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.

Worth a Shot? Photography as Matter of Life and Death

How do we measure the importance of a life? Who or what is worth remembering? These are some of the questions raised by photographs such as the ones on display in Matter of Life and Death, an exhibition on view from 16 May to 9 September 2016 in the gallery of the School of Art at Aberystwyth University in Wales.

Today it is easier than ever to produce and share photographs.  Subjects diversify.  Perspectives broaden.  We no longer have to deal with precious materials or finite rolls of film when determining who or what is worth a shot.  Yet images are also more readily manipulated.  Realities are filtered and faked.  The black-and-white photographs in Matter of Life and Death predate our digital age.  Fragile and bold, these infinitely multipliable images of singular moments and individual lives were intended to live and matter as prints.
Looking at images of people and places can make us aware of our cultural differences.  But it is not difficult to find universals in photographs produced worlds apart.  Struggling farm workers in 1930s Alabama are shown alongside striking miners in 1980s Sardinia and South Wales.  The town of Aberystwyth, where the exhibition is staged, is featured next to Palermo and Bangkok.  Visitors to our gallery will see the faces of children.  But they will also face the aged, the dying and the dead. 
All of the photographs are from the University’s collection.  They were chosen by School of Art students who then debated how to exhibit them and create a narrative.  Only the medium and the title had been decided beforehand by me, the instructor of Staging an Exhibition, a course in curating that each year culminates in a show like this one.   Previous exhibitions include Queer Tastes, Untitled by Unknown, and Face Value.

The selections students made for Matter of Life and Death are journalistic and surrealist, propagandistic and personal, mass marketed and private.  Some photographers – Walker Evans, Mario Giacomelli and Angus McBean among them – are famous.  Others are unknown.  Learning about the identity of a photographer may well influence the way we look at the work that photographer has produced.  A child may look less innocent once we know that the man behind the camera was Erich Retzlaff, a photographer who supported and propagated fascist ideals.

There is no particular order in which these photographs should be experienced.  Themes such as dying traditions or endangered environments are suggested, but there are no conclusions.  As in life, material circumstances limit our choices.  The paths we forge are our own.

Matter of Life and Death is open to the public until 9 September 2016.  Admission is free.

Curators: Megan Evans, Rebecca Fletcher, Suzanne Fortey, Emma Game, Emily Griffin, Elizabeth Kay, Kirils Kirijs, Michael Kirton, Maria Lystrup, Kate Osborne, Amy Preece, Georgia Record, Emma Roberts, Samantha Robinson, Emily Smyth, Bethany Williams,  Gemma Woolley; with support from Harry Heuser (text) and Neil Holland (design)

“… a companionable thing”: Catching up with Stanley Anderson


Purbeck Quarrymen (1936), engraving

A “companionable thing.” That is how the English painter-printmaker Stanley Anderson (1884 – 1966) summed up what “art” should be. His work reflects this sentiment, even though much of it was produced in solitude – slowly and studiously. Staging the exhibition Unmaking the Modern: The Work of Stanley Anderson, I was glad to have had another chance of giving my contemporaries an opportunity to get acquainted with Anderson, who died on this day fifty years ago, and to have a conversation with him as he, through his work, continues to communicate his beliefs.

I say “another chance,” as I had previously co-curated an exhibition of Anderson’s prints at the Royal Academy, London, in 2015 and, getting to know Anderson through his prints and correspondences, written about him with my better half, Robert Meyrick, in a book that was released to coincide with that show.

Staging this second exhibition, Unmaking the Modern, a year later, I concentrated on Anderson’s efforts to bring about the conversation he hoped for – a conversation about the disregard for a generation of men like him who saw their lifetime commitment to traditions threatened by so-called progress.

A Mayfair Backwater (1930), drypoint 

Much of what Anderson chose to engage with and bring to our attention has disappeared: traditions gone and skills abandoned, rural communities destroyed and urban neighborhoods demolished, lives lost and often forgotten. This may well evoke a sense of nostalgia. But that nostalgia is ours, not Anderson’s.

