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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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Introduction to Art Writing Workshop at Primary (April 14, 2018)

5 May

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The second session bringing together our Introduction to Art Writing group, a series of four exploratory workshops jointly organised by Backlit Gallery and Nottingham Writers’ Studio, met at Primary on the afternoon of April 14, with the sunny spring weather in the playground outside the former school building making for something of a contrast with the blizzards and heavy snow that had accompanied our first session at Backlit in March. Some familiar and a few new faces gathered to hear from Niki Russell, curator of the public programme at Primary, and to see and discuss Deeper in the Pyramid by Melanie Jackson, a multimedia project designed to unfold across three different venues and take a variety of forms, including an illustrated publication.

For the work’s first presentation at Grand Union, Birmingham, Jackson had presented a sculptural installation with embedded digital video works; at Primary, Nottingham, the same research and text (written by Jackson in collaboration with Esther Leslie, and available in published form as an illustrated book) had been reconfigured as a performance lecture and oblique documentary-style video. A third incarnation of Deeper in the Pyramid is set to be installed at Banner Repeater, London, later in the year. While taking many different forms as it moves between sites, however, Jackson’s project is also an artwork with text, storytelling and the collaboration between visual, literary and performative elements built into its DNA.

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Before hearing from Niki and viewing Deeper in the Pyramid, we first had a round of introductions and talked a little about the range of motivations for attending this new group. Interest in collaboration ranked high, with several participants already involved in collaborative activity, and several people expressed interest in exploring ways of bringing the kinds of informal writing they were doing already into a variety of public contexts, ranging from incorporating interviews with photographic subjects alongside their documentary portraits to finding uses for informal notes on exhibitions or exploring new approaches to making artworks accessible through the creative use of interpretative  labels and text panels in galleries and museums. A few also noted that they had experience of writing at university but expressed interest in developing their writing outside these kinds of academic contexts.

Niki Russell spoke about the role of commissioned texts in expanding the reach of Primary’s programme of residencies and exhibitions, with one or more written responses to each new commission published in the venue’s Programme Notes as a means of ‘creating a legacy’ for the often ephemeral work taking place in the building itself. Writers like Jamie Sutcliffe had written essays in response to Guillaume Pilet’s Dream A Little Drama performances, Padraic E Moore responded with a letter to the installation that resulted from Shana Moulton‘s residency, while Niru Ratnam constructed an oblique fiction in response to Sahej Rahal’s Dry Salvages. Russell noted that sometimes these commissions had led to ongoing collaborations, as when Emma Hart’s response to Jonathan Baldock’s work had led to the two artists developing exhibitions and other work together in the years that followed.

He also talked about his own role as an occasional art critic, reviewing exhibitions and events, and noted how this activity overlapped with his curatorial work at Primary and elsewhere, and fed into his ongoing work with the artists’ collective Reactor, a project developing films, performances and other platforms through inherently collaborative processes. The practicalities of reviewing – from writing with fixed article lengths to tight deadlines and occasional pressures to offer strong opinions even when the work under review might not necessarily inspire them, were also touched on – though ultimately reviewing and writing were felt to open a way of thinking about artworks in depth, giving shape to thoughts that might otherwise remain less well defined, and generally offered a positive way of exploring the works encountered in galleries. The results may not always be the final word, but the texts were part of a process and added a layer of reflection and substance to the fleeting encounters we often have with particular works and the artists who make them.

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In the discussion that followed, we considered questions such as whether the views expressed in published responses were ever revisited and changed (quite often, though less so as the length of time allowed to reflect on the work’s more lasting effect was extended by deadlines), and how magazines and newspapers decided what to cover and what to omit from their reviews and feature sections (a complicated process which venues’ marketing budgets, artists’ public profiles, topicality, fashionability and the relative weight of particular writers’ enthusiasms could all play parts in shaping). Experience of working with editors could vary widely, too, with some editors offering extensive suggestions for revision, others printing texts exactly as submitted – which puts the onus very much on writers themselves to ensure all the information in their copy is accurate at the time it goes to press.

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We concluded the session with a viewing and discussion of Jackson’s Deeper in the Pyramid, in its Primary incarnation a 40m film drawing on documentary and more oblique, fictionalised material to explore the social, cultural and psychological contexts and meanings that surround our relationships with milk. Exploring themes ranging from the mythological significance of milk in Ancient Egypt and Greece, its association with the maternal, its transformations into cheese, cream and butter, its role as a substance inspiring strange dreams in early twentieth century comic strips, its industrial production and packaging in pyramid-shaped ‘tetrapacks’ for sale in Africa and India, its role in sexualising fashion and advertising photography – the film offered a richly layered journey through the hidden meanings of a substance we often take for granted.

Other References:

Art Writing Blog at Nottingham City of Literature

Plastique Fantastique (cited by Niki during his talk)

Kaleidoscope (cited by Niki during his talk)

 

 

Introduction to Art Writing Workshop at Backlit (March 17, 2018)

24 Mar

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The first Introduction to Art Writing session took place on the afternoon of Saturday 17 March, and despite the day’s heavy snow and blizzards drew around twenty five people to Backlit.

