Difference Reconciled: Ceri H. Pritchard’s Paradoxes

Ceri H. Pritchard at his solo exhibition Paradoxes, MOMA Machynlleth, 18 Sept. 2021

Some creative sparks managed to rekindle themselves during the pandemic; stoked up by a keenly felt sense of do-or-die urgency, they keep generating alternative realities – or alternatives to reality – out of the deepest blue of mind-numbing, soul-crumbling chaos.  While I do not quite succeed in numbering among those motivated mortals, visual artist Ceri H. Pritchard certainly does.  

In front of Metamorphosis I at MOMA Machynlleth, with a temporarily unmasked Ceri H. Pritchard

His prodigious output, mordant wit and renewed openness to experimentation are on full display in his latest of a slew of solo shows.  Ceri H. Pritchard’s Paradoxes opened on 18 September 2021 at MOMA Machynlleth, one of Wales’s most distinguished contemporary art galleries, and is on view there until 13 November 2021.  I have been keeping up with Ceri’s work and am excited to see it transmogrify.  I said as much, or as little, in the introductory text panel I was glad to contribute to his exhibition:

Ceri first invited me into his studio in 2015.  A few years earlier, I had co-authored monographs on his parents, figurative painter Claudia Williams and the late landscape artist Gwilym Prichard.  At the time, I was as yet unfamiliar with Ceri’s decades-spanning international career.  It was an unexpected, disorientating encounter – in his parents’ house, no less – with what Ceri here terms ‘Paradoxes.’  

I was perhaps too quick to label his paintings ‘neo-surrealist’ in an effort to get an art historical handle on the uncanny with which I was confronted: an otherworldly territory strewn with the detritus of modernity, with outcast and less-than-easy chairs, outmoded models of disconnected television sets, and displaced floor lamps shedding no light on matters.

Resisting further temptations to make sense of it all by trying to place the work, I did not initially consider – but subsequently discussed with Ceri – how his conspicuous enthusiasm for colour and his partiality for patterns is prominent as well in his mother’s work, although in subject and mood Ceri’s paintings could not be further removed from Claudia’s figure compositions expressive of the bond between mother and child.  

And yet, the patterns in Ceri’s paintings, too, suggest blood bonds – biological ties, be it the universality of our molecular make-up or the common experience of life and death in the strange new age of COVID-19.  Those repeated shapes bespeak at once commonality and change, circulation and evolution – and they remind us that what we share can also keep us apart.

Gwilym Prichard, Landscape (1960), detail

The mostly unpopulated landscapes painted by Ceri’s father, Gwilym, meanwhile, showed a preoccupation with home and belonging, with the uncovering of roots in ancient soil rather than the representation of the iconic sites of his native Wales.  Ceri’s work, too, is concerned with home – but his approach to the question of belonging to particular cultures and traditions – is entirely different.  It is the paradox of being at home with dislocation and familiar with estrangement.

Claudia Williams, The Toy Basket (1989) detail

The paradoxes that Ceri’s work communicate are not the consolidation of a calculated career move, an effort to set himself apart as much as possible from the tradition represented by his artist parents.  They are felt, not fabricated.  Ceri’s practice is informed by an international outlook, a transnational engagement with diverse cultures, high and low, in France, Mexico and the United States.  The unresolved tension of paradox at play in his compositions reflects and responds to decades of being abroad and of returning as an artist whose paintings redefine the tradition of what it means to be living and working here and now – in twenty-first century Wales.  

Upon first seeing Ceri’s work, 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.  Catching up with his evolving work in his studio years later, in the middle of the pandemic, I sensed a renewed purpose, a conviction of having arrived at something worth the departure and of forging ahead, destination unknowable.  

This is a body of work distinguished by something other than its now familiar set of iconography and ready tropes packaged for public exhibition.  There is continued experimentation both in subject and technique – not just a recycling of a haunting image repertoire but a repurposing of found materials as well and an increasing openness to change and chance.

Ceri H. Pritchard, The State of Things (2021)

That air of mystery has not dissipated since I opened Ceri’s solo exhibition The Strange Edge of Reality at Tenby Museum and Art Gallery in 2016.  And although encounters with art may become less personal in a museum setting, an institutional space can also contribute to our sense of discovery by making us become more aware of alternative approaches and canonical outliers we may not have expected to find there. Surprise, mystification, and a darkly humorous take on what it means to be alive at a time it seems impossible for future generations to get nostalgic about – all that may be experienced here, but also the realisation of being prompted to become part of a compelling narrative in the making.

Rather than look at Ceri’s paradoxes as puzzles to be solved it might be useful to regard them as open invitations to question our assumptions about culture, heritage, and about art produced in Wales today. 

‘Mysteries,’ are ‘like the sun,’ the metaphysical poet John Donne wrote, ‘dazzling, yet plain to all eyes.’  And not unlike the metaphysical poets, Ceri’s compositions yoke together opposites to achieve a kind of reconciliation, a discordia concors (harmonious discord), even though, in Ceri’s case, the aim is not harmony: it is to become reconciled to remaining unsettled.