Anderson observed those changes as they took place: the demolition of buildings, the erection of shrines to profit and temples devoted to the exchange of money. He responded concretely and in no uncertain terms to what he saw going on in his lifetime. His works are not so much a lament as they are public outcries and displays of solidarity with those who, like him, where threatened by a demand for speed and expediency.

Objects of visual culture, especially prints, are a way of reaching out to others and of creating a community of artists and collectors. Anderson’s works are the products and tokens of fellowship. He took careful note of how others around him carried out their jobs of making furniture, of working the land, and of serving the community. He understood their labor and honored it with the work of his own hands. Each print bespeaks a communion, a faithful, generous and sustained engagement with his subjects.

Exhibition view, Unmaking the Modern

Long before Pop Art, Anderson bridged the divide between high and low culture that modernism had created. He united what modernity insisted on separating: the heart and the hand. This was a conscious decision, as his correspondence bears out, not a lack of awareness of Modernism. After years of studying and using a variety of printmaking techniques, he returned to engraving, which he had long associated with trade. With those later engravings, he devoted himself to documenting the workaday activities of others – be they craftsmen or farmhands – who, like him, made a living from performing manual work for the benefit of others.

Anderson also looked at – and insisted on making us see – the forgotten men of his day: the homeless, the destitute and the aged. He cast a light on individuals that society had turned into outcasts, misfits that could not or would not conform to the dramatic changes that progress demanded.

Anderson was not opposed to commerce; indeed, market scenes were among his favorite subjects. Born in Bristol, he had trained for seven years as a professional engraver in his father’s workshop. He was already in his mid-twenties when he was awarded a scholarship to study printmaking at the Royal College of Art in London. Art – and the teaching of printmaking – were jobs to him. Being a Royal Academician, meanwhile, was a privilege to him that came with the responsibility of making or promoting art that was not removed from the everyday but that brought people together and that got them looking at each other.

Anderson did not refer to himself as an “artist.” He rejected the idea that makers of cultural products should create such works for art’s sake or as a means of self-expression. Making art, like doing any other meaningful work, was to him a social act – a “companionable thing.”

Unmaking the Modern: The Work of Stanley Anderson was on show at the School of Art galleries, Aberystwyth University, Wales, from 1 February to 11 March 2016. An online version is currently under construction.

The catalogue raisonné Stanley Anderson: Prints by Robert Meyrick and Harry Heuser was published in 2015. Still online are a couple of short videos, produced for the Royal Academy exhibition An Abiding Standard, in which my husband and I talk about Anderson’s works and views.

For a comprehensive archive of Anderson’s prints, visit www.stanleyanderson.co.uk.

Joan Blondell in Dachau

A cigarette card image of Joan Blondell on display at Dachau
I am no historian. At least not in a traditional facts-and-figures sense. Early in life, I became doubtful of efforts to account for the present by recounting the past of a place or a people. Growing up – and growing up queer – in Germany during the 1970s and 80s, I was not encouraged to find myself in such accounts.  After all, how could I have developed a sense of being part of a national history? The present did not make me feel representative even of my own generation, while the then still recent past was presented to me as the past of a different country. A different people, even. A people whose history was not only done but dusted to the point of decontamination.


Visiting Dachau, June 2015
That many of those people – those old or former Nazis – were all around me and that the beliefs they held did not get discarded like some tarnished badge was apparently too dangerous a fact to instill. Pupils would have turned against their teachers.  Children would have come to distrust their parents.  They might even have joined the left-wing activists who were terrorizing Germans for reasons about which we, endangered innocents and latent dangers both, were kept in the dark.
As I have shared here before – though never yet managed adequately to convey – I left Germany in early adulthood because I felt uneasy about my relationship with a country I could not bring myself to embrace as mine. It’s been a quarter of a century since I moved away, first to the US and then to Wales.  For over two decades, I could not even conceive of paying the dreaded fatherland a visit.  Eventually, or rather suddenly, this changed. In recent years, I have found myself accepting offers to teach German language, history and visual culture, assignments that made me feel like a fraud for being second-hand when imparting knowledge about my birthplace.  I realized that I needed to confront the realities from which I had been anxious to dissociate myself.

