Traces and Testament

July 14, 2010

My latest serious piece of writing was for the artist Chantal Powell.  The following is an essay written for the catalogue to accompany her first major exhibition:

Chantal Powell: Traces and Testament

The work of Chantal Powell contains one of the key elements of good art in that while it is intensely personal in terms of its creation, it is also open to a range of interpretations by the viewer.

Many contemporary artists seem intent on producing willfully obscure work that is deliberately designed to baffle its audience. Whilst in many respects this is understandable as the artist is perhaps interested in making the viewer take theoretical and aesthetic leaps into the unknown, it often results in work that is inaccessible and impenetrable, leaving the viewer either cold or bemused.

Powell’s work counters this approach, without losing anything in terms of the intelligence and expertise bound up in its planning, research and creation. The work on display in this exhibition demonstrates a consistent approach from the artist, both in terms of the selection of the materials used and the execution of the final piece.

She is an artist that takes the idea of a found object as a starting point, which through careful consideration and the addition of subtle details, she transforms and infuses with an alternative meaning.  There is a long-standing tradition of the use of found objects within art – indeed there are several sub-genres of the form.

Arguably the most notorious example of these is the ready-made, which involves the presentation of seemingly banal objects as art. The key work in this vein was The Fountain (1917) by Marcel Duchamp, which consisted of a standard porcelain urinal presented as art.  The only addition to the work was a signature by Duchamp using the pseudonym ‘R.Mutt’. Although there is clearly a humorous side to this piece, Duchamp saw the work as an aesthetically provocative act, one that questioned the function of art and the notion of taste.

There are echoes of Duchamp’s work in Andy Warhol’s Brillo Boxes (1964), which although on first impression appear to be standard cardboard boxes, are in fact handmade replicas of the original. Ready-mades appear to celebrate the banal, yet somehow question the role of an artist. It suggests that there is an inherent arrogance in the artist, as if everyday objects are transformed by the simple act of coming into contact with creative genius.

In contrast, the artist’s ego is clearly the least of Powell’s concerns. Rather than defining the pieces as ‘ready-mades’, her work would be more accurately aligned with the notion of ‘assemblage’, that is the use of non-traditional materials that are assembled to form an artwork. Her working process involves the selection of existing, often vintage objects that she then works on in order to create a new situation.

Before considering the work itself, it is interesting to focus on the found objects that she has selected. Whether utilising cabinets, cigarette cases, embroidery, lockets or commemorative boxes, there is a consistency in the selection of the raw material, both in terms of their quality as objects in their own right but also in relation to her individual artistic aesthetic.

Powell’s visual sensibility embraces a wide range of elements, drawing upon Victoriana, found photography, postcards, illustration and traditional crafts.  In terms of artistic influence, it is interesting to consider the work of Joseph Cornell (1903-72). Cornell was a key exponent of assemblage and much of his work is assembled from prints, photographs and objets trouves (found objects). He is best remembered for his series of boxes and cabinets, in which he presents ephemeral elements in juxtaposition.

Much of his work refers to the Victorian fad for collecting and in particular the idea of the ‘Cabinet of Curiosities’, in which the wealthy would present the spoils of their travels from across the world. These cabinets would contain art collections, archeological finds, geological objects, religious artifacts and examples of exotic taxidermy. Cornell was himself influenced by the surrealists, and in particular their juxtaposition of seemingly unrelated objects to create new meaning.

Whilst the cabinets that Cornell produced may have been an influence on her work, Powell demonstrates real versatility in terms of the media that she employs and she is not afraid to branch our into new ways of expressing herself. Examination of her career so far tells us that just as each piece is thoughtfully realised, she also gives careful consideration to the next direction in her work, which is a skill in its own right. To have a consistency of vision is a rare quality in an artist.

Like many established artists (Cornell included), Powell does not come from a traditional art school background, which is clearly of interest. A key influence on her decision to create art was her PhD in Psychology, which focused on commitment and sacrifice in romantic relationships.  Whilst a thesis satisfied her curiosity to some extent, its findings led her to think that there could be a visual outlet for her research. In many ways, as a psychologist she is ideally suited to creating work that resonates in the mind.