“Quote” of No Confidence: “Inconvenient Objects” at Aberystwyth University

After
Before

Like most professionals – secret agents excepting – I talk about my work at the slightest provocation.  Besides, academics are expected to drop their names freely in the hope that it may take root in a crowded field scattered with formidable grey matter and fragile egos.  There is a reason I have not yet mentioned one of my latest projects – the exhibition “Inconvenient Objects.”  For a while, it was my blood pressure monitor that had to do most of the talking, delivering clinical statements geared toward a strictly limited audience listening out for official pronouncements that can be made to serve as quantifiable substitutes for my, to my mind, tell-tale cries of anger and frustration. 

The power of words is at once affirmed and eroded in the act of our being rendered speechless, be it by way of silencing or sheer incredulity.  There is no irony in the fact that, in this case of speech free and curtailed, seemingly innocuous curls of quotation marks are at the heart of the matter. 

And just what was – or is – that matter you may well ask after reading this abstract and oblique preamble?

Since 2012, I have been involved in staging exhibitions in the galleries of the School of Art, Aberystwyth University, where I also teach art history and exhibition curating, as well as serving as Director of Research.  Most of those exhibitions – Queer TastesUgly, and Alternative Facts among them – are projects that I, with the assistance of the School’s senior curator, create for and realize with groups of undergraduate students each year.  All of those shows draw entirely from the School’s collections of some 25,000 objects of visual and material culture.

The School of Art at Aberystwyth has the distinction of being one of only two art schools in the United Kingdom that also operate as accredited museums.  I try to make use of that nearly unique status in all my teaching, and curating – in which many prospective students express an interest in their applications – provides me with an opportunity to link art history, theory and praxis in practical, public-oriented and creative ways.

I have long regarded the School of Art’s museum collections and public galleries as a mother lode for staff and students alike, as it enables them to generate and showcase their research.  The project for the current show, with which the galleries reopen to the public after over a year during which our collections lingered in the Pandora’s box that is the pandemic of which the previous project, Seeing Red, had been a casualty, was for students to investigate and interpret objects that might pose challenges to cultural institutions due to their subject matter or the politics and ideologies they bespeak.

The selected works range from Third Reich photography to a bust of a Congolese pygmy chief, but also feature groups of female nudes executed by male artists, graphic images of starvation in 1970s Ethiopia, unauthorised sketches of patients in a mental institution and scenes of bullfighting.  However rewarding the digging, the mother lode, in this instance, turned out to be a minefield.

The mining metaphor is borrowed from and alludes to one of the best-known examples of institutional critique, a practice of interrogating collections and museum spaces that artist-curators have employed since the 1970s.  Fred Wilson’s Mining the Museum was one such landmark project in which the legacies of colonialism were made transparent through the juxtapositional display of objects as outwardly disparate but intimately related as silverware and slave shackles to remind us how and on whose backs the wealth of the United States was built.

“Inconvenient Objects” was conceived to create awareness about the responsibility of contemporary museums such as ours and the role that exhibition curators play in making artifacts and their at times problematic histories accessible to the public.

The centerpiece of the exhibition, an early twentieth-century bust ostensibly created in the service of science and not intended as a portrait of the subject, Chief Bokani, was previously shown as an ethnographic “specimen” in the University’s geography department.  In the context of the exhibition, the plaster bust – created by one of Wales’ foremost sculptors – encourages debates about ethics and ethnicity in art and science. 

Wilson, unearthing a similar bust at the Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, New Hampshire in 2005, had asked: ‘[Can we] extricate ourselves from the violence involved in acquiring these objects?’ The question remains whether “we” – as cultural institutions – can fulfil our civic mission by removing ourselves from the public discourse of reckoning? “We” have a lot to answer for if we don’t ask.

“Inconvenient Objects” so fully lived up to its title that it was ordered shut and hidden from view.  The word “inconvenient” was apparently central to the university management’s claim that the show posed a reputational risk.  I say “apparently” because what issues the university had with the show was never clearly – let alone directly – communicated to the curatorial team.*

Being that I also serve as the School’s “Equality Champion,” I had envisioned “Inconvenient Objects” as an opportunity to demonstrate that our University is committed to participating in the debate surrounding Black Lives Matter and the legacies of colonialism and empire in which sculptural objects such as our bust of Bokani are enmeshed.  Some three thousand words of gallery texts were in place to clarify those objectives.

After nearly two months behind closed doors – a hiding away that is now part of its story – the show was once again opened to the public, and it is scheduled to remain so until 1 October 2021.  With the addition of a single label, and a sign advising “viewer discretion” at the entrance, nothing has been altered.  And yet, everything has changed.

Our senior curator, who designed the poster, was obliged to place the title of the exhibition in quotation marks, indicating that we do not really mean what we say or else that that “we” does not refer to representatives of our institution.  In effect, the museum has been disabled from reflecting upon itself because such a critique – widely practiced elsewhere – might reflect poorly on the academic institution under which it is subsumed.

Minor adjustments though they may seem – a concession that allowed us to hold on to the title of the show – those quotation marks signal a disavowal, a lack of commitment and self-confidence.  They undermine the common endeavor to mine our public museums, instead of simply minding the store, an engagement with history and civics that should be all of our business.

*Curatorial team: Audrey Corbelli, Ciara Donnellan, Eve King, Orla Mai-Riley, Farrah Nicholson, Lucia Paone-Michael, Katie Rodge and Katarzyna Rynkowska, with contributions from Cara Cullen and Sarai David, and support from Harry Heuser (text and concept) and Neil Holland (staging and design)

Tickets for this free exhibition can be booked via Eventbrite.

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.