This summer, I visited the Dachau concentration camp for the first time.  There, in the face of monumental horrors, I was drawn to one of the smallest and seemingly most inconsequential object on display: a cigarette card featuring the likeness of 1930s Hollywood actress Joan Blondell.

“Beaten to death, silenced to death”:
A memorial to the homosexuals killed during
the Nazi regime, made in the year I came out.
Dates and figures are no match for such a fragile piece of ephemera. To be sure, the macabre absurdity of finding a mass-manufactured collectible—purchased, no less, at the expense of its collector’s health—preserved at a site that was dedicated to the physical torture of real people and the eradication of individuality could hardly escape me.  But it was not this calculated bathos alone that worked on me.  It was the thought that I, too, would have collected such a card back then, as indeed I do now.  Investing such a throwaway object with meaning beyond its value as a temporary keepsake, I can imagine myself holding on to it as a remnant of a world under threat.

Looking at that photograph of Joan Blondell at Dachau, it was not difficult for me to conceive that, had I been born some forty years earlier, I might have been sent there, or to any one of the camps where queers like me were held, tortured and killed.  That minor relic, left behind in the oppressive vastness of the Dachau memorial site, speaks to me of the need to take history personal and of the importance of discarding any notion of triviality. For me, it drives history where it needs to hit: home—home, not as a retreat from the world but as a sense of being inextricably enmeshed in it.

Joan Blondell, meanwhile, played her part fighting escapism by starring in “Chicago, Germany,” an early 1940s radio play by Arch Oboler that invited US Americans to imagine what it would be like if the Nazis were to win the war.

"Cofion, G": Remembering Gwilym Pri[t]chard

“I haven’t kept any diaries as such, apart from the odd word or two in my sketch books.  I have never felt the need to write anything and I really cannot see the point why anyone would be interested in what I would have to say.”  This is what the painter Gwilym Prichard wrote to me in reply to some questions I had while I was working on a monograph on his life and art.  Knowing Gwilym, I also knew that, though he was a man of his word, one word might have to suffice even when I, as a would-be biographer, was hoping for a thousand.

Gwilym talked – and continues to talk – to us through his art; he also talked to his art and had, he told me, private conversations with the works as they came into being on the canvas.  He didn’t think much of critics or the need for interpretation.  He believed that an artist’s work should speak for itself.  Terse as his words to me might sound, they were uttered in humility rather than indignation.  “I am grateful,” he added in parenthesis, “that I have had some success with my painting – I really have very little confidence but what I produce or show is stuff that I have painted with love and sincerity.  I hope that this comes through.”  That love – and the success it brought – was easily documented, mostly through Gwilym’s paintings.


Above Rhostryfan (1982), the painting I chose for my 
obituary of Gwilym in the Guardian

“Any more questions?” Gwilym continued his notes, which, much to my surprise, amounted to over thirty handwritten pages.  Clearly, he did not mean to cut me off, and wished me and my partner, Robert Meyrick, “all the best with the writing” with which he had entrusted us.  He answered every question, right down to the matter of the “t,” the letter he dropped from his surname in midlife whenever he signed his art.


That “writing,” A Lifetime’s Gazing, was a very special assignment for me.  Through Bob, I met Gwilym and his artist wife, Claudia Williams not long after I had moved to Wales in November 2004.  Back then, I felt distanced from Wales and the Welsh; I found it difficult to find myself or to find any purpose for myself here.  In fact, I still struggle with that.  I did not know then that I would end up working on Gwilym’s monograph.  Though it began years later, the project offered me an opportunity to write about the culture that I, a German with a New York education, could never presume to call my own.

I could relate to Gwilym in his difficulties of expressing himself fully – I mean truthfully and meaningfully – in English, Welsh being his first language, the language of his childhood.  Welsh spoke to him differently.  “I am a Welsh painter because I am Welsh,” he wrote, refusing to make an issue of what he felt to be at the core of his being … something understood.

