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New Street Gallery, Penzance, August 2008
Submersive Figures, at the New Street Gallery, Penzance, is the second of series of exhibitions by a group of artists who were originally brought together as part of the second Spontaneous Combustion show in St Ives in 2007. As Jo Forsyth described at the time: 'between commercially driven work and the state funded activities (in Cornwall) there exists a vast cavern of overlooked outpourings of creative expression of which this exhibition is a small part'.
The implication was that these artists are neither making populist (commercially driven) nor elitist (state-funded) art. Instead they are doing something else, somewhere in-between.
The group’s work is varied in style, medium and technique. The media
used include those of modern craft-based art practice, including studio
ceramics, sculpture using recycled materials, painting on canvas,
print-making and textile-based work. The emotional content is a strong
element in the work art and in some, but not all, of the artists there
is a strong sense of the postmodern in the re-use and recycling/ appropriation of familiar cultural iconography, scrap material and bricolage.
This is consistent with the group’s common interest in the creative
spontaneity found in outsider art. Another common ground is that all the pieces are hand-made by the artists
At the centre of another monoprint is the logo of the Playboy bunny, surrounded by handguns, sub-machine guns and nudie models. The rabbit is a pre-Christian fertility symbol appropriated by a major corporation to promote commercialised sex. Here the bunny occupies the picture surface like a Beast from Revelation. In Playboy magazine, nudie images are mechanically reproduced, highly glossified photoshopped airbrushwork. Here they’re a hand-drawn one-off, drawn on a perspex sheet in printing inks then rolled under an etching press onto high rag content art paper. In rhinestone-cowboy colours, their outlines sink into the thick paper, degraded from the hyper-real.
A softer version of Americana inspired
English pop artists in the 1950s to imagine an escape from the gloom of
the British establishment, embracing the new vibe of individualised
consumer culture and rock’n’roll. As we enter the 21st century, these
symbols no longer mean the glamour of “America” but instead imply a
globalised totality of some sort of Armageddon.
In the front window are some other small pieces this time in slipcast earthenware glazed in cobalt blue. A collage of retro bric-a-brac, blue angelfish, cherub supporting a chalice, blue curlicues of waves, snorkling putti, bathroom trinkets, fish-shaped ornaments, soapdishes, bubble baths and toothbrush holders, the sort of thing that would make Bernard Leach spin in his grave. The scale is sort of introverted; the uniform blue glaze drowns out the form, making it appealing to the type of person who collects cobalt blue pottery. Styles’ work suggest complicity rather than innocent craft-making, she points out that cobalt blue is “the colour of deep oceans, expensive because it is mined in war zones, historic because it has be used for centuries and traditionally signifies the top end of the ceramic market place”.
In Jo Forsyth’s Whirlygiggle Chess Set, primordial life forms replace feudal heraldries. The pieces are recognisable, but transformed into squiggly sea creatures, orange and yellow snails and worms with black heads. The board itself is tiled in coral colours of orange and yellow with wavy edges, as if it’s the bottom of a swimming pool. In Sue Dove’s piece gestural drawings are woven into rugs, facial features worn like doormats, mugshots in cross-stitch, clothing becomes boats, boats become bathtubs, ragdoll faces smeared in oil. Are they waving or drowning?
Penny MacBeth’s work (right
below) seems to contain some sort of poetic narrative
constructed by fragments of text: visual puns, associations of objects
and painting, fabric print, textile collage, ceramic relief heads and
acrylic resin bubbles.
In 'Blood is Thicker Than Water', an installation of fifteen small
canvases are used like
comic strip frames, with fragments of portraits,
text clipped from newspapers, ransom note style, over acrylic renderings
of fabric print and wallpaper patterns. Ancestral portraits traced from
photos in old family albums, linked by scarlet fabric tendrils to a
dressmaker’s dummy wearing a white dress with images and texts on
textile. Canvas as something you wear. Ancestral bonds red roots bound
in red fluffy wool. Muslin skirt lit from underneath with tiny red fairylights.
The show is light on theory and has a tendency towards whimsy and stating the bleeding obvious, which somehow makes it enjoyable. My main criticism would be; it doesn’t go far enough, there's not enough of it, it needs to be more excessive. I get the feeling that there may be something more profound going on at a submerged level. I sense a disturbing undercurrent which is to do with the specific socio-economic circumstances and historical background of art made in Cornwall. Hopefully this will emerge in a more monstrous form in forthcoming shows by the group.
Nigel Ayers 20/8/08