This placing of the art works creates both a seamless aesthetic incorporation of the work into the museum space and an abruptness as the unsuspecting museum visitor is confronted with the otherness and the uncanniness of the artwork assuming the space of a historical object.
Aggregates by Jonathan Anderson
This same sense of the uncanny pervades Anne Mie Melis’ piece ‘Condensed Colony’ which sits in the boiler room of the colliery. The piece consists of clusters of organic black forms which look somewhat like seaweed or unusual plants. These are placed around the chimneys of the boilers and the way they are created and positioned makes them appear to be a natural part of the display. As the pieces can only be seen from a viewing platform at a distance of twenty or thirty feet it seemed so much a part of the environment that it was initially quite hard to locate the work.
Anne Mie Melis and Jonathan Anderson’s work both seem to me to question both the nature of the historical artifact and the nature of art. By seamlessly blending the two they force the viewer to question what is true. The objects in the museum claim to be true – to offer an insight in to real occurrences from the past. By disrupting those ‘genuine’ displays with objects which make no such claim and which are undeniably contemporary the viewer is led to question the ‘truth’ of the museum object. By default this also throws into question the nature of art – is art a kind of deception? A false presentation of the world intended to persuade and deceive? Conflating these two quite different forms of presentation serves to underscore the ‘unreality’ of both.
Other artists such as Kathryn Campbell Dodd and Lee Williams actually removed objects which are part of the museums display and took them away to create pieces of work with them. Kathryn Campbell Dodd took a pickaxe head from a display of tools and took it back to her studio where she filmed it being sprinkled with black dust. I think this process of taking an object away from a museum and turning it into part of an artwork highlights how ambiguous and even deceptive a historical object can be. The object has gone from being a tool to being an artifact to being an artwork and back to being an artifact. An artwork is surely not a tool so by extension neither is an artifact – it is listed as a tool but it is no longer any such thing – it is an artifact whose purpose is in recreating the past and no longer in mining coal.
Again juxtaposing art and heritage brings up difficult questions – an object is art because the artist says it is art. When he designates it as art and puts it on display it is changed. The curator of the museum designates the axe head as artifact and displays it so is it changed too? And if it isn’t, in truth, a tool anymore then what is it? And does it have any real use in helping people to understand and process the past once it becomes an artifact and stops being a tool? The enveloping plastic of the display cabinet renders the tool’s environment sterile – it is wrenched from its context (and they do have some very nice wrenches on display too!) so does it have any use for the historian?
Lee Williams and Jacob Whittaker both used modern recreations made by the museum in their work. Williams used a model of a pit pony from the museum – he took it around local shopping centers then photographed it in a piece called ‘My Little Pit Pony’ while Whittaker created a disco in a mining stall. In his piece ‘Shaft: The Peacock Seam Edit’ he added video, music and a disco ball to the museum’s underground recreation of a mine. Both these pieces, but particularly ‘My Little Pit Pony’ scrutinise the relationship between art and ‘heritage’. Are the people who create these models and reproductions historians or are they artists too? Are they purveyors of truth or beauty?
What the presence of the art works impose on the museum is the reality that there is no objective past to put on display. Even an inanimate object can mislead and misconstrue and the museum is by necessity part fact and part sentiment – part archive and part memorial. It is designed to be informative but also to be moving and here perhaps it truly becomes art – manipulating objects to cause the viewer to feel or to think. Maybe what this show demonstrates is that the line between exhibition and museum – between art and history – is ever so much more blurry than you might think.
Shaft: The Peacock Seam Edit by Jacob Whittaker.
All photos: http://www.colonyprojects.co.uk
A few weeks ago I wrote my weekly column about Jeanette Orrell’s show Drawings at Oriel Mwldan in Cardigan. As it’s a ‘coming up’ column I hadn’t actually seen the show or spoken to the artist but I’d read the gallery blurb that was sent out and everything I could find online and I saw the show going up the next day.
Through looking at images and reading what I could about Orrell’s work I felt really confused about what she was doing and today my good friend and star documentary maker Jacob Whittaker has put up a video piece on Culture Colony of Orrell talking about her work.
I find this work really hard to get my head around. The drawings are rather lovely as are Orrell’s wirework pieces but watching the video, and indeed reading the blurb, I can’t help but struggle with what seems to be an enormous political vacuum. The question that keeps bothering me is how can a female artist repetitively draw brushes and cooking equipment and yet seem to insist that there is no political or feminist statement in the work?
A less favorable interpretation of this interview might see Orrell as a kind of contemporary art Cinderella – scrubbing away all day and then sketching the sparse objects in her domestic prison for pleasure until midnight strikes and she is forced to get back to her cleaning.
My younger self would balk at the suggestion that contemporary creative women are as caged by feminism as they once were by patriarchy. The idea that simply by dint of being a woman Orrell is not allowed to be apolitical would have been repugnant to me. Yet seeing images of these objects which, to my mind at least, simply cannot be wrenched from the symbology of oppression presented as neutral is hard to fathom.
At the same time I must confess to being quite partial to a bit of baking, sewing and home-making myself. Perhaps this is why I find the work so challenging. At some point one is forced to confront the everyday reality of political ideals. I think it also eventually becomes necessary to confront how the political interacts with the individual. Staunch feminism would probably demonise a woman who enjoyed domesticity in a way that is almost as misogynistic as the system it purports to fight. Looking down our noses at the vital tasks women have traditionally performed for centuries tends to suggest that, as it is ‘women’s work’ rather than men’s, it is inferior or invalid.
Normally coming away from an exhibition confused, challenged and knotted up with questions is the hallmark of a bloody good show but a few weeks after my first encounter with the work I still can’t square away the political vacuum. To me the show is neither a celebration of oft maligned ‘women’s work’ nor a criticism of the patriarchy which keeps them scrubbing.
However much Orrell might protest that the work is ‘quiet’ and ‘personal’, however far we’ve come, I am not able to look at a close inspection of a scrubbing brush and accept it as a neutral object – no more significant than a bowl of fruit. Still, it’s a while since I’ve been to an exhibition which got me thinking so hard it gave me a headache and that can’t be a bad thing.
Go and have a look before the show closes on the twelfth of October. Admission is free and I’d be very interested to hear how you responded.