Gwilym described himself as “emotional,” and English was perhaps too much the language of adulthood or reason, too abstract for an artist who treasured the concrete – the rock, the sea, and the soil.  The concrete had weight and depth for him, a weight and depth he did not have to measure because he felt it as an immeasurably rich presence, a constant in a life full of change and challenge.

How fortunate Gwilym was to have developed such a language; and how lucky we are to be hearing him with our own eyes whenever we look at the works that chart his journey …

Queer Tastes: Works from the George Powell Bequest

George Powell
Poster design by Neil Holland

Queer Tastes is an exhibition I curated with students of my undergraduate module Staging an Exhibition at the School of Art, Aberystwyth University. Each year, the module culminates in a student-curated show on a given theme. 


This year’s exhibition, which is open to the public from 18 May to 11 September, explores the identity of the Welsh-English dilettante George Ernest John Powell (1842 – 1882) through the collection that he bequeathed to Aberystwyth University. The objects were selected by students of the School of Art, which holds part of Powell’s bequest.  

The exhibition includes works by Simeon Solomon, Rebecca Solomon, Edward Burne-Jones, Richard Westall and Hubert von Herkomer as well as artefacts and curios ranging from a plaster cast of Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy’s hand and a glass casket that allegedly once contained a splinter from Robert Schumann’s coffin.

The Powell family owned the Nant-Eos estate a few miles inland from Aberystwyth. Educated at Eton and Oxford, George Powell spent little time at Nant-Eos, which he would inherit in 1878. It was an unhappy place for him. His parents were estranged. His mother and younger sister died when Powell was a teenager.

Powell was a dreamer, much to his father’s disappointment. Instead of going hunting, the boy wrote poems about death, loss and betrayed love. Eager to get away, Powell travelled to Europe, Russia, North Africa and Iceland. In the company of the poet Algernon Charles Swinburne, Powell spent summers on the Normandy coast. There, he entertained writers and artists in a cottage he named after a bisexually promiscuous character in de Sade’s Philosophy in the Bedroom.

Powell has been called ‘eccentric’, ‘sinister’ and ‘sad’. He has also been labelled ‘homosexual’, a term not used in his day. ‘Queer’ suggests something – or someone – strange or at odds with our views. It asks that we trace our responses to otherness in ourselves.

A man of the world, Powell wanted to be remembered back in Wales as a patron and benefactor. He offered parts of his collection to Aberystwyth Town Council, on provision that a public gallery be created for their display. When the deal fell through, Powell gave the objects you see here to the University of his ‘dear but benighted town’.


Making our possessions public is in a way a ‘coming out’. It invites others to wonder about our past. It also means saying ‘I matter’. Collections like Powell’s encourage us to question how a person’s worth is determined.

Curators: Danielle Harrison, Kayla McInnes, Alice Morshead, Jenny Skemp, Valerija Zudro, with support from Harry Heuser (text and concept) and Neil Holland (staging and design).

Powell’s life and collection are the subject of my essay “‘Please don’t whip me this time’: The Passions of George Powell of Nant-Eos” in the forthcoming anthology Queer Wales (University of Wales Press).

Stanley Anderson: An Abiding Standard

This is a speech I prepared for the private view of “Stanley Anderson: An Abiding Standard” at the Royal Academy of Arts in London on 24 February 2015. Mindful of the assembled party ready to mingle and enjoy the evening, I decided to cut my talk short. Here it is in its entirety.

Stanley Anderson’s move from London to Oxfordshire coincides with – and made happen – a body of work for which he is now best known: a series of thirty or so prints on the subject of traditional farming methods and rural trades. They are on view in the Council Room.

Anderson’s move to the countryside was not a retreat. Despite their nostalgic appeal, his works are not escapist. Like his London scenes, they engage with the here and now. His here and now.

