As a frustrated writer, or, rather, as someone who is disenchanted with the business of publishing and of ending up not reaching an audience, I have come to embrace exhibition curating as an alternative to churning out words for pages rarely turned. I teach curating for the same reason.
Staging an exhibition reminds students of the purpose of research and writing as an act of communication. Seeing an audience in walking into the gallery – or knowing that anyone could stop by and find their research on display – is motivating students to value their studies differently.
As someone who teaches art history, and landscape art in particular, to students whose degree is in art practice, curating also enables me to bridge what they experience as a gap or disconnect between practice and so-called theory, between their lives as artist and art history at large.
It also gives me a chance to make what I do and who I am feel more connected.
Angus McBean’s personal album of travel photographs featuring McBean and his gay companions (1966)
In my latest interactive and evolving exhibition, Travelling Through: Landscapes/Landmarks/Legacies (on show at the School of Art, Aberystwyth University, Wales until 8 February 2019), I bring together landscape paintings, ceramics, fine art prints, travel posters and luggage labels, which are displayed alongside personal photographs, both by a famous photographer (Angus McBean) and by myself.
Here is how I tried to describe the display of those never before publicly displayed images from my personal photo albums:
Plinth display of NYC, Travelling Through Me (1985 – 2018), digital and digitised photographs
Before the age of digital photography, smart phones and social media, snapshots were generally reserved for special occasions. Travelling was such an occasion.
For this collage, I rummaged through old photo albums and recent digital photographs. When I lived in New York, from 1990 to 2004, I very rarely photographed the city. All of these images either predate that period or were produced after it. The historic event of 11 September 2001 can be inferred from the presence and absence of a single landmark. The World Trade Center is prominent in many of my early tourist pictures. Now, aware of my gradual estrangement from Manhattan, I tend to capture the vanishing of places I knew.
Lost New York City landmarks: Twin Towers and Gay Pier, 1987
Back in the 1980s, New York was not the glamorous metropolis I expected to find as a tourist. My early photographs reflect this experience. Most are generic views of the cityscape. Others show that I tentatively developed an alternative vision I now call ‘gothic.’ Yet unlike Rigby Graham, whose responses to landscape are displayed elsewhere in this gallery, I could never quite resist the sights so obviously signposted as attractions.
Like the personal photo album of the queer Welsh-born photographer Angus McBean, also on show in this exhibition, these pages were not produced with public display in mind. McBean’s album was made at a time when homosexuality was criminalised. It is a private record of his identity as a gay man.
I came out during my first visit to New York. The comparative freedom I enjoyed and the liberation I experienced were curtailed by anxiety at the height of the AIDS crisis. Being away from home can be an opportunity to explore our true selves. Travelling back with that knowledge can be long and challenging journey. Harry Heuser, exhibition curator
Pennant Tour of Wales featuring illustrations by Rigby Graham, with one of my photo albums and a collage of luggage labels beneath it
Once a year, I stage an exhibition with undergraduate students of my module “Curating an Exhibition” at the School of Art, Aberystwyth University. The student curators choose objects from the School’s collection, which, over a period of about three months, they research, interpret and narratively arrange in relation to a given theme. The theme for the 2018 exhibition (on show from 21 May until 28 September) is “Sea Change.” The idea for it came to me watching CNN, where the phrase is frequently heard in promotional spots for Fareed Zakaria’s program. What, I thought, would happen if we considered the literal meanings of each part of the phrase to examine how life along the coast is transformed and transforming as a result of environmental and socio-political developments.
As always, the narrative evolved gradually, shaped by the objects selected by the exhibition curators. This is the text panel introducing the exhibition:
‘Sea change’ is one of the many expressions introduced to the English language by Shakespeare. It appears in The Tempest as a reference to death – and transformation – by drowning.
This exhibition of works from the School of Art collection explores both the metaphorical and the literal meanings of the phrase.
Today, ‘sea change’ is widely used to suggest moments of upheaval and reorientation. It may denote the end of a personal relationship or a geopolitical shift affecting the lives of millions. Whatever its measurable repercussions, ‘sea change’ is always felt to be profound.
