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Introduction to Art Writing Workshop at Nottingham Contemporary (April 26, 2018)

7 May

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For the third meeting of our Introduction to Art Writing group, a series of four exploratory workshops jointly organised by Backlit Gallery and Nottingham Writers’ Studio, we were delighted to have Sam Thorne, Nottingham Contemporary‘s director, lead us in a ‘mobile discussion’ of the role played by writing in the making of the gallery’s current exhibition, Linder’s The House of Fame. With a group of around 25 participants gathered at the Nottingham Contemporary reception, a mix of both regulars and first-time attendees, we set off into the galleries to explore the exhibits and hear from Thorne about the role played by written correspondence in the process of curating the show and the many literary influences and connections on view in the works themselves.

We began in 1981, the date (then 25 years into the future) represented by Alison and Peter Smithson’s House of the Future, a theoretical design made for the Ideal Home Exhibition in March 1956 and installed at the Olympia Exhibition Centre for the duration of the show that month. Thorne noted that the Smithsons’ proposal had interested Linder for many reasons, not least the coincidence of its theoretical future with the importance of 1981 as a date in her own life and career, this being the time when her collage and performance works – ranging from record sleeve designs, photographs and the wearing of a meat dress while performing with her own post-punk band Ludus – were all laying the foundations of her subsequent career. That the Smithsons’ speculative future and Linder’s actual past converged on the same date had given the exhibition a suitably layered starting point for its overview of Linder’s work and influences.

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Thorne also noted that the connections between the art-works that interested Linder, which she wanted to include alongside examples drawn from her own extensive 40-year body of material, and the evolution of her own works since the 1970s, were explored in a very extensive, wide-ranging and ‘in-depth’ email correspondence, a few excerpts from which featured in the exhibition’s broadsheet newspaper format publication. Even before their first formal meeting in 2017, he and Linder had, he explained, exchanged a large number of emails – so many, in fact, that there were around a hundred pages of them already printed out by the time their first face-to-face meeting to discuss the potential exhibition and residency at Chatsworth House came about.

The stage set feel of the Smithsons’ House of the Future display was echoed by other representations of Linder’s interest in performance and shifting identity, from Linder’s own 1970s photographs of men presenting as women in Manchester nightclubs to Madame Yevonde‘s 1930s images of aristocrats and debutantes posing as mythical Goddesses. The presence of Inigo Jones set and costume designs for Ben Jonson’s Jacobean masque The House of Fame had given the exhibition its title, grounding Linder’s own activity in a long tradition of work in which visuals, costumes, music and text were combined. As Thorne pointed out, one of the touchstone phrases that arose in the correspondence was Moki Cherry‘s comment, “The stage as a home and the home as a stage”, hinting at the intentional transformation of everyday living into art.

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In other galleries, this was refracted through Linder’s interest in spiritualist photography, seances and other occult and memorial practices, ranging from mid-twentieth century archival photographs of mediums generating ectoplasm (often using lace, collaged faces and double exposures to achieve their effects) to Mike Kelley’s tongue-in-cheek re-enactments of these same images in his Ectoplasm series made around 1977/8. Thorne noted that lace-making had been another ‘thread’ in the correspondence, with the structure of the exhibition devised around an idea of ‘weaving together’ many elements to create a whole pattern. This had, in its turn, brought in many images and objects that touched on these ideas, such as the pioneering museum photography of Isabel A Cowper at the V&A in the mid nineteenth century, an example of which featured here – naturally presenting a specimen of lace.

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We also touched on the ways that text shadowed much of the other work on display, from Aubrey Beardsley’s illustration for Lucian’s second century satire on outlandish travellers’ tales The True History and Max Ernst’s ‘collage novel’ Une semaine de bonté, to such substantial presences as Ithell Colquhoun, an English writer, artist and occultist responsible for such literary works as The Goose of Hermogenes and The Living Stones, and Penny Slinger, whose own ‘psychosexual feminist autobiography’ An Exorcism appeared in 1978. These were all obliquely represented in the various rooms of Linder’s exhibition with small gatherings of paintings, prints and collages by the artists.

