Ceri Pritchard: “The Strange Edge of Reality”

I was asked to say a few words at the opening of Ceri Pritchard’s solo exhibition The Strange Edge of Reality at Tenby Museum and Art Gallery on 6 August 2016.  Here is what I said:
Opening Ceri Pritchard’s solo exhibition The Strange Edge of Reality,
6 August 2016, at Tenby Museum and Art Gallery, Tenby, Wales
Last December, Ceri Pritchard invited me to see some of his latest work, which he puts before us today in this gallery.  Walking up the steps to his studio here in Tenby, I felt as if I were about to be let in on a secret: canvases that were still underway, waiting – ready or reluctant – to come out into the open.

That air of mystery hardly dissipated at the sight of those canvases.  It was an unexpected, exciting introduction.  And although introductions are rather more formalised in a gallery setting, anyone stepping into this room may experience what I felt then.  Surprise, mystification.  Yes, but also that sense of being prompted, compelled to take part in a narrative unfolding.

What we witness here are not interior monologues.  We are not prying into someone else’s secrets, at least not without consent.  Ceri’s compositions are carefully staged.  They are spectacular set pieces with props, masks, and harlequin costumes fit for the Commedia dell’arte – if pantomimes were created by Franz Kafka and produced by Sigmund Freud.  The dramatic lighting and overall theatricality of Ceri’s paintings set them apart from the illusionistic.  We are not just taking in a performance.  We wonder what’s happening behind the scenes.
These compositions are finished in execution only.  In all other respects, they are incomplete – open to the complex mind games we call, for lack of a better word, “interpretation.”
Now, Ceri Pritchard is standing right over there.  But it would be our loss to turn this into an opportunity for putting him on a psychiatrist’s couch, as it were, and ask him: just what were you thinking when you painted those figures? Where does all this come from?

As if artists had – or should have – all the answers, let alone the last word on whatever they bring into being.
Instead of pointing in Ceri’s direction, why not accept the invitation proffered by his paintings and ask: what might they tell us about ourselves? About our desires, our doubts and our demons?
What a work of art has to say depends to a large – and often underestimated – degree on our receptiveness, on our willingness to let it speak to us, and perhaps of us.

Ceri Pritchard, The Atomic Age
When I look at a painting like The Atomic Age, for instance, I am reminded of the Cold War – the space race and the terror of nuclear proliferation – that became the stuff of childhood nightmares and, in my case, gave rise to compensatory fantasies.  There are plenty of mushrooms in Ceri’s paintings – not all of them suggestive of atomic clouds.  Some may be sprouting alternatives that the sensible – or insensitive – among us call “pipe dreams.”
The Strange Edge of Reality is an apt title for this exhibition. The works we see here are on the verge, teetering between worlds, not only in their set of imagery but also in their sense of place in art history and the art world of today.
Edginess is almost a prerequisite in contemporary art.  But few edges remain sharp for long.  And some become very blunt indeed – smooth and safe like a well-trodden threshold – a boundary with which to maintain our footing.  If it isn’t our voracious appetites that dull our senses to the cutting edge, it is our need to demarcate the terrain in which we might otherwise lose ourselves. 
 
In our appreciation of art, we tend to rely on classifications.  We might say, for instance, that Ceri’s work is surrealist, which would permit us to conclude that it is derived from or indebted to a certain, well-charted movement that originated in France in 1924.

Now, there is surrealist activity with a lower case “s.”  Henry Moore, for instance, argued that
[a]ll good art has contained both abstract and surrealist elements, just as it has contained both classical and romantic elements—order and surprise, intellect and imagination, conscious and unconscious.
This may be so vague as to take the edge off surrealism altogether, which is why such general applicationsof the term were frowned upon by Surrealists to whom the movement was an imperative.
 
“Movement” implies the coherence of a group through the adherence to a manifesto.  But Ceri, who adopted the term “neo-surrealist” to refer to his latest work, did not sign up to be part of a movement – there exists no Surrealist movement in Britain today.  What makes Ceri’s work edgy is that it reclaims a visual language that has long been neglected, at least in the medium of painting.
 
Among the artists and writers who influenced him, Ceri names the Surrealists André Breton, Francis Picabia, Salvador Dalí, and Max Ernst.  Not that Ceri’s work is an homage to them, much less a lament for a lost cause.  Rather, it makes a case for our renewed engagement with practices associated with the movement – a movement that first startled the British public at the International Surrealist Exhibition in London eighty years ago, in 1936, at a moment in history when suspicion dawned that Britain was no longer a post-war society but a pre-war one.  
 
