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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.

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/