Many of the themes that she explored in her research clearly inform her work, particularly subjects such as relationships, communication between couples, romantic expression and the mementoes associated with marriage. Works such as Things Left Unsaid (2010), which consists of ring boxes bound with gold thread, point towards the effect of time on a marriage. The fact that boxes have deteriorated could refer to the effect of time on the physical and interpersonal relationships. The effect of the twine is particularly striking, as it suggests there is a reason to keep the boxes closed, perhaps due to secrets that cannot be shared.

The work Untitled (2009), which consists of a cast iron bed replete with peacock feathers, can also be construed as a comment on relationships, although as with much of Powell’s work, the exact nature of the liaison we are considering is left to our imagination.

One interpretation of the work could be that the vivid feathers refer to the excitement of the early stages of romantic love, something that is underpinned by the harder, colder periods that inevitably occur during a marriage or long term relationship. The beauty of this work is that without a full explanation from the artist, the work could also be construed as referring to a forbidden affair or secret liaison.

This is not to suggest that romantic relations are her sole concern. Other pieces that she has produced relate to themes surrounding time, dreams, and memory. A particularly striking work is Fragile (2009), which represents a subtle departure from the main body of her work in that it employs a glass box. In less skilful hands this would be in danger of being perceived as a parody of a museum display, but with the addition of some simple illustrations of birds, Powell gives the viewer a motif that prompts us to consider a range of concepts, including notions of beauty, the idea of safety (both in early life and adulthood) and the idea or myth of, freedom.

Childhood is another area that interests her, both in terms of it being a magical time of life and one that as adults, we often yearn for. The piece Wonderland (2009), for example creates an atmosphere of wonder that children will love, yet adults will identify with, perhaps with an awareness of the passing of time. The ability to create multiple atmospheres and meanings around her work is what lies at the heart of her talent as an artist.

Traces and Testament marks an interesting point in Powell’s career. It presents us with an insight into her work to date, allowing us to trace her confident progression and growing ambition. It also gives us the opportunity to view two recent pieces, Siren (2010) and Remnant (2010), works that suggest a new direction, indicating that she may be moving away from smaller, more intricate works to larger pieces. The opportunity to view these works together confirms that there is a consistency to her aesthetic, which is one that is sophisticated, delicate and heartfelt.

Link to show:

Len Spragg’s Caravan

May 18, 2010


The following is an introduction to a forthcoming photography exhibition. I was asked by the Photography Department at The University of Wolverhampton to write a short essay about the show.  As ever, feedback welcome!

What are you looking at?

This is an exhibition with a curious back story. Multiple stories in fact. What you see before you is a small selection of photographs by Hubert Wallace Redfearn. Don’t be surprised if you haven’t heard of him – the curators of this exhibition hadn’t either until they were approached to examine his vast collection of 35mm slides.

On an initial viewing this collection of family snaps is much like many others, documenting holidays, home life and everyday family events. However, Redfearn was so prolific in his photography that he was to amass a collection of over of 1500 slides during his lifetime.

When this collection was passed to Dean Kelland (he is related to Redfearn by marriage), he was struck not only by the sheer volume of photographs, but also by the variety and oddness of much of the subject matter. He felt that this was a collection that deserved to be examined further.

Rather than bring his own experience and knowledge of Redfearn’s life and family to the collection, he felt that it would be interesting to engage people with no prior knowledge of the photographer’s identity.

By passing the collection to Mairi Turner and Catherine Fuller, who have both worked with domestic family imagery within their own respective practices, it was transformed from a family archive to the status of ‘found photography’. With no personal connection to the subjects, personal geography and locations in the photographs, the curators were able to assess them with a fresh, unmediated eye. They would have no agenda or pre-conceived ideas about the visual content.