Anderson’s prints do not glorify England’s past or gloss over what he perceived to be its problems. It took me a while to appreciate that. As someone interested in the 1930s and 1940s and the impact the Second World War had on civilian life, I was disappointed not to find any overt references to the conflict, any depictions of the homefront, or images of disabled soldiers. After all, Anderson himself lost his London studio during the Blitz.

But they are there, those references. Or at least, Anderson’s commentaries on the human condition are there.

It is telling that so many of the men whose activities – or inactivities – he portrays are old. Anderson himself was in his 50s and 60s when he created these line engravings. The young had gone to war or else were working in the factories. It was war that turned men into machines and that, like other crises before it, had thrown the fragility – or the speciousness – of modern civilization into relief.

Anderson said that, when he moved to the country, his ‘mind and feelings became clearer, more definite in their reactions.’ In the countryside, alive to the seasons, he ‘seemed immersed in a sense of stability’ that was ‘not static. He called it ‘a sort of ordered growth’. Ordered growth in the face of chaos. And what he set out to do in his prints was to remind others of what they were in danger of losing or forgetting: the traditions that, he feared, would die with the men – the friends, neighbours and fellow craftsmen – whose work he commemorated in his prints.

Anderson did not want to be called an “artist.” He did not consider self-expression to be the highest achievement or chief aim of visual culture. He saw himself as a craftsman in the medieval tradition.

He aligned himself with anyone who derived his living – and his satisfaction – from the work produced with his or her own hands, just as Anderson did (with the support of his wife Lilian, a trained nurse).

Trade was not a dirty word for Anderson; nor did he mind getting his hands dirty. He not only related to his working men subjects – menial labourers and skilled craftsmen alike –he befriended these men, at a time when England turned its back on their traditions and forced the hand of many who were pushed into assembly line work or else were made to operate the machinery of war.

Moving to the countryside was not a getting away from mankind but a getting closer to his fellow man. Anderson called fellowship the ‘only currency’ that truly mattered. The ‘pleasure and interest’ of others in his work was what he deemed ‘ample repayment for all [his] labours.’

The hours he spent creating these prints were a time of contemplation; he abhorred speed and distrusted work produced quickly and, he believed, thoughtlessly. His works are spiritual, and the Zeitgeist they capture is that of an age in which spirituality was fast disappearing.

Anderson did not work or live fast. As [co-curator Robert [Meyrick] said, he spent seven years as an apprentice in his father’s engraving workshop, an experience on which he would draw and which he would not regret. His career is a continuum that anyone banking on instant fame might find hard to comprehend. His aim was to live by an abiding standard and his career was the reward of biding his time.

‘My life has been a quiet, studious one,’ the sixty-year-old Stanley Anderson told an American friend who wanted to write a biographical essay on him. There had been ‘no exciting experiences immorally, no amazing lights and shades, no boisterous contretemps; just a steady, sustained effort to express clearly and as well as my ability will allow, that note, in the main, I feel so deeply in life and nature – the plaintive note […].’

‘I often wonder, Anderson added, ‘if this is the reason I crave the friendship of sympathetic folk; why I feel that the arts are a social, or sociable act; why I abhor the bigotry, the insufficiency of self, and fear the exclusiveness of ‘success.’

Before we continue enjoying the ‘sociable act’ of this private view, I would like to express my gratitude to the man to whom everyone seeing this exhibition is indebted: to Stanley Anderson himself.

Anderson reminded me, again and again, how rewarding – how necessary – it is to keep at it, to keep looking, beyond the first glance in the search for novelty or the reassuring instance of recognition.

“In all matters of execution his work is highly disciplined,” a 1932 review in the London Times declared “and, if he seldom thrills you, he never lets you down.” If by thrill we mean the quickening pulse in response to the flashy and sensational, then the reviewer was certainly right. But there are thrills in Anderson’s work that are the rewards of anyone who keeps looking: discoveries of social commentaries – cultural references and sly observations – in which Anderson’s prints are rich.

