Ivon Hitchens, Pallant House Gallery, Chichester

I’ve been meaning for a while now to write about a lovely, focused exhibition I saw at the Pallant House Gallery in Chichester last week. I’d never been to the gallery before, and unfortunately I didn’t have enough time to explore its permanent collection, which is based around modern and contemporary British art – I’m looking forward to exploring that the next time I go.

So many important creative people of the twentieth century, including members of the Bloomsbury Group, the poet Edward Thomas and visual artists like Eric Ravilious, seem to have been drawn to spend time in Sussex at some point in their lives, so it makes sense that this Sussex gallery represents some of the most important artistic developments of the last century. While Ivon Hitchens (who I hadn’t heard of before seeing the show) isn’t someone who rewrote the rulebook of modern art, his work shows a talent for noticing and capturing the remarkable detail within the big picture, the abstract patterns he experimented with in his early career continuing playing a major part in the landscapes he is primarily known for today.

The Celadon Bowl (1936)

Some of my favourite of his works were early ones like The Celadon Bowl (1936), in the way that it delicately treads the line between abstraction and figuration, the scrubby brushstrokes of the teal and khaki squares in the backdrop adding texture to the plain white canvas. In a sketchbook annotation, he wrote “don’t try to find a picture. Find a place you like and discover the picture in that”, which is true of every setting he painted, interior and exterior.

Woman playing the piano, c.(1942)

He left London during the war, and lived in a caravan called Greenleaves with his wife and their baby, set in a forest clearing. Living in the heart of the countryside clearly gave Hitchens more than enough subject matter for his art, and he set about painting the landscape, not focusing on grand vistas, but on his favourite spots that he visited repeatedly, capturing the view in different seasons and at times of day.

I love the Sussex countryside and have enjoyed walking on the South Downs, in the woods and by the rivers that Hitchens lived alongside, and so I may be biased, but I found his landscapes very evocative and able to capture the magic of the place. Perhaps there’s something in the water that makes it special.

Winter Walk, no.3 (1948)

Winter Walk no.3 (1948), really captured me. The earthy brown and scratchy red tones, mixed with the evergreen of the avenue of pine trees towards the right of the picture perfectly sum up the colours of winter which are beautiful too, in their muted way.

The theme of the exhibition, how artists use their works as an exploration of their surroundings and of place more generally, was underpinned by the audio element of Simon Roberts’ Inscapes exhibition, which were dotted throughout Hitchens show. Roberts is an artist-photographer whose work focuses on identity and people’s connections with the landscape around them, and as part of the exhibition was invited to revisit the settings that so fascinated Hitchens. His soundscapes of the countryside (cattle lowing, brooks babbling, branches creaking in the wind) brought Hitchens’ landscapes to life in new ways, and the pairing of the two artists’ work brought out the best in both of them.

Night Walk for Edinburgh, Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller

On Sunday night I took part in an art experience that had been intriguing me since I first saw it advertised as part of Edinburgh International Festival several weeks ago. It fell into the category of “must go” because it sounded unique (commissioned especially by the Fruitmarket Gallery), immersive and slightly odd, making the perfect cocktail for someone who likes thinking, writing and talking about art.

Starting at the bottom of Cockburn St near the Royal Mile, the Fruitmarket staff gave me a short briefing (which made me ever more intrigued and slightly trepidatious about what was coming), armed me with a pair of headphones and a small screen, and away I went. What followed was a cross between virtual gaming, crime drama, ghost tour and art piece.

Edinburgh’s Old Town is the stage set for this discombobulating drama

Janet Cardiff’s voice whispers in your ear, half talking to you, half musing to herself. The walk winds through the backstreets, closes and alleys surrounding the Royal Mile, strangely empty, dusty and damp compared to the garish, touristy brightness of the Mile itself. Arrows on the ground sometimes indicate the way, but mostly you are guided by Cardiff’s instructions, enhancing the sense that you are taking part in a game in which your own agency is reduced to zero.