The concept of found photography is one that is gaining increased recognition in the time of digital photography, perhaps because the idea of a photograph as an object to be collected seems to have passed. Yet the value of the anonymous image has long been recognized.

Many contemporary artists have used found photographs, either as inspiration for their work or directly as part of the finished artwork. In fact, there are several sub-genres of found photography in existence.  The painter Gerhard Richter has amassed huge collection of found and personal photographs that he organized into Atlas, an archival collection that is divided into visual themes. Available online and in book form, this collection has formed the source material for a large number of his paintings.

Similarly, Francis Bacon often used found images for inspiration, sourcing ideas from medical textbooks, newspapers and magazines. He often only focused on one aspect of these largely anonymous photographs, but these details were often crucial to the finished work.

Artists such as Tacita Dean utilise found photographs in a more direct manner. In her work Floh, she presents the viewer with a collection of found images that span the history of photography of the last century. What is interesting about the collection is that they are presented as they are found, with no explanation from the artist. The viewer is therefore presented with a challenge – should he/she try to discern a link between the images, examining the artist’s intention – or should they reach their own conclusion about the work?

Another well known work is the book In Almost Every Picture #2 by Erik Kessels. The book is made up of a series of photographs depicting the same woman sitting in the passenger seat of a Mercedes. The only variation in the images is the various Alpine scenes in which they are located. Kessel gave little explanation regarding the images, other than the fact that they were passed to him by a student. The strangeness of these images were later partially explained when it later emerged that the woman in the photographs was disabled and that her husband was the photographer.

In addition to purely artistic applications for found photography, there has in recent years a growing interest in the wider phenomenon of the genre on the internet. A well known proponent of this is Found magazine, a publication that invites readers to submit photographs notes and other ephemera that they have discovered. The site takes the idea of anonymous photography into the digital age. Using filesharing software, the site presents digital photographs taken from computers all over the world. The results are jarring, humourous and at times voyeuristic. The lack of a commentary on the images somehow makes them more interesting.

The photographs selected for this exhibition are presented here in a condition that is as close to their original state as possible. No cropping, digital manipulation or other alteration has taken place, aside from their enlargement for viewing in the gallery.

The reasons for their selection are various, but elements of the chosen photographs clearly spoke to the curators.  Overriding themes that emerge from the images are those of family, community, leisure and work. But these broad headings seem to be a simplification when compared to the feelings and shared memories they evoke.

As well as documenting interpersonal relations in an extended family, the photographs unwittingly document entire eras of interior design, fashion, leisure and consumer aspirations. They present us with details of a bygone age – smoking at work, long-lost cars, formal meals, clashing textiles – yet they also perhaps provide some comfort.  If the period details of the photographs provide a glimpse into an unfamiliar time, the basic arenas in which they were taken remain the same as the majority of today’s digital photography: home, the workplace and leisure.

What we as the viewer take from this exhibition will differ depending on our own experience. For some it will evoke memories of their own background, yet others may find the selection hard to relate to. But whilst the photographer is anonymous to us all, the scenes he presents are strangely familiar.

I recently discovered a memory card for a long defunct mobile phone. When I finally worked out how to view it, I found that it held photographs of my son taken on the day he was born. How many millions of images are doomed to lay lost or dormant in the digital age? Perhaps the decline of the photograph as an object may see the current generation of artists turning to memory cards, data sticks and hard drives for their inspiration.

See also:

The world needs more Lerts

February 20, 2010

There’s something heroic about this.

I have driven past this semi-aggressive notice hundreds of times on my way to work and I have to say that it never fails to raise my spirits. It’s almost perfect in its failure.

It may be the supreme confidence in which the ‘NO PAR’ section is executed, as if the signwriter (and I feel that he or she should be elevated to that status for this work alone) felt they were on an unbeatable roll. It was, at that stage, their version of the Hollywood sign. The world was at their feet.

Or perhaps the bold, huge letters were painted in pure anger, as if one person too many had parked inconsiderately in spaces adjacent to their retail premises. Damