As a student of Art History, I always feel like I don’t go to enough exhibitions. Actually, I know I don’t. But I did go to see two shows this Easter break, which were both rather enjoyable, not only for the work but in the way they engaged with their local environment (or perhaps failed to, in certain aspects). I want to write this article as a sliver of the fine art exhibition culture in both my home county, Devon, and its more creatively cultured foil, Cornwall.
Art Now Cornwall, various, Tate St. Ives, 3rd February – 13th May
The idea of this show seemed from the outset bold, and a striking interaction with the contemporary Cornish art scene for an institution firmly built on the past glories of the St. Ives School. But this thought of curatorial bravery that the concept and stark title of the exhibition may have promoted within me barely held between the three spaces that were used, and was thrown out completely when the next room was filled with outside art akin to Alfred Wallace and then further on, more St. Ives modernism. But I am not naive, and after considering my position anew, realised that this gallery, like all galleries, has a specific place in maintaining British culture; the creation and upkeep of traditions.
This is not to say that the name of the show did not completely apply, but as the note on the literature suggested, this is simply a curatorial digression of the Tate’s first selection because of problems with space, or the lack of; and if space was the problem that defined the final outcome then I would argue that outcome was perfectly successful. The first room (sorry, i don’t know their names) held a relatively charming and diverse selection of photographic, painted, video and kinetic work and revealed the two main themes that seemed to be drawn upon; deliberate emphasis on childish innocence or on the same Cornish elemental aesthetic and dynamism that pervades the whole building.
The former was represented by Jonty Lees’ Skimming Stones, a video of a rather nifty machine did exactly that; Andie Currie’s My Lucky Star is a rubbish Scorpion (pictured), a contained sculptural version of that dancing bag from American Beauty; and Andy Whall’s video In An Atlantic Wave, which is also pretty self explanatory (although after googling him, Whall’s piece seems more of a pleasing stand-in for his more wacky performance art, like licking a granite post on top of a old mine for four hours). The video work was interesting but merely that. However Currie’s was delightful – his scrappy minimalism in the parts to his four fan-blown assembles took pleasure but also frustration in the simple tasks allotted to them, like the terrarium with a cup and ball that could never be united.
Like the most contested artists of our generation (who are just to easy to name drop these days) Damien Hurst and Sarah Lucas, you are forced into bringing your own interpretations to the work, but what I felt strongly was along with childish naivety was a sense of being trapped, and the pointless and random rituals within that existence. Basically just that old problem of existential angst, but focusing on Cornish childhood… perhaps. Lees might have put forward some sort of darker aura undertone, the concept being a machination of a idyllic past-time if not for a sentimental watercolour alongside the television, drawn from the video piece.
The rest of the work was painted or was in thrall with painting. Clare Wardman’s vista was, well nice …and different, but everything else reminded me of classic Modernism, local and international, even the canvas of bands of rubber only left me thinking of Carl Andre’s treatment of ionised metal sheets. Perhaps I shouldn’t use this as criticism, except that this was overly represented. There was a place for painterly experiments like Luke Frost’s Barnett Newman-esque work but four or five abstract artists that had barely moved on from Peter Lanyon and Terry Frost, including work from offspring, was a little excessive.
On the lower gallery looking over the sea and the stairs there was some figurative paintings, the only one of note a portrait of the artist Jesse Leroy Smith’s young son in a leopard costume in washed out oils, which stood out for it’s experimental use of the medium and expressionless subject. A wry and cold history painting from Ged Quinn, Asleep in the Light of Glow Rooms was rationally insane. This was easily the most complex work and I was glad it was included but for all its playfulness (if only with arcane art historical references) there was no recognisable connections to the county of origin; basically I had no idea what he was trying to communicate, and nor did the gallery staff member I overheard, giving her own befuddled interpretation. Next to it was the single landscape work of the collection (ignoring the simple close-up photographs of beach detritus by Andy Hughes), Boat Cove by Richard Cook , roughly hewn out of paint in violence not quite found in other modern examples of the genre.
Which neatly brings us to my last subject and my favorite artist found – Philip Medley, and his meltey steel constructs. Reading the blurb on the Tate’s website, it has some rubbish about how ‘the complexities in the sculpture reflect human nature’ – which I especially hate because it is pretty accurate rubbish. The first work displayed (like the shoddy blogger I am I forget the name) was basically a steel version of a castle in the clouds – but also had a cavity enclosed in ramparts and towers which were actually bars and plates and triangles – like a hollow of a tree or a den. Yes, I am bringing the whole theme of childhood together with this artist in my own unique take on the work – but there was definitely innocence or pureity in its grey-white gloss when compared to its gaudy companion piece Calvary (the Catholic term for a crucifix shrine or alternatively, Golgotha) which had added skulls, blood and flames.
