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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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And Stand A Ruin Amidst Ruins: Selected Paintings by Tristram Aver (2015)

30 Apr

A new catalogue essay, Domestic Camouflage: Painting in the Pathless Woods, is now available as part of a publication exploring the paintings of Tristram Aver, tracing their evolution from the digitally-inspired abstraction of Low Fat Meal For One (2007) and Sci-Fi Lullaby (2010) to a more recent body of work rooted in eighteenth and nineteenth century genre painting and decorative arts. The recent commissions discussed in depth include The Chase, made for The Cornerhouse, Manchester, in 2012; There is a pleasure in these pathless woods, shown at the Angear Centre at Lakeside Arts in 2014; and …And stand a ruin amidst ruins, currently on display in the Great Drawing Room at Newstead Abbey, where it will remain until July 5 2015. Copies of the book can be purchased here, and a short extract from the essay follows below:

Tris Aver 'And Stand A Ruin Amidst Ruins'

“The palimpsest is typically a page of vellum parchment whose original text has been scraped or washed off and a new text over-written, its particular value to historians being that the under-writing often remains at least partially legible beneath the new text. These over-writings were often motivated by economic considerations, the straightforward recycling of a valuable and scarce material, as vellum was, but the process could also mark an attempt to erase the evidence of an older political or religious order as, for example, when the Medieval ‘Word of God’ was imposed over the pagan writings of Greek or Roman antiquity.

The palimpsest, then, might offer a fitting metaphor for the layers of historical, mythic and physical materials accumulated at a site like Newstead, whose history, from its foundation as an Augustinian Priory around the year 1170 to the present, has been a constant cycle of reinventions. The building’s ecclesiastical origins were followed by varied fortunes in the hands of the Byron family after 1540, and much of the present structure and décor dates from its time as the residence of Thomas Wildman after 1815, and William Frederick Webb, who bought the house in 1861. The philanthropist Sir Julien Cahn purchased then gifted the site to the Nottingham Corporation in 1931, and the Grade I listed buildings and their extensive gardens remain public property, now managed by Nottingham City Council.

Given this complex history, it seems highly appropriate that in order to get to grips with the significance written into a site like Newstead, Tristram Aver’s And stand a ruin amidst ruins (2015) borrows something of the nature of the palimpsest both technically and conceptually. The three painted panels making up the work, presented as a neon-framed decorative screen inside the ostentatious surroundings of Newstead’s Great Drawing Room, layer figurative passages, drawn from the site’s history and present, with stencilled wallpaper patterns, painterly abstract marks and an array of images alluding to the submerged currents of economic and political violence that under-wrote the grand-scale domestic interiors and lavish decoration we see at Newstead Abbey today.

At Aver’s Third Space studio, the shaped panels were developed using techniques of layering, collage and superimposition. Older paintings and studies might be cut up and sections recontextualised, building on, complementing and obscuring many layers of freshly painted imagery. And stand a ruin amidst ruins deploys an initially perplexing range of marks, from abstract swirls and drips to figurative representations. Period wallpaper patterns are stencilled into the backgrounds and foregrounds, where birds and dogs, lurid explosions and floral blooms, bare-knuckle boxers and red-coated huntsmen, all seem to appear and disappear, rise up from and sink back into that insistent, overall patterning. Snarling dogs strain against or seem to break free of a stencilled decorative mesh; trees and flowers create visual rhymes with explosions; the feathers of fighting peacocks and golden pheasants blur into extended passages of expressive brushwork.

There’s a notable ambivalence about the total effect, which seems simultaneously decorative and charged with coded, often disjunctive, potential meanings. The paintings are variously garish and elegantly restrained, abstract and figurative, seductive and threatening, their tone shifting abruptly between one image, one passage, and the next. I’m reminded of the blend of implied threat and domestic decoration found in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short proto-feminist novella The Yellow Wallpaper (1892). Gilman’s story centres on a newly married woman taken by her husband to a house – “a colonial mansion, a hereditary estate, I would say a haunted house” – where her domestic confinement leads to an obsession with the unsettling patterns of a sulphurous yellow wallpaper in one room. This pattern takes on an increasingly menacing presence as she strives to strip it, piece by piece, from the wall while hallucinating other trapped women behind it, until she is finally consumed herself, merging with a double trapped inside the ornate design.

Poised somewhere between supernatural and domestic narrative, a Gothic and Modern sensibility, Gilman’s story echoes the ambivalence of Aver’s recent paintings in its use of household décor, with all its connotations of finely-tuned taste and status, as a vehicle for the exploration of the social, cultural and political functions and purposes of such decoration. The dissonant wallpaper patterns described by Gilman’s narrator, as her eye is drawn deeper into their perplexing labyrinth, parallel the compositional swerves and shifts in technique to be found within the decorative elegance of Aver’s neon-framed triptych when it, too, is viewed more closely and the figurative details, with their overtones of aggression, begin to emerge. As Gilman writes of that insidiously threatening fin-de-siecle wallpaper design:

Looked at in one way each breadth stands alone, the bloated curves and flourishes – a kind of ‘debased Romanesque’ with delirium tremens – go waddling up and down in isolated columns of fatuity. But, on the other hand, they connect diagonally, and the sprawling outlines run off in great slanting waves of optic horror, like a lot of wallowing seaweeds in full chase.

The whole thing goes horizontally, too, at least it seems so, and I exhaust myself in trying to distinguish the order of its going in that direction. They have used a horizontal breadth for a frieze, and that adds wonderfully to the confusion.

There is one end of the room where it is almost intact, and there, when the cross-lights fade and the low sun shines directly upon it, I can almost fancy radiation after all, as the interminable grotesques seem to form around a common centre and rush off in headlong plunges of equal distraction…

[Gilman: The Yellow Wallpaper, 1892]

This passage, with its powerful sense of decorative order laced through with uncertainties and unpredictable visual movement, might be mapped onto the compositional impact made by Aver’s triptych, but perhaps the keyword here is ‘distraction’. The décor of the English country house in the age of the slave trade and British Empire, after all, was often a very literal means of distraction, claiming status at home by laundering money imported from elsewhere, as newly wealthy landowners spent lavishly on artefacts and domestic luxuries that simultaneously belied and exposed their money’s origins…”

More on Tristram Aver’s work can be found at: http://www.tristramaver.com/