Sunday, 25 October 2009

Myth and History at The Bristol Gallery

The Bristol Gallery is an oasis to be found among the pizza restaurants and coffee bars which lie at the foot of the windy walkways of Bristol’s Harbourside development. Their most recent exhibition Myth and History, curated by Dr Dorothy Rowe, presents the work of seven accomplished artists well blended for this ambitious first show.

On entering one is immediately struck by the large, bright and fearless paintings of Lubiana Himid. Each work confidently occupies it’s own space and Lubiana clearly chooses her canvas to suit each piece with instinctive precision. The bold, flat colour that acrylic painting tends to lend itself, is used to backdrop and frame seemingly disparate figures, collage effects and fabric painting. The true outsider in this show, Lubiana’s work takes a contemporary craft feel as if each piece were a table laid out with the results of each investigation. The roots of these expressions however are clearly embedded in her cultural interests and are a conscientious exposition of history, race, slavery and cultural/imperialist manipulation.

Patrick Hains fragile bird sculptures are so lovingly crafted and conceived they invite inspection as if one had discovered the body of a bird on the garden path. The mythology of birds is well documented throughout all cultures and Patrick’s bronze resin depictions draw on a familiar Anglo Saxon traditional heritage yet retain a sense of having been constructed from within the artist’s imagination. As much the result of investigating a storybook or folk tale as an accurate study of the creatures themselves they immediately invoke a feeling of calm contemplation within the viewer and a desire to investigate further. With the book-sized King of all Birds a tiny wren lies like a broken eggshell within a small wooden box. A prize from a traditional hunt, almost certainly pre-Christian in origin, wrenboys would go out just after Christmas to capture the (real at first and then planted) bounty. This piece has the quality of something found within a dusty attic or hidden at the top of grandfather’s bookshelf. Most of these delicate bronze resin castings and displayed on plinths or free standing like the exquisite Bird Branches in which the creatures are pierced by the very branches they live among. Here the use of plinths is a requirement but in the home Patrick’s work seems to want to inhabit a windowsill or corner where it will be quietly discovered.

The large photographic montages of Phil Sayers cry out to be on the edge of this collection yet occupy the centre ground in terms of reference to Victorian and Edwardian interpretations of mythology and feminine aesthetic. This work will always court controversy and knowingly uses this in its conception. One large piece uses the disparaging notes taken from an exhibition guest book all around the border to undermine by inclusion; “Wonderful, apart from the awful transvestite pornography.” for instance. This device was used by Banksy in his recent Bristol Museum show where recorded negative comments from radio interviews about graffiti and vandalism were included within an installation. This is not work to admire easily and the viewer may wonder why the artist feels the need to qualify the heritage of his digital ‘paintings’ yet further by including a reproduction of the original, with accompanying text, next to each piece. Surely it would be more fun to try and place each work and impress your fellow visitor with that knowledge. Sayers work is literally laced with irony yet we somehow feel he may be taking himself a little too seriously. Almost too large to own, the massive digitally printed canvasses are sensibly reproduced in print form and available to the collector who does not possess a room the size of a tennis court in order to take in the whole, and for a fraction of the cost. Nonetheless the curation here is decisive and brave. If Bristol Gallery are to make an impact here of all places then they will need to encourage debate and excite interest in many ways and despite the work of Phil Sayers outraging the senses among the booth-style seats at this quirky end of the gallery his work holds a worthy place among this group.

In the same space, more personal in scale and strongly linked by an affection for staged portraiture the work of Emma Tooth sits confidently alongside the larger works surrounding them. One can see why the blend from ultra-modern technique to these smaller singly focussed renditions in oil works for the hang in terms of content. However, these exacting likenesses may have been somewhat overshadowed by their exuberant gallery partners in retrospect. These intimate portraits, thoughtfully mounted and framed elevate the sitter to the status of nobility or merchant patron and have Rembrandt and the Caravaggio influenced portraitists such as Georges de La Tour at their shoulder. Emma’s contemporizing of the subject within the medium in the way that Plymouth artist Robert Lenkiewicz had exemplified so boldly and may be seen in other of her Concilium Plebis series of which just one example was included here.

It may be the that portrait artists will gain commissions from a show such as this rather than selling widely at the private view but as an observer one may consider the relationship of photographic portraiture and painting more acutely as a result. Of all, Emma’s Self Portrait with Accordion betrays her fondness for the burlesque and decorated persona.

The other sculptor in this show draws on legend and stories but in a more literal and direct fashion. A politicised Icarus has crashed to the ground among the debris of modern urban waste and reveals his wings to be made of spent bullets in the most striking of Deborah van der Beek’s bronzes. Deborah’s references to literature are clear and her previous work as a book illustrator is apparent as her work has the quality of completeness such as one would find in a chapter illustration. An eroded Sancho Panza is here, loping zombie-like and shattered by a nuclear blast and then if re-fragmented as if by some unnatural force. Some accompanying drawings to her work feature Ned Kelly and the resulting bronzes and these sit comfortably alongside Don Quixotte and other characters. Using the cimet fondu sculpting and casting process to create her work Deborah offers a million facets within her pieces for the viewer to enjoy and offer an undoubted challenge for the foundry master.

There is something for everyone within this wide-ranging collection of styles, approaches and techniques – from the high camp drama of Phil Sayers’ work to that which is ultimately countered by the intricate skill and inventiveness of Tina Hill’s book sculptures. Spreading like entrails from an open wound the rippled pages of a book spill over the table top in careful disarray. Pages cut into puzzle pieces and butterfly shapes combine a literal metaphor with a staggering adeptness with the surgeon’s scalpel. The ‘do not touch’ signs attached to these pieces are well placed, for the temptation to gently stroke the leaves of a book rescued from the floor of a defunct Bristol bookseller is almost irresistible. These, although fairly priced are almost too delicate to own unless you were brave enough to let one tumble from your bookshelves. Tina offers commissions and the idea of transforming that book that you’ll never read again but can’t throw away is certainly tempting.

Bristol Gallery’s inaugural show closes with a sublime homage to sensual detail and a pure example of the painters art. Mark Parkinson‘s set of six oil on aluminium square panels glow with quiet luminescence offering the viewer a chance to consider the whole of this show within context. The reproduction of a detail of soft fabric overlaid on alloy somehow encapsulates this exhibition with simple clarity.

Bristol Gallery have thoughtfully combined the work of artists from a variety of disciplines and influences to make a show that is coherent yet surprising. This is just what Bristol needs and I look forward to what’s in store for the coming year.

Marcus FitzGibbon

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