The more worldly multiple interpretations of Medley and Currie’s additions as I must have made quite clear by now, stood out in this group exhibition. Most people would acknowledge the balancing act the Tate fulfils down in St Ives between relevance and the past so the mere fact that they have encouraged any internal debate his praise worthy. But I somehow felt that it was lacking the subtle social commentary and tension between the positive and negative that it a given within the bigger art scene in general. When Barabra Hepworth and her husband Ben Nicholson escaped to a poor fishing village called St. Ives they sealed its fate forever both culturally and economically, but now they would just be another London couple looking for a holiday home. Maybe you would argue it is for the best, but it seems the Tate’s selection of Cornish artists haven’t found that Post-Modern cynicism just yet.
Imaginary Solution, Elizabeth McAlpine, Spacex Gallery Exeter, 10th March – 5th May
I know Exeter as a few great gigs, a coffee shop, a museum, the ‘worst high street in Britain’ and old haunts like Martian Records and the Spacex gallery. This council funded contemporary gallery has seen since its creation the likes of Damien Hirst (again, he pops up), Peter Randall-Page, William Kentridge and load of art a lot further out (I have seen some crazy video stuff there). Elizabeth McAlpine seems to be an artist gathering pace, currently involved wit London collectives and the Laura Bartlett Gallery as exhibiting widely and hosting a Tate Modern symposium about her working practice last year.
The promotional literature held a picture of her laser-cut hybrid vinyl Quintet; disks of decorative white noise made from classic LP’s, cut into intricate motifs and glued all together in an aural and visual collage that sounds shite but looks pretty. These were apparently inspired by Duchamp’s Rotoreliefs, one of his many seminal inventions, the moving painting. While Duchamp was trying to connect moving sculpture with painting, McAlpine is obviously exploring the overall installation and the connection between substance and sound. I was actually expecting some sort of Revolution No. 9 assault when entering the rooms but instead I got lo-fi white noise. A disappointing, and seemingly aimless sculpture. The whole exhibition was lo-fi, and the place was empty. A little record player model painted white, entitled Black Noise, seemed to bring my Dadaist sense of humour back to the foreground and seeing it I realised that these were early experiments with constructs and sound, for a primarily video artist.
The first video installation I sat down to watch was four video screens split between romantic and destructive scenes from some of Hollywood’s classics, shrunk, stuck in the corners and flickering in the black. I got the impression that destruction and violence were winning this slow battle of film clippings because every time a kiss started to happen or a quiet smile was exchanged your gaze was suddenly drawn back to the two right-hand televisions by the crash and screaming of metal or a gunshot. Quite possibly some deliberate socio-cinematic observations being made, to liven things up.
This is the theme that McAlpine has most closely followed in her work – the unnoticed parts of mainstream cinema, like colour and sublimity. The other video installation (pictured) included Light Reading, a gradually horrible collage of the white out and final textures of Hollywood explosions, and Californian Sunset, a morphing film of the single colour ‘flash frames’ sometimes used in monochrome films in the editing process which go completely unnoticed. Rather like a video version of a large Rothko painting.
Spacex devotes almost all of its attention to new and developing artists and not just because of its provincial nature. Like the St. Ives show, the gallery also has very limited space, especially considering the different booths that have to be constructed for such non-open-plan exhibits. There was a large variation in art for the viewer for an artist with such a specific aesthetic – mainly due to the commission of the sound installation. This is why Spacex is so great; it challenges its artist to become engaged with the gallery and create new work specifically for its shows. The homages to past artistic triumphs and old Hollywood flicks, grainy editing and vinyl, as well as new multi format art made for a show looking everywhere for inspiration and reminded me of the underrated gallery, and city, that houses it. Unfortunately, as is the problem with small and contemporary exhibitions , this wasn’t completely awe inspiring. But this is the pinnacle of modern art practice and therefore a point in development and needs attention just for that one point alone.
If you are local to this area I can also recommend going to see her most famous work at the Picture House Cinema, The film footage missed by the viewer blinking while watching the feature film Don’t Look Now, playing until the 19th.
– by jr2015.