Change may be dreaded or desired. It can mean at once breakdown and a chance for renewal. The storm that wrecks a ship and lays waste to dreams brings firewood to the beachcomber. The engines that turned villages into mill towns also transported workers to holidays by the sea.
Many aspects of modern society were shaped in the Victorian era. Seaside towns like Aberystwyth owed their transformation to the Industrial Revolution. Since then, our coastal communities have continued to adapt. New challenges, from Global Warming to Brexit, lie ahead as Wales is celebrating the ‘Year of the Sea.’
The prints, paintings, photographs and ceramics on display encourage us to consider what we gain or lose through stability and change.
Artists whose works are featured in this exhibition include Jean-Antoine Théodore Gudin (1802–1880), Honoré Daumier (1808–1879), Wilhelm Kümpel (1822–1880), Hans Saebens (1895 – 1969), Carlo Bevilacqua (1900 – 1988), Gertrude Hermes (1901–1983), Keith Vaughan (1912 – 1977), Robert Tavener (1920–2004), Gwyn Martin (1921 – 2001), John Vivian Roberts (1923–2003), Bernard Cheese (1925–2013), Terry Bell-Hughes (b. 1939), Chris Penn (1943–2014), Alistair Crawford (b. 1945), Paul Scott (b. 1953), and Kate Malone (b. 1959).
Curators: Lauren Evans, Gerry McGandy, Mike Kirton, Clodagh Metcalfe, Sophie Mockett, Ivy Napp, John Roberts, and Michelle Seifert; with support from Harry Heuser (text and concept) and Neil Holland (staging and design). Additional assistance by Karen Westendorf
I am grateful for second chances. Following on from the 2017 Royal Academy exhibition “Second Nature,” which Robert Meyrick and I prepared in conjunction with the publication of our catalogue raisonné of Charles Tunnicliffe’s prints, I created a new show exploring the painter-printmaker’s career. “‘To hell with nature!’: A Reappraisal of Charles Tunnicliffe Prints” is on display at the School of Art Museum and Galleries, Aberystwyth University, in Wales, until 12 March 2018.
Poster design by Neil Holland, showing a detail of Tunnicliffe’s The Stuck Pig (1925)
The new show has been curated to highlight four phases of Tunnicliffe’s printmaking career: his student days, in which work on the family farm became the subject of his autobiographical prints; his success as a maker of fine art prints; his second career as an illustrator and commercial artist after the collapse of the print market in the early 1930s; and his ‘decorative’ works featuring birds to whose study he devoted much time after he moved to Anglesey in North Wales. Charles Tunnicliffe (1901–1979) grew up and worked on a farm near Macclesfield in Cheshire. A scholarship enabled him to study at the Royal College of Art in London. Soon after his studies, he gained a reputation and a market in Britain and the United States as an etcher of farming subjects. In 1929, Tunnicliffe married a fellow art student, Winifred Wonnacott. The couple settled in Macclesfield. Although Tunnicliffe enjoyed the theatre and the movies, as his diaries tell us, London never featured in his fine art prints. In middle age, not long after the end of the Second World War, Charles and Winifred Tunnicliffe relocated to Anglesey, where Tunnicliffe became an avid birdwatcher. Today, Tunnicliffe is closely associated with his study of birds and is widely regarded as Britain’s foremost twentieth-century wildlife artist. Towards the end of a career spanning six decades, Tunnicliffe was awarded the Gold Medal of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. It may seem somewhat incongruous that, in an interview published in the Society’s magazine, Tunnicliffe stated:
‘I have shocked quite a lot of people by saying ‘To hell with nature!’ Nature is made to be used, not to be dictator, as far as the dyed-in-the-wool artist is concerned.’