The English poet David Gascoyne, who organised the London exhibition together with the artist Roland Penrose and the critic Herbert Read, declared surrealism to be a revolutionary “instrument” – a means of making us aware of the insufficiency – and the fallacy – of an order we accept as “reality.”
According to Gascoyne, the “fundamental ambition of surrealism is to dismantle all formal distinctions between dream and reality, and subjectivity and objectivity” – so that a new vision may emerge.  We can see such dismantling operating in Ceri’s paintings, in which opposites not simply clash but fuse.
The strange edge of reality isn’t simply an outer limit.  It is also a line along which meetings occur, as well as separations. The danger may lie not on the other side but in our tendency to take sides, to dismiss alternatives or to deny the other within our self.
Ceri Pritchard, La Limpiadora
When it comes to making a clean break, to draw the line between chaos and order, there is nothing like a vacuum cleaner.  You will come across a number of those in Ceri’s paintings.  But, in Ceri’s invasion scenarios, hoovering proves futile.  Whatever we try to push away or keep apart from us creeps in from the margins to assume centre stage: fungi spreading over an interior floor space, insects crawling toward artificial light, and microbes taking over our grey cells.
And who is handling the equipment, anyway? The cleaner in La Limpiadora, for instance.  The creatures with which Ceri populates his scenes look like experiments conducted on the Island of Doctor Moreau, freaks of nature assembled in a game of Exquisite Corpse.  Anthropomorphic, androgynous – they defy the polarities of either/or we find so reassuring.
 
Ceri’s paintings call to mind the disorientation we experience not while dreaming but at the stage of waking, the state of being in and out of it at once.  It creates the unnerving sensation of estrangement that Freud termed the uncanny.
Such dislocations are also experienced when moving between cultures.  Ceri has long lived abroad, away from his native Wales.  Even the home that he has presumably come back to is not the Wales he knew as a child up in Anglesey.  Ceri, who studied art in England, has worked and exhibited in France, the United States and in Mexico – all countries, coincidentally, in which Surrealism thrived. 
Unlike ‘Modernism’ or ‘Art Deco,’ ‘Surrealism’ did not make it into the index of The Tradition: A New History of Welsh Art, 1400 – 1990, Peter Lord’s monumental new book on the visual culture of Wales.  That is not to say that those who look for it won’t find surrealist connections in Wales.  At that International Surrealist Exhibition in London, for instance, it was Dylan Thomas who handed out cups of plain water with a piece of string it, which he offered to serve “weak or strong.”  But as tempting as it may be to identify national or regional influences in these paintings, Ceri’s neo-surrealism, like the work of the Surrealists before him, is cosmopolitan rather than parochial, and its expressions of our inner worlds are universal.
Ceri Pritchard, Golau y Myfyrio
Ceri’s work resists being defined by – or confined to – any one place.  Trying to pin Ceri down by tracing his life story and his influences in his current paintings would mean to diminish the mystery and the trippy wondrousness of that work.  It is clear that he has been under the influence.  Ceri’s mind has altered many times.  That is to say, it has defied the pressure of being made up.
Ceri has experimented in many media, including sculpture, video and collage.  He has also been an abstract painter.  Figurative painting is where he is at the moment.  And that moment is also a time of introspection – a self-conscious exploration of the role of the artist and the function of art.
Many of the paintings in this exhibition are expressive of a tension between creative freedom and the demand placed on art to reflect the external world, that is, to be both mimetic and relevant, to resemble in order to matter.
 
This restrictive view is countered by an ambition to shine a light on our infinite inner world instead of reflecting the system that tends to delimit the world outside and our place in it.  This dichotomy is summed up by the title Golau y Myfyrio – “Reflecting the Light” – and is rendered pictorial through the mirrors with which the figures in Ceri’s paintings are taunted and tormented, and the lamps that put them in another light.
That the title is Welsh suggests, in the absence of any stereotypically Welsh iconography, a continued processing of that ostensible homecoming.
Claudia Williams, Children Painting
Ceri’s current work has been described as “mature.”  It is meant to be a compliment, no doubt, but there is to me something too finite about the word.  What Ceri has managed through decades of artistic practice is to remain in his “formative years.”
 
Now, I have, on a wall in my house, a reminder of Ceri’s lifelong creativity in the form of this painting of him by his mother, Claudia.  Here he is, aged six years old.  And there he is, never mind how many years later.  Ceri Pritchard has kept alive the urge to create by being alive to strangeness and by insisting on looking askance at “reality,” perched, as he is, on the edge.

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