The narrative weaves in and out of fiction and reality, with the film element of the walk emphasising the idea that the city is a canvas or a stage, and we as its residents, its visitors, its participants, are part of the multiple layerings that make up its history, and its identity. Marks on the canvas are left behind by former inhabitants: chewing gum pressed into the crevice of a wall, string delicately tied around a lamppost, pieces of scattered clothing lost, left behind. The work delves into Edinburgh’s macabre history, but is also rooted in the banal fabric of the city itself, drawing attention to air vents, street signs and shop windows.

The walk draws your attention to all sorts of details, making the banal into something noticeable

The sound effects, with snatches of conversations, song, sirens, and the noises of city life unfolding around you make the stories of the walk all the more convincing. I can’t count the number of times I turned around to check whether the footsteps approaching me were part of the fake cinematic narrative I was immersed in, or belonging to life itself. The artists play with the uneasy gesture of looking over one’s shoulder, the sound of footsteps is inherently creepy and unnerving and puts the participant/viewer on edge throughout the walk, in a way that is both thrilling and memorable.

Weaving their way through the city, Cardiff and Bures Miller have made a fascinating and haunting piece that interweaves history, the digital, magic, reality, memory and storytelling. If you’re interested in any of the above, this is something you won’t want to miss.

Grayson Perry, Dovecot Studios

Grayson Perry, with his numerous books, TV documentaries and lectures, is probably one of the few genuinely famous contemporary artists in Britain today. He is perhaps better known for talking about art than for the art he produces, though the bright colours and recurring cast of characters in his ceramics, tapestries and prints, once seen, are not easily forgotten. He is a chronicler, a satirist, a kind of psychedelic William Hogarth of our times, chewing up the world and spitting it back out at us in a way that both gloriously kitsch and raucously ugly.

Hogarth’s Gin Lane, 1751

Perry is fundamentally a storyteller artist. He creates narratives in his artworks which help us to think about the world around us, and our multiple identities as individuals within society. That is what he has done for this show at Dovecot Studios, Julie Cope’s Grand Tour: The Story of a Life by Grayson Perry. The exhibition follows his fictional character Julie through what Perry calls ‘the trails, tribulations, celebrations and mistakes of an average life’, using a series of brightly-coloured Jacquard tapestries.

Don’t be fooled by the bright colours, though. The story behind the works is one that is full of tragedy, examining the mundane reality of life, the pervasive banality even of its most dramatic moments. Alongside the tapestries, The Ballad of Julie Cope, a poem written by Perry bleakly sets the context for Julie’s life. I sometimes find looped audio tracks in exhibition spaces quite distracting, but here, the poem read aloud by Perry in his slight Essex accent gave the tale of Julie Cope, an Essex girl, a kind of timeless authenticity.

Detail from the first tapestry in the series, A Perfect Match

The tapestries themselves are immense and impressive. Packed with details, they are a fascinating maze of signs and symbols, clashing colours and patterns for the viewer to decipher. Clever tricks are used that are barely noticeable at first, but make the images all the more convincing, like the shadows used around the feet in the picture above, giving the work a sense of depth and the cartoon-esque characters more solidity.

As with much of Grayson Perry’s work, class is the central theme underlying the show, and his observations about life in modern Britain are as bittersweet and tinged with nostalgia as they are acerbic. The tapestries, when they are not on tour, usually decorate another of Perry’s fascinating projects, A House For Essex, a whacky Wendy house construction which is part folly, part shrine, to Julie Cope. Seen divorced from this context, in the exhibition space, I think the works have probably lost some of their whimsical quality, and we are left with a documentation of the sad predictability of life. For me, the overriding feeling of the exhibition was not uplifting, but in that way, Perry, the Bard, creates a perfect mirror of the country in turmoil around us.

A House For Essex

Edinburgh Art Festival is here

It’s been a bit quiet on the blog recently while I’m trying to knuckle down and get my dissertation done. Apologies! However, Edinburgh Art Festival has just opened and I’m going to try and see as many of the exhibitions as I can and write about them on here over the next couple of weeks, so watch this space.