I used this exclamation as the starting point for my exploration of Tunnicliffe’s career. To me, it expresses the frustration of an artist whose pictures are often judged on the strength of their fidelity to nature. Instead, Tunnicliffe’s prints show us nature transformed by culture and outdone by art. They demonstrate their maker’s knowledge of art history, his love of design, and the need to tell his own story. It was printmaking that earned Tunnicliffe his Royal Academy of Arts membership in 1954. By then, however, he rarely produced fine art prints. For decades, Tunnicliffe’s work in various media appeared in magazines, on calendars and biscuit tins. The stock market crash of 1929 had made it necessary for Tunnicliffe to rethink his career. Turning from etching to wood engraving, he became a prolific illustrator. His first project was Tarka the Otter. Anglesey was no retreat for Tunnicliffe. Working on commission, he created colourful paintings he described as ‘decorations for modern rooms.’ He also continued to turn out mass-reproduced designs that promoted anything from pesticides to the Midland Bank. The messages these images conveyed were never the artist’s own. Since the mid-1930s, Tunnicliffe’s work has been appreciated mainly second-hand. Until last year, when Robert Meyrick and I put together a catalogue raisonné of his etchings and wood engravings, Tunnicliffe never had a printmaking exhibition at the Royal Academy. For some of his early prints, we were unable to trace contemporary impressions. The plates, which Tunnicliffe retained, were proofed by School of Art printmaker Andrew Baldwin. Exhibitions like ‘To hell with nature!’ remind us what many histories of twentieth-century art omit in order to sustain their focus on the avant-garde. Tunnicliffe’s career does not fit into the narrative of Modernism. It is a product of modernity. In his work, at least, he never said ‘to hell’ with culture. Pragmatic yet passionate, he made images to make a living.
Put on display like a corpse in a glass coffin, the album in the centre of our gallery at Aberystwyth University is a relic of a bygone era of moviemaking. It features documentarian photographs, production stills, concept drawings and watercolour storyboards.
A page from our album
These images showcase ingenuity, commemorate teamwork, and highlight the efforts of the many artists involved in creating make-believe. They are shown alongside each other in the album to demonstrate how ideas were realised.
Why showcase this album here? Why now? Why bother commemorating the production of a relative commercial failure that, by now, is technically outmoded?
My motivation for staging this exhibition is rooted in a queer identity and a sense of belatedness. Mighty Joe Young – the story of a captured primate exploited for profit and sentenced to death for revolting – affects me with its pathos and its promise of xenophilia triumphant. By accommodating its memorialization in our gallery, I seek to contest notions of cultural relevance and the trivialisation of nostalgic longing as ahistoric sentimentality.
The album defies history by unfolding Joe’s story in fictional time. It captures the film’s production in the sequential order of its narrative, not in the chronological order of its planning and shoot.
Sculpture by Richard Boalch
Conceived in 1945, filmed over a period of fourteen months, and released in 1949, Mighty Joe Youngdid not keep up with the times. Its compassion for the outsider and its indictment of consumer culture is an expression of early post-war idealism.
The exhibition also features 1940s drawings from Disney and Fleischer Studios
Was the right to consume equal to the pursuit of happiness for which GI Joes and Jills had risked their lives? Mighty Joe Young’s climactic orphanage fire suggests otherwise.
The album contains storyboard watercolour paintings by Willis O’Brien
‘Mr. Joe Young,’ as the giant yet gentle gorilla is announced in the credits, stands apart from the Atomic Age monsters of the Cold War era in whose destruction we are encouraged to relish. The menace in Mighty Joe Young is not its title character. Mighty Joe poses no threat to the Average Joe. The enduring, transcontinental friendship of Jill and Joe is proposed as an alternative to the fears and desires that tear us apart.
Perhaps, this is why Mighty Joe Young was not a commercial success. By the time of the film’s release, red-menaced consumers had been conditioned to accept as the new normal what the film fantastically surmounts. The contemporary press called Mighty Joe Young ‘incredible corn.’ A banana peel of discarded values, a throwback like Mighty Joe Young – and an album devoted to its making – can make us mindful of lost chances, and of the biases and restraints operative to this day.
Poster design by Neil Holland using a 1940s concept drawing for Mighty Joe Young
As announced in my previous post, I am staging the exhibition Recapturing ‘Mighty Joe Young’ at the School of Art, Aberystwyth University (see poster for details).
This is my introductory text panel for the show:
From adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe’s “Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841) to the latest installment in the Planet of the Apes saga, non-human primates have played a prominent part in the evolution of motion pictures. Ridiculous and sublime, they act as uncanny doubles of our uncouth selves.
Until well into the 1980s, silver screen simians were often aped by actors in hairy suits. A memorable exception is the original Kong, the uncrowned King of Skull Island. Mighty Joe Young (1949) is one of his descendants.