The intimate connections between the visual and literary aspects of the exhibition were clear enough, though Thorne revealed that one omission had been a reconstructed model of Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine, partly conceived and designed by Lord Byron’s daughter Ada Lovelace. This was a machine that could have made a direct connection between the card-programmed machinery of 19th century lace-making and the punch-card systems of 1950s corporate and scientific computers. Its absence hinted at the complexities behind putting together exhibitions, where curators and artists are not always able to get everything they wish to show. The process, as Thorne noted of Linder’s approach to the curatorial task as an extension of her collage work, could often be as intuitive, surprising and rewarding as the making of artworks themselves.

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Following this tour of the galleries, we moved on to one of Nottingham Contemporary’s meeting rooms, where Thorne had agreed to answer some questions about his own route from studying English Literature at university, to writing for magazines about art and music, and eventually taking up an associate editorship at Frieze and beginning his curatorial career. Subjects ranging from the commissioning process to editors’ interest in writing from regions outside the main (London, New York, Berlin) centres of the art world were discussed, and members of the group spoke briefly about their own interests, confidence levels in terms of writing, and current activities.

Once again, these covered a broad range, from specialisms in fashion and social practice to current activity runnning small scale curatorial and exhibition projects in the city. Several participants spoke about the difficulty of moving away from academic styles and approaches in their more personal writing, and others wondered whether their particular specialist interests should or shouldn’t be made clear in the context of a review. The general feeling was that such specialisation can be a limitation, ensuring writers might be sought only to cover the niches their particular interests suited, but where relevant and appropriate this could also generate its own opportunities. Thorne mentioned that one of his own specialisms at Frieze had been the developing art scenes of the Middle East, so being identified with a specialism was not in itself a bad thing.

Other questions followed, such as a discussion of markets for art writing and reviews outside the core art magazine markets; the changes in publishing’s economics that meant there were more high quality publications but these were generally more narrowly distrubuted than in the past; the influence of fashion cycles on the reputations of particular artists and the coverage given to them by editors; and the desirability, or otherwise, of writers’ opinions being potentially swayed by meetings with artists at openings and events. Was this something to embrace or avoid? This latter point was considered something of an inevitable problem in a relatively small social world like the art scene, where the paths of writers and artists are always likely to cross at some point.

Thorne mentioned press reviewers visiting previews of Linder’s show at Nottingham Contemporary who, during its opening weekend, had sometimes avoided Linder herself as they navigated the galleries, sometimes sought her out. It was probably inevitable that attaching an actual human being’s presence and feelings to the work might influence a writer’s opinion, but this was never going to be easy to escape. And the flipside of this, that a chat with the artist might open up fresh perspectives and deepen or complicate a writer’s viewpoint on the work, was also worth bearing in mind. In the end, though, Thorne noted that he wrote much less since embarking on his current job at Nottingham Contemporary, partly due to time constraints, but perhaps also because his dual roles, as independent writer and director of a public organisation committed to supporting artists, might be seen to clash even where they didn’t.

Next Introduction to Art Writing session takes place on May 17 from 6.30 – 9pm at New Art Exchange (39-41 Gregory Boulevard, NG7 6BE). We will convene for curator Renee Mussai’s talk and walk through of Zanele Muhole’s exhibition Somnyama Ngonyama, Hail the Dark Lioness from 6.30pm, then at 7.30pm will be joined by NAE’s Programme Director Melanie Kidd for a discussion. Booking is free and all are welcome.