We have not provided object labels for each of the 90 or so works on display here because we want to encourage you to look for yourselves without being told what to see. Anderson will tell you much about his attitudes toward modernity – and toward modernism – in these prints. These are not works that are open to a myriad of individual interpretations. His intentions become clear, his message, which often appears in fine print – in signs, fictional newspaper headlines and literary allusions – is consistent. His prints are essays on modern life and traditional labour, for the appreciation of which every line counts. So, stay a while …. and keep on looking.

"Untitled by Unknown"

Every spring, the students of my “Staging an Exhibition” class are doing just what the title suggests: they curate a show at Aberystwyth University’s School of Art galleries. And every summer, I have to come up with another idea for another spring. This year’s exhibition, on show now until 12 September, poses a particular challenge. As stated on introductory panel, most of the works on displayed “have no official title. The identity of their creators remains unconfirmed.” This opens the debate as to their value and relevance: “Do their uncertain origins mean that these objects are unworthy of our time and attention?”
Untitled by Unknown: Curating ‘Hidden’ works from the School of Art Collection investigates the effects of doubt and mystery on our estimation of visual culture. The thirteen curators not only researched the objects but also needed to think of ways to interpret in the absence of verifiable facts.
Viewers are “encouraged to reflect on the ‘hidden’ lives” of the objects chosen by students: they include photographs, watercolours, prints and miniature paintings. Each work is identified only by the number by which it is filed and can be accessed in the School of Art collection’s online database.
The idea was to let visitors of our exhibition in on the curatorial task, to suggest that while a “lack of facts can be an obstacle,” it “can also be an opportunity for personal engagement.” Visitors may well question our interpretations and uncover alternative stories. Perhaps, they know more than we do about some of the mystery objects in our collection.
Untitled art works by unknown or anonymous artists often have no chance of being displayed—at least not until their mysteries are solved. Still, public museum and galleries have a responsibility of sharing the works in their collection.
Untitled by Unknown is not intended to show astounding works from exceptional artists. It is here to open a debate about what should be on display and how it may be shared.
My thanks to the students involved in making the show – and my class – possible: Jessie Davis, Karolina Hyży, Justyna Jurzyk, Kate Largan, Charlotte Raftery, Laura Roll, Elizabeth Salmon, Melissa Sarson, Belinda Smith, Julia Steiner, Stephanie Troye, Veera Vienola, and Eleri Wood.
Our thanks also to curator Neil Holland for all his help and expertise.

Future [S]ense? The Lost Found Objects of David Garner

Discarded copy
Look! There are objects, people, and situations that compel me to do just that.  It takes some effort, though, to make me look longer than a moment, that blink of an eye Germans call “Augenblick.”  It is an effort and commitment that I have to bring myself to make, and whatever or whoever it is that commands me to look must warrant my sustained attention, must conquer my resistance, must provoke, charm, or seduce me to engage me in an exchange.
“Look!” is a command that rarely fails; but, apart from performances that define the intended or desired duration of that look, few sites dictate, implore or recommend just how long I am to keep looking.  Do I circle once around this sculpture? Do I give that landscape the once-over, the twice-over or the over-and-over? How long do I need to look until I see something that rewards me for not looking away sooner? Not every instance of looking turns into a spell of lingering, loitering and longing for more; and nothing is more effective in making me avert my gaze than being told what to look out for and how to see things.  This is the reaction I had looking at David Garner’s exhibition Future Tense, currently on display at the Aberystwyth Arts Centre.
Garner uses found objects to make more or less—and mostly less—compelling statements about a grab bag of social and political issues: production and consumption, education, unemployment, and postcolonialism.  His work hinges on a pairing of visual and verbal puns (such as “Wooly Learning/Dysgu Gwlanog,” a school blackboard with felted wool surface and wool text) or clichés (like “Beware when the gloves are off,” a row of ten Porcelain glove moulds mounted on an oak panel and suggesting a fascist salute); most of these pairings are too obvious in their single-minded double-meaning to startle, let alone enliven a discourse.  Often, as in “Sheep in Sheep’s Clothing”—a taxidermied sheep wearing a coat knitted from its own fleece—the found object is stripped of its mysteries, its woolliness—its indeterminacies and ambiguities—spun instead into a readily solvable and as such instantly dissolvable puzzle.
Cattelan’s All left me wanting more
Unlike Duchamp’s perennially stimulating Fountain, Garner’s found objects are given a final resting place in a self-contained junkyard of a performance that rewards only those who are content to discover an artist’s meaning and who, unlike me, accept that meaning as final; such hermetic hermeneutics leave no room to respond other than “Got it.  Next!” There is none of the wonder, the awe—the sheer thrill of looking—that I experienced staring at Maurizio Cattelan’s Allat the Guggenheim Museum earlier this year.
The only truly gripping sight in Garner’s Future Tense is not a sight at all but a sound: the sound of a large clock loudly ticking away.  I resisted looking at the caption and let that sound transport, envelop, and alarm me; listening, I was, for once, unaware of the time I had wasted looking here but reminded instead of the potentialities of art to move us to the point that we cannot but invest it with our life experience, our anxieties and desires—a potential that is largely unfulfilled by Future Tense, a configuration of readymades whose presence is so much circumscribed by the artist’s foregone conclusions that they have little chance of a future in our imaginings . . .