Joe was brought to life by the creative team responsible for King Kong (1933) and its sequel, Son of Kong (1933). The large volume displayed in the centre of the gallery is Joe’s baby album.
The album commemorates the collaborative efforts that earned Mighty Joe Young an Academy Award for Special Effects. Showing off the tools and tricks of the trade, it contains documentarian photographs as well as drawings and watercolour paintings by Willis ‘Obie’ O’Brien, the film’s ‘Technical Creator.’ The album also records the work of Obie’s apprentice, Ray Harryhausen, whose name became synonymous with pre-CGI fantasy film and stop-motion animation.
The album is on public display for the first time. It was compiled retrospectively, probably by a member of the crew.Along with hundreds of books and journals, it was bequeathed to Aberystwyth University by the film historian Raymond Durgnat (1932–2002), to whose legacy this exhibition pays tribute.
Surrounding the album are posters, promotional materials as well as 1940s concept drawings for animated movies produced by Walt Disney and Fleischer Studios. Also on show are prints by Gustave Doré and John Martin.Their fantastic and awe-inspiring images were precursors of cinematic spectacles. Both O’Brien and Harryhausen referenced them in their work.
As a curator, educator and writer, I aim to promote interconnections between the arts as well as the creative industries and academic disciplines devoted to them. Instead of imposing a context in which our album might be contained, I let it take over the gallery to disclose its stories and open new associations.
The public is invited to shape this evolving display by sharing responses to Joe in animation workshops scheduled during the show’s run. Like the homage in Lego you encounter in our gallery, the videos created in those workshops will become part of this exhibition.
Preliminary poster design by Neil Holland using a 1940s concept drawing for Mighty Joe Young
This fall, I am curating an exhibition featuring a unique album commemorating the production of the 1949 Hollywood fantasy movie Mighty Joe Young. The brainchild of the creative team responsible for King Kong(1933), Mighty Joe Young earned an Academy Award for Special Effects.
The album contains over 100 stills from the film as well as documentarian photographs, drawings and watercolour paintings. It provide insights into the production of Hollywood movies, and in pre-CGI visual effects and the work of the celebrated stop motion animator Ray Harryhausen (1920–2013) in particular.
Ray Harryhausen and Mighty Joe Young
The album has never been on public display before, and little is known about its origins or provenance. Along with hundreds of books and journals, it was bequeathed to Aberystwyth University by the film historian Raymond Durgnat (1939–2002). As a curator, I am keen to recover and display objects of visual culture that encourage us to explore connections between the arts as well as the creative industries and academic disciplines devoted to them. The Mighty Joe Young album tells stories of ingenuity and collaboration, of artistic influences and commercial enterprise. The film, meanwhile, is a story of friendship, a friendship that triumphs over greed and the exploitation of innocence.
Gustave Doré, Leviathan for an 1866 edition of Milton’s Paradise Lost
The work of Ray Harryhausen has long attracted enthusiasts of fantasy and science fiction. Now, there is renewed interest in his artistry. Leading up to the centenary of Harryhausen’s birth, major institutions, including Tate Britain in London, have been staging exhibitions of his drawings and sculptures. Our album has attracted the attention of the Ray and Diana Harryhausen Foundation, who will be giving a presentation in the School of Art galleries on 22 November. We will also hold animation workshops during the run of the exhibition, and the videos created as part of those workshops will be shown in our galleries.
The album will be displayed alongside film posters and promotional materials, as well as production drawings for animated movies of the 1940s. Also on show are prints by Gustave Doré whose sublime and fantastic imagery was a precursor to Hollywood magic and served as an inspiration to Harryhausen. Recapturing ‘Mighty Joe Young’: The Movie! The Memory!! The Make-Believe!!! is on display at the School of Art from 20 November 2017 to 2 February 2018.
I thought that I’d say a few words about the work of the man that brings us together here today – and perhaps about this place in relation to that man.
If Tunnicliffe could be with us today, chances are he wouldn’t be with us. London. The Academy. The artworld. That, he felt, was not his habitat. And yet, we wouldn’t be here if Tunnicliffe had not been elected a member of the Academy – as a printmaker, no less.
Tunnicliffe’s own accounts of his life emphasise his youth growing up and working on a farm. And much of that is reflected in his subject matter.