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“An Allegory of the City of Nottingham after Robert Holcombe” (Leftlion #87, March 2017)

28 Feb

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The latest issue of Leftlion magazine, officially published on March 1st but already out and about in all the usual pubs, venues and locations around the city, features cover art in the style of Robert Holcombe, but with an end result that is not actually part of his official body of work for a wide variety of reasons. As an explanatory note inside the issue points out about the artwork and its authorship:

“Explaining the authorship of this month’s cover might take a while. It’s an allegory of the city of Nottingham made by Wayne Burrows in the style of the entirely fictional British artist Robert Holcombe (1923 – 2003), borrowing elements from Holcombe’s Folklore Series work The Innocents III (1974). Making the cover image became a game of ‘how many blatant Nottingham references can I squeeze in without including a single actual thing from Nottingham?’. Ranging from the obvious (Errol Flynn as Robin Hood, Arthur Seaton minding Owl Man‘s owl) to the slightly less obvious (a Bramley apple, DH Lawrence’s The Rainbow, the xylophone of Xylophone Man) and ending up with the occasionally random (a mongoose, a fish-man coelacanth), we hope you’ll have fun trying to spot them all.”

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Holcombe’s Folklore Series work, The Innocents III (1974), was actually one of the first collages made in the fictional body of work that has, since around 2010, continued to grow and be refined, extending both backward and forward in time from that early focus on the work that Holcombe was making in the later 1960s and early 1970s. The collage featured in an exhibition titled Wunderkammer curated by Jennie Syson during the British Art Show fringe festival Sideshow in 2010, and in a few other places between 2010 and 2012, and while the collage itself either no longer exists or is lost (I’m not sure which applies myself) a scan made at the time documents it:

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As you’d probably expect, any resemblance between the two compositions (mainly seen in the central stone megalith and the lunar presence) is completely coincidental. It was only after the Leftlion artwork was complete that its familiarity and a certain sense of deja vu jogged my memory and led me to look again at The Innocents III, which evidently carried a little of the same DNA. Despite that passing similarity, it’s also clear to me that the 2010 image is made in a style from which Holcombe’s work rapidly developed into something else entirely…hence The Innocents III having a current status that places it as, at best, very much marginal to his canon, and perhaps, at this point, outside it.*

An Allegory of the City of Nottingham (after Robert Holcombe) [2017] is not designated as Holcombe’s work either. Its making as a commissioned piece, following a set format and including thematic links to the interests of the magazine whose cover it appears on, means that it not only has differences in technique to Holcombe’s signature approach, but its subject matter simply doesn’t fit into his chronology. Or, to put it another way, I couldn’t contrive a persuasive reason why Robert Holcombe might have taken such an interest in Nottingham, nor how he would have come to include allusions to aspects of the city that post-date his active period by decades. It’s also the second work of its kind to exist fully outside the Robert Holcombe canon in this way.

The first, The Naming of Clouds, was made to a brief for reproduction as a print to be handed out during performances at Somerset House of two works, Cloud Workers and The Naming of Clouds, by Philip Stanier and Penny Newell. The brief for this image (and the grid of 28 postcard-sized images making up a performance score that accompanied it) was based on Newell’s PhD research into representations of clouds in art and literature, and Stanier’s imaginitive response to that research, though within this I was free to flesh out the structure as I liked, with no specific instructions given beyond an initial diagram that positioned the basic elements of the landscape and specified the divisions into ‘flesh’, ‘nature’, ‘machinery’, ‘cloud’ and ‘mathematics’ within the cloud itself:

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Making The Naming of Clouds in 2016 had already helped to define the separation between Holcombe’s fictional body of work and any collages that might be made for other purposes using the same archives and materials, and even some of the same methods, in my studio. For that reason, the effort of trying to bend the Leftlion image to fit Holcombe’s body of work in some way was a step that I could simply skip. The work, then, exists in a different kind of space and is allowed to be exactly what it is – an allegory built around a spatially unsettling constructed landscape, populated with both allusive components and objects present as much for purely visual reasons as reasons related to the meanings hidden away elsewhere in the image. It’s a sort of variation on an eighteenth century conversation piece: a picture designed solely to catch the eye and offer some sort of diversion.

*The Innocents III (1974) tenuously remains in the margins of Holcombe’s canon, perhaps, because it might have been nothing more than a failed experiment, a study he carried out in an idiom that is plainly more an exercise in the style of its particular mid-1970s moment than a work made in line with Holcombe’s own developed stylistic trajectory.