LAND2 at the Royal West of England Academy, Summer 2005
An Abundance of Metaphorical Diversity
The most dominant feature of LAND2’s recent exhibition at Bristol’s Royal West of England Academy is the diversity of approach by its 21 exhibiting members. Although this may be its overall weakness in terms of the coherence of the exhibition, I would like to suggest that it is this very diversity that encapsulates the spirit of LAND2. A clear example can be found in the work of Lily Markiewicz whose whole ethos derives from a different premise to an artist like Gillian Robertson. Robertson’s paintings inspired by mythological and romantic fantasies are faintly reminiscent of the work of Ceri Richards or Graham Sutherland. ‘Archaeological retrieval of what lies in the depths of the ground and how painting can act as a metaphor of the archaeological object’ (1) are her embarkation points. Markiewicz however has a different set of concerns. She engages with a displaced sense of what ‘is’ in her photographs by her use of angles and voids that deliver an overall ariel lightness arresting readily decipherable readings. ‘Sooner or later the past catches up and then one place becomes another circumscribing many others’ (2) she observes. Her photographs in their dreamlike ambiguity are invitations to layer the images with ‘pasts’ that weave spaces between history, memory and the elusive present. Looking back at art history, Dan Shipsides’ interventions form a bridge from the work of the mid nineteenth century Barbizon School to the current moment of globalised post-medium specificity. He uses his own body in the performative act of making by climbing, scaling and conquering large rocks in the Barbizon Forest that are recorded on video. ‘To look at an object is to inhabit it, and from this habitation to grasp all things in terms of the aspect which they present to it’, (3) proposed Merleau-Ponty. Shipsides literally inhabits and grasps the object using his own body in space as a tool to create this particular and individual relationship to the landscape of time present and time past.
Amanda Wood’s charcoal, crayon and graphite drawings of Gordale Scar reference Turner and demand a contemporary engagement with the sublime. ‘ The legend of art, the power of its persuasion through time, depends on an attenuation and re-location of its “being” as both event and significance. In the very act of mediation or representation there is a necessary threat to art’s originary or essentializing presence. This is artistic rapture’s most difficult negotiation with the agora of interpretation, for in order to ensure the survival of art, its authenticity or autonomy has to be partially erased.’ (4) Homi K. Bhabba’s prognosis relates to Wood’s negotiation of the rapture and awe of the sublime. Placed between past and present she contextualizes this ‘gap’ and thereby participates in its future. Judith Tucker’s paintings operate in a not un- dissimilar vein. She has sought to investigate loss, un/belonging, dis/connection and home. Her images have evolved out of her fieldwork trips to the Baltic coast a location that appeared in pre-war photographs from her family album. Her abstracted landscape of Strandkorb oscillates with warm and cool colours evoking memory and history both particular and universal. It is a painting whose juxtaposition of intimate spaces and vast chasms creates an air of melancholy. Working in the medium of woodcut Emma Stibbon’s large ‘Berlin East’ also contains references to memory and history. Here though it is an urban and industrialized landscape with its repetitive forms that hint at the standardization of a leftover utopian Enlightenment rationale. Dramatic dark to light contrasts energize Stibbon’s image and give it an altogether uncanny presence where traces of human activity are lost in a plethora of city grids. Another urban landscape is presented in Carinna Parraman’s ‘Follow my Leader’ a work made from digital inkjet that relates to a single yellow outline encircling a complex collection of manhole covers that cover the sluice gates in Bristol’s Cumberland Basin. Parraman maps the landscape with a focus that recalls the slices of road the Boyle family created in their artwork over a period of twenty years from the 1970’s. Mick McGraw’s ‘s ‘Lavafield, Digital Print on Fabric’ is unsettling in its no man’s land bleak panorama where from behind a smoke screen in the middle distance a few buildings emerge. His work explores elements in the landscape and environment and in particular, the relationship landscape has with its industrial heritage. In ‘Lavafield’ McGraw’s use of a dense foreground of rocks creating a barrier between the viewer and the middle and far distance conjures up images of a post nuclear landscape. His desolate photographs recall Hannah Arendt’s observation in ‘The Human Condition’ that ‘ from the view point of nature, it is work rather than labour that is destructive, since the work process takes matter out of nature’s hands without giving it back to her in the swift course of the natural metabolism of the body.’ (5)
Using textile mixed media, Jane Millar’s work seeks to unravel how the familiarity of photographs of landscapes give us a false sense of knowing particular spaces. Selecting beads to highlight certain areas on the canvas Millar arrests the viewers reading by literally breaking the flow of our gaze with the interruption of the bead’s texture. She thereby highlights our presuppositions about what we are looking at. Using only black and white ‘So where are you then?’ with its depiction of mountains in the snow is reminiscent of the exploration between photographs, film and landscape made by the artist Peter Doig. Like Doig, an interest in the melancholic aspect of wilderness is present in Millar’s work. Sarah Bodman, who uses books as her medium has made work based on botanical imagery and historical events. The books are beautifully and carefully constructed and have an aura of a precious relic. They activate the past/present divide by their appearance that recalls nineteenth century botanical almanacs. Bodman’s subject matter however concerns itself with pesticides and their detrimental impact on nature in the twenty first century. Her precious objects hide sinister agendas. Paul Gough’s ‘Southern Region Study’ in pastel, chalk and conte crayon continues to explore the desiccated landscape of the First World War that is a key theme in his oeuvre. Rendering the indescribable, Gough lays out his archaeology of remains without any direct reference to an actual soldier. Instead, the leftovers of an encampment, a tin and a shelter, serves to draw the viewer into a wasteland where the absence of any human subject and the depiction of a vast empty sky toll the knell of war’s carnage.
Music in the form of an old ballad from the borders is a starting point for the work of Iain Bigg’s whose metaphoric weave of past and present germinate from his book ‘Between Carterhaugh and Tamshiel Rig: A borderline Episode’ that explores a compound, imaginative space between landscape and ballad, ‘fact’ and ‘fiction’, memory, place and identity. Constructed as compartmentalized fragments, Biggs’ work uses metaphor and abstracted form to suggest the layers of song and landscape that weave and stain his memories of the Borders. Enlivened by the haunting ballad of Tam Lin, Biggs is drawn to a mystical mix of magic and wonder tantamount to the bewitching beauty of Ariel in ‘A Midsummer’s Nights Dream’. Music and image combine in this neo romantic gesumtkuntswerk. All the artists included in this exhibition through their engagement with landscape are to quote Rebecca Solnit ‘recognizing landscape not as scenery but as the spaces and systems we inhabit, a system our lives depend upon’. (6) LAND2’s artists engage with ‘the microcosmic as well as the macrocosmic, economies as well as ecologies, the cultural as an extension as the natural, bodies as themselves natural systems that pattern our thoughts, and our thoughts structured around metaphors drawn from nature.’ (7) Despite and in spite of the diversity of vision, process and intellectual preferences, the artists of LAND2 have forged a significant alliance, one that is a testament to the democratic collective of the group. Its numbers are growing ever drawing upon the investigative talent of other artists whose work concerns landscape and the environment in which we live. There is a sense in this exhibition of the beginnings of something that could conceivably become a much larger project, pan European or beyond. Given the difficulties of hanging such as diverse show in the galleries at the Royal West of England Academy, the organisers coped extremely well and one can only hope that the Royal West of England Academy will host another exhibition by this group in the not too distant future. The catalogue that accompanies the exhibition contains essays by Griselda Pollock, David Hill, and Keith Patrick as well as the organisers Judith Tucker and Iain Biggs. The work of every artist is illustrated and every artist has commented on his/her influences and approach. This allows for a readily comprehensible grasp of the diversity of the project. LAND2 bears witness to the quintessentially significant questions that have fallen to our generation. How do we depict, respect, protect and work with the landscape that is an essential component in our own existence? This exhibition has added another critical layer to that investigation.
- Gillian Robertson, ‘LAND2 Exhibition Catalogue, Making Space, 2004′
- Lili Markiewicz, ‘LAND2 Exhibition Catalogue, Making Space’, 2004
- Merleau-Ponty, ‘Phenomenology of Perception’ (1945), trans. Colin Smith, London, Routeledge, 1963
- Homi k. Bhabba ‘Aura and Agora’ from Exh Cat ‘Negotiating Rapture’ Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, 1996
- Hannah Arendt ‘The Human Condition’, Chicago University Press, 1958
- Rebecca Solnit ‘As Eve Said to the Serpent’, University of Georgia Press, 2001