Once Upon a Time in Radioland: A Kind of Ruritanian Romance

The other day, at my favorite bookstore here in Aberystwyth, I was caught in the eye by what struck me as a highly unusual cover for a 1938 edition of Anthony Hope’s fanciful pageturner The Prisoner of Zenda. Mind you, I’m not likely to turns those pages any time soon. I’m not one for Graustarkian excursions. That I found the old chestnut so arresting is due to the way in which it was sold anew to an audience of Britons to whom such a mode of escape from the crisis-ridden everyday must have been sufficiently attractive already. This was the 92nd impression of Zenda; and, with Europe at the brink of war, Ruritania must have sounded to those who prefer to face the future with their head in the hourglass contents of yesteryear like a travel deal too hard to resist.

Now, the publishers, Arrowsmith, weren’t taking any chances.  Judging by the cover telling as much, they were looking for novel ways of repackaging a familiar volume that few British public and private libraries could have been wanting at the time.

Cinegram No. 4, from my collection
British moviegoers had just seen Ruritania appear before their very eyes in the 1937 screen version of the romance, which make dashing Ronald Colman an obvious salesperson and accounts for his presence on the dust jacket.  It is the line underneath, though, that made me look: “The Book of the Radio Broadcast,” the advertising slogan reads.  Desperate, anachronistic, and now altogether unthinkable, these words reminded me just how far removed we are from those olden days when radio ruled the waves.
The Prisoner of Zendawas recently the subject of a highly successful film,” the copy on the inside states somewhat pointlessly in the face of the faces on the cover.  What’s more, it continues, a “further mark of its popularity” was the story’s “selection by the BBC as a radio serial broadcast on the National Programme.”  To this day, the BBC produces and airs a great number of serial adaptations of classic, popular or just plain old literature; but, however reassuring this continuation of a once prominent storytelling tradition may be, a reminder of the fact that books are still turned into sound-only dramas would hardly sell copies these days.  Radio still sells merchandise—but a line along the lines of “as heard on radio” is pretty much unheard of in advertising these days.
“This book is the original story on which the broadcast was based,” the dust jacket blurb concludes.  I, for one, would have been more thrilled to get my hands or ears on the adaptation, considering that all we have left of much of the BBC’s output of aural drama is such ocular proof of radio’s diminished status and pop-cultural clout.
Perhaps, my enthusiasm at this find was too much tempered with the frustration and regret such a nostalgic tease provokes.  At any rate, I very nearly left Ystwyth Books without the volume in my hands. That I walked off with it after all is owing to our friend, novelist Lynda Waterhouse, who saw me giving it the eye and made me a handsome present of it.  And there it sits now on my bookshelf, a tattered metaphor of my existence: I am stuck in a past that was never mine to outlive, grasping at second-hand-me-downs, gasping for recycled air . . . a prisoner of a Zenda of my own unmaking.