Matthew Chesney, Backlit director, introduced the session and touched on some of the host gallery’s activities, including his own experience of putting together a publication, House of the Flying Wheel, that explored the history of the building (once part of the textile empire of Samuel Morley and the Morley textiles company) and the evolution of Backlit itself as a place for artists’ studios and a venue for performances and exhibitions, currently Strike Site, a group exhibition based on ideas and experiences of migration, displacement and borders curated by the writer Sacha Craddock.

Following this, Wayne Burrows introduced some samples from the wide range of outlets for different types of art writing, noting the ways that each has its own particular approaches: an article in an academic journal will take a different form to a review in a specialist contemporary art magazine, while newspapers and more general interest magazines covering art, but not exclusively about art, will make very different assumptions about the reader’s knowledge and potential interest in the subject. Looking at journals as diverse as Frieze and Art Review, Nottingham Visual Arts and LeftLion, and a variety of artists’ books, catalogues, press releases and other publications, we touched on how each makes its own distinctive demands on the writer.

Wayne also discussed the development of his own work, from working mainly with poetry and journalism to projects that use collage, exhibitions, films and performances alongside publications as vehicles for fiction and the building of alternate realities:

Wayne Burrows links: https://wayneburrows.wordpress.com/links/

Beyond the more straightforward field of critical writing, where the standard formats might be reviews, essays and interviews, we looked briefly at those points where writing about art blurs into writing as art, and it was here that the most creative approaches seemed to be found. Whether the more hybrid kinds of poetic essay, artists’ text – or even in works where the artwork itself employs characterisation and narrative, or constructs a fictional world or history – there were forms that art-writing could take that pushed through the confines of the kind of prose found in press releases, exhibition information panels and catalogue essays.

With this range of possibilities and potential responses in mind, participants spent time in the Strike Site exhibition and were invited to write down (or simply think about) a few lines that might embody a response reflecting a particular viewpoint, rooted in the participants’ own interests and reasons for attending the workshop. During the discussion that followed, there turned out to be no standard angle, but rather a range of individual concerns: some focused on the issues raised, others on aesthetics; some were positive, some critical; some considered the forms of the works included, others paid closer attention to their positioning, relationships or content.

In exploring these responses we also discussed some future possibilities for the group, with developing writing skills, sharing work, making connections between people, creating a group to discuss exhibitions on a ‘book club’ model and building a network all mentioned at one point or another. After resolving an earlier technical hitch, we concluded with a short screening featuring three short films, chosen to illustrate the points made earlier about the more creative, ‘expanded’ aspects of how thinking about writing – in the form of both text and strategies of fiction-making or world-building – can apply in relation to particular art-works.

Shana Moulton Whispering Pines II 2007

These films included Shana Moulton discussing her Twin Peaks-inspired Whispering Pines series of artist films featuring an alter ego named Cynthia; footage from a live text-based performance by Sophie Jung; and a short film in which the artists Tai Shani and Florence Peake introduce the fictional archaeological and political ideas that informed their collaborative installation Andromedan Sad Girl at Wysing Arts Centre last year. Links to all three films are included here for those who missed them:

Shana Moulton: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Z1kow40WGY

Sophie Jung: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f2TwYQ6bcF4

Tai Shani & Florence Peake: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hv4bavXUV_c

Tai Shani & Florence Peake Andromedan Sad Girl (2017)

As a final note, here are some of the comments written during the day on the pages put up around the workshop space to collect suggestions and thoughts from participants. These will be used, along with the comments made during discussions, to shape future sessions.

Ideas/ suggestions

Mini biogs – ‘As much as I hate them, introduction circle helps my social anxiety to be over ridden. So to intro and bio is easier when everyone does it together’

Facebook page – ‘I need to meet in person to do anything productive. Social media feels too impersonal and lacks accountability sometimes‘ (perhaps we can look at alternative online platforms?)

Seeds to grow, to create a network of writers, creatives and like-minded souls

I love writing in response to visual stimulus/ art in poetic form. Also love overlap of forms – eg: photography, theatre, performance. Would love to hear more about others’ backgrounds and interests…

What is everyone reading? I’m struggling to find new authors…

A ‘bookclub’ but for exhibitions? Go and see it, than have a chat later?

I’d love to see/read other people’s writing

Practical discussion and critique of each others’ own artwork

Thanks! worth coming, maybe fragmentation into sub-groups, also convening to re-connect would be helpful.

Great to be in a room with a dynamic range of people with a variety of reasons for having an interest in writing about the art.

The day has been amazing, informative, great content and brilliant opportunity to network.

Interesting to think about writing with a mix of participants/ fresh views.

Melanie Jackson - Deeper in the Pyramid (2018)

Next Session:

Saturday 14th April, 1 – 4pm at Primary, 33 Seely Road, Nottingham NG7 1NU. Please book your place via the Eventbrite link at: https://bit.ly/2ua96mk

Primary are also hosting an event on Thursday 12th April at 7pm with Melanie Jackson’s performance lecture and exhibition opening, free to attend and no booking required: http://www.weareprimary.org/2018/02/melanie-jackson/

 

“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/