Tunnicliffe certainly preferred the outdoors to the inside of institutions. He would rather study bulls than listen to what he would have considered to be so much academic BS. And even though he taught art, Tunnicliffe also said he much preferred birds to boys.
All of this fits the romantic view many of us have of the artist as an outsider. Perhaps, it fits rather too neatly. After all, the farm where Tunnicliffe grew up was near Macclesfield – and the signs of the Industrial Revolution were written in the wind.
Tunnicliffe was not removed from the world of industry or commerce. Nor was he resistant to change. Tunnicliffe, who studied at the Royal College of Art in London, owes his career not to any one institution but to his willingness to adapt.
For decades, far from the madmen crowd, Tunnicliffe produced images that served the advertising racket.
His pictures promoted farming products (some toxic), spurious wonder drugs (for dogs) and the Midland Bank. Not exactly the messages of a lover of nature.
The thing is, Tunnicliffe’s pictures were not designed as vehicles for his own thoughts. He made products of visual culture to which messages could be attached by others, at a price, to suit their purposes.
Tunnicliffe also produced book illustrations. Many of his wood engravings – and the many more scraperboard images we are not even showing here – were secondary to a given text, enhancing or supporting it.
By the time he became an Associate of the Royal Academy, in 1944 (and a full member ten years later), Tunnicliffe had ceased to produce so-called ‘fine’ prints. The stock market crash had made it necessary for Tunnicliffe to rethink his career and to find his niche in order to make a living as a maker of images.
Partly as a result of this commodification, Tunnicliffe’s prints were never exhibited in a solo show here at the Royal Academy – until now.
You might well protest that what you see on display here today is not much of a print exhibition, either, given that his wood engravings are displayed alongside cheap reproductions and colourful paintings that might overpower them.
Print curator James Laver said nearly seventy years ago that it was ‘a pity’ that so few visitors to the Royal Academy come to ‘the little room in which the etchings and engravings are exhibited.’ Even those who did come visit had ‘neither the patience nor the strength to appreciate what is on the walls. For prints are intimate things. [They] need individual attention, like shy, sensitive children.’
I hardly think that individual attention span has increased over the last seventy years. And the Royal Academy seems to reflect that, or perhaps give in to it.
What Second Nature does bring across is the compromise that is Tunnicliffe’s work, and the way in which editioned prints and one-of-a-kind paintings compete with multiple copies: images of visual culture in the service of commerce, of advertising and the printed word. The purity or sanctity of art is, after all, little more than the modernist rubbishing of modernity.
As I said, this is Tunnicliffe’s first show here as a printmaker. Tunnicliffe regularly exhibited his watercolour paintings here at the Academy’s Summer Exhibitions, and they always sold. The one solo show he had here was an exhibition of post mortem studies of birds from his personal sketchbook back in the early 1970s.
That show was initiated by the Welsh painter Kyffin Williams, who, like Tunnicliffe and his wife, lived on Anglesey.
Well, the Royal Academy did not know quite what to do with those sketches. It consulted an ornithologist who vouched for their accuracy but also said that he had seen many like them just as accomplished.
The works were arranged according to family, genus and species. In other words, those private studies, which Tunnicliffe lent only reluctantly, ended up portraying him as an imitator of nature.
Choosing a composition, combining pictorial elements and omitting detail – all that was important to Tunnicliffe. His pictures were designed to be decorative, as he called it.
Faithful, decorative, or both at once, Tunnicliffe’s work can easily be coopted by those who say ‘now that is real art.’ Or, ‘when a farmer’s boy can become a Royal Academician, surely there cannot be any talk of inequality.’
Tunnicliffe was pragmatic rather than programmatic. He made images to make a living. But he did not promote a conservative agenda.
Whether you find such a career uplifting or frustrating is a matter of politics. For me, it is intriguing because it confronts me with my own biases. A career like Tunnicliffe’s does not fit into the avant-garde narratives we resort to when we tell or teach the histories of twentieth-century art from modernism to postmodernism, or roughly the six decades during which Tunnicliffe worked professionally.
When I thought about a suitable title for our essay and the exhibition on display here, I set out by looking at what Tunnicliffe said about his work. I somehow wanted him – and his works – to stand on their own and let them do what most of them were not even intended to do – to speak for themselves or, if that is an impossibility, for Tunnicliffe.
I came across a dramatic exclamation. ‘To hell with nature.’ He said that in a nature lover’s magazine devoted to British birds. He said it toward the end of his career. To me, it expresses the frustration of a man whose work is generally judged on the strength of its resemblance to nature. As a kind of second-hand nature.
It would have made for a provocative title, don’t you think? But, even though I would have been quoting him, I would also have taking such a rare public outburst out of the context of a career predicated on compromise.
I wonder what would have happened if Tunnicliffe had dared to say ‘To hell with culture.’ He didn’t. In his work, at least, he did not question the socio-economics that restricted him to serve the market. His earlier work is autobiographical. His family members are worked into his subjects. After the stock market crash, commercial work kept him so busy, there was hardly time for the luxury of self-expression that we perhaps tend to overvalue today.
Tunnicliffe did not make environmental statements. He did not push any agenda. I wish he had. When we look at his work, we should perhaps acknowledge that, whether we perceive this as a lack or not, an apparent neutrality lends itself to being naturalized. A second nature is, after all, culture.
So, is it possible meaningfully to discuss the achievements of printmakers like Tunnicliffe without the politics? I am not sure. But I hope our book – and this exhibition here at the Academy – raises awareness of a printmaker whose work never quite made it into our art histories because it does not fit into the history of twentieth century art, a history that, to suit a grand narrative of progress, we have turned into the history of cultural products that we can lift up or push away as we deem fit.
Our Japanese ‘Merman’ made for a suitable poster boy. Poster design by Neil Holland, based on an idea by Sarah Selzer
Once a year, with the help of the head curator of the School of Art, Aberystwyth University, I stage an exhibition with a group of students who are enrolled in my undergraduate module “Curating an Exhibition.” The shows draw on the University’s vast collection of art and artefacts. The student curators are given a theme and set out to create a narrative by selecting objects in response to it. That is quite a challenge, considering that the exhibition is put together in just over three months from initial planning to display.
Past exhibitions include Untitled by Unknown, Queer Tastes, andMatter of Life and Death. This year, I was all set to use the colour red and its connotations as a theme . . . until the inauguration of Donald Trump and the ensuing dispute about the size of the audience made me see red in a different way. This gave me the idea for a more urgent, topical show.
That show is Alternative Facts: Interpreting Works from the School of Art Collection. It opens on 22 May and will be on display until 29 September in one of the School of Art’s galleries in Aberystwyth, Wales.
The introductory panel explains the theme as follows:
The phrase ‘alternative facts’ is a recent addition to our vocabulary. It has come to prominence in a political climate in which views and actions are shaped more by emotions than by reliable intelligence. Reflecting this shift, Oxford Dictionaries declared ‘post-truth’ to be Word of the Year 2016. And yet, alternative facts are as old as language itself.
The works in this exhibition range from a sixteenth-century woodcut to twenty-first century ceramics. They make statements about religion and war, consumer culture and the media, humanitarian crises and the economy. They contain references to historical figures such as Princess Diana and Nelson Mandela as well as fictional characters such as Mickey Mouse and Moby-Dick.
Using a current catchphrase as its premise, Alternative Facts explores the varied and conflicting functions of material culture: as representations of reality, as social commentary and as propaganda. Political caricatures by James Gillray and Honoré Daumier are exhibited alongside documentarian images by photojournalist Erich Lessing. Autobiographical and self-reflexive sculptures by Claire Curneen and Verity Newman are confronted with the hoax of a sea monster made in Japan. Collectively, these objects raise questions about faith and falsehood, truth-telling and myth-making, authenticity, authority, and freedom of expression.
Alternative Factsalso invites a closer look at the role of curators as trusted interpreters and reliable storytellers. Our readings are not intended to be the last word. The gallery is a forum for discussion.
Curators: Tom Banks, Natalie Downes, Amber Harrison-Smith, Néna Marie Hyland, Brit Jackson, Frida Limi, Dean Mather, Brad Rees, Sarah Selzer, Magda Sledzikowska; with support from Harry Heuser (text and concept) and Neil Holland (staging and design)
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 harlequincostumes 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 Ilook 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.
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)