So far, the only things I’ve booked are both related to the same work, Night Walk for Edinburgh by Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller. My slot for the walk is next Sunday, and it sounds like an unusual and immersive experience. From what I can gather, the artists have created a site specific work which you carry with you on a walk around the streets of central Edinburgh, using a tablet and headphones. They become your tour guides in an experience which mixes reality and fiction. The artists are delivering the keynote lecture at the National Gallery of Scotland this evening, which will cover what it was like to make the work in Edinburgh, and will touch on their art practices more generally.

I’ll be back with more updates as and when I get to more Art Festival exhibitions and events. In the meantime, here’s a photo of some excellent curation I noticed recently at the National Gallery in London, pairing two recent works by Sean Scully, Landline Star and Landline Pool (both 2017) with the work that inspired them, The Evening Star (1830) by J. M. W. Turner.

The Long Look, Scottish National Portrait Gallery

The Long Look at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery is a small but focused show that turns portraiture on its head in a conceptually intriguing and visually satisfying way. The exhibition is the result of a two-year project in which Norman McBeath (photographer, printmaker) sat for painter Audrey Grant as she created two portraits of him in charcoal.

The portraits of McBeath do feature, but they are really only a side story to this show. The main body of work is by McBeath: his photographic impressions of Grant’s studio, documenting her presence by the trails of creative detritus she leaves in her wake. These ‘portraits’ show the traces of Grant everywhere: fingerprints in the paint that has dried on the back on her easel; highly detailed close-ups of her charcoal-blackened apron that seem transformed into vast monochrome sand dunes; the bars of soap on the counter, misshapen by the hands they help to clean after every session.

Hands series, a sequence of close up and super-high-definition photographs is at the centre of the display. Each minute detail is made more striking by the charcoal dust embedded in the creases of Grant’s skin. We rarely get much of a glimpse of the artist in standard portraiture, a genre that can feel fairly prosaic and transactional. Here, the photographs by McBeath document her creative space, the studio, and present its contents as a lens through which we ‘see’ the artist.

Imperial Leather by Norman McBeath

It seems that the sense of fascination with the artist’s studio now seems more prevalent than ever. The most unique and (the more I reflect on it) bizarre example I encountered was at Dublin City Gallery, The Hugh Lane. There, in the centre of the gallery, is Francis Bacon’s studio. Its contents – even the dust – painstakingly reassembled having been documented and meticulously transferred from London to Dublin in 1998. Though it is undeniably a fascinating sight, and totally worth visiting, there is something voyeuristic about the practice of preserving and reassembling the artist’s studio within the Gallery space (closer to home, Paolozzi’s studio is on display at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art until next year). These kind of displays continue to assert the narratives of the ‘artist genius’, elevating and shrouding his or her workplace in magic and mystique, ways of thinking that contemporary art history has sought to move away from.

The Long Look, though it has elements of this tendency to give the artist’s studio too much auratic power (including the unnecessary inclusion of the chair that McBeath sat in while his portrait was created) for the most part manages to circumvent these more troubling tendencies of artist/studio worship. Particularly when presented in the context of a national collection of portraiture, where wall labels normally the list the sitter’s name and details of their life far more prominently than the artist’s, this reversal of the gaze subverts the traditions of portraiture in a refreshing way.

Hands series by Norman McBeath

For me, the examination of the psychological intensity of two people observing one another over time, and the resulting sense of intimacy between McBeath and Grant was one of the other most successful outcomes of the show. For this reason, I would argue that the inclusion of two portraits of Val McDermind were a kind of ‘third wheel’, an unnecessary curatorial appendage to an otherwise tightly-focused exhibition.

Through the simple switch between observer/observed, The Long Look empowers the usually passive sitter with the gift of re-observation, and extends this to the observer in a way that offers a fresh perspective. When encountering subsequent portraits, we might ask ourselves: how did it look from the other side? 

Oor Wullie’s Big Bucket Trail, #OWBBT

About a week ago I came across a strange sight. There was a huge lorry parked up on a quiet side street in Edinburgh with its sides open, no one was around, but inside the lorry there were about 20 bright sculptures.

Lots of Oor Wullies in a row

I was pretty baffled, especially because there is a certain creepiness in seeing all these laughing characters en masse, but since then have discovered that the sculptures are part of Oor Wullie’s Big Bucket Trail. The trail is happening across Scotland in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Dundee, Aberdeen and Inverness, to raise money for children’s hospitals in each of those cities.

I am not Scottish, so don’t know much about Oor Wullie and his escapades (he is something of a national treasure, especially for the baby boomer generation) but from the statues he seems like a cheeky lad who loves to laugh. Seeing them scattered across the city, they are definitely eye-catching and intriguing, most are painted in bright colours and shiny, glossy paint. Artists were commissioned to paint their designs on each statue, so every single one is unique.

Oor Wullies in transit

If you’re not convinced, I recommend getting a bit closer, and taking some time to read the plinths, where the artist has a space to explain the inspirations behind their designs. For example, this design by Wee Lainey which is just outside Haymarket is covered in painted bricks to echo the designs of Scotland’s tenement buildings, and the statue has famous Scottish inventions and sayings on him too, along with one of my favourites, ‘haud yer wheesht’.

Wee Lainey’s design, near Haymarket

Even though stylistically they are probably not to everyone’s taste, to me they are kitsch and camp in all the best ways. Public art is always going to divide opinions, but that’s what makes it interesting. At its heart, the scheme is there to raise money for a good cause, and along the way it is supporting artists by commissioning them to make new works. Hopefully the trail will get more people, especially kids and families, talking about art. To me, that can only be a good thing.

If you agree, you can donate to the campaign online.

ECA degree show

Last week it was Edinburgh College of Art’s degree show, and while it is already over and those who haven’t seen it have unfortunately missed out already, it keeps popping up in my head as something important to write about. There was such a huge variety of things to see across the campus, from design informatics and illustration, to performance costume and interior design, it was a great celebration of the immense creativity of people starting out on their artistic journeys. Going there and exploring all these disciplines was an exciting, inspiring experience.

The performance costume installation from above

My main focus was on the painting and sculpture section, which was housed in some of the prime spaces in ECA’s main building studios. These are noteworthy rooms in themselves, with huge north-facing widows looking out on to Edinburgh Castle. One of my favourite things about the rooms were the paint-spattered sinks in each corner, a reminder of the previous generations of students who have worked in these spaces and left messy traces behind.

One of the prevailing things I noticed about the show is the recurring theme of everyday items that had been ‘made strange’ by the artists’ interventions. There were mobility aids weighed down by large crystal growths, a disorientating corridor leading to a storeroom where everything was painted in a sickly lilac paint, deconstructed spirit levels, and a creepy room inhabited by mutilated ornaments: Bambi’s severed head looking particularly macabre.

Abbie Mcgunnigle’s uncanny Bambi

As someone who has been spending a lot of time recently thinking about the ‘uncanny’ in art, things once familiar, perhaps from childhood, that have re-manifested themselves as something that makes us feel uneasy, it was fascinating to see these strategies at work at the degree show (though perhaps I was looking for it in the way that whenever something is on your mind, it seems to come up everywhere). There was one installation by Chell Young called Fragile Realities which produced highly detailed dolls house-esque dioramas of interiors that the viewer/voyeur looked at through a peep hole door or window. The recreation was so exact, photographs of these miniature rooms could have been advertising a place to rent.

Another series of sculptures that caught my eye were figurative works by Hugo Harris. Made from wax, the outer skin of the sculpture was smooth and highly realistic. But the inside of the bodies were also exposed, the torn flesh a messy tangled web clinging to the metal structures that gave them their shape. The work was highly visceral, acting in dialogue with the photographs behind, but the presence of the metal also alerted the viewer to the robotic falseness of the bodies themselves: the boundaries of truth, fiction and sci-fi becoming blurred.

There were lots of fascinating and interesting pieces, and many more I could have written about, that served to enchant and unsettle the viewer simultaneously. I had hoped to get across to Glasgow and see what the Glasgow School of Art students had presented. I wondered whether there would be a marked difference between the approaches taken by the students and the resulting artworks. Sadly I didn’t make it, but it’s on my agenda for next year.

What you can be sure of with art school degree shows is that there is always something to make you think, and also to feel reassured that the next group of emerging artists have lots of interesting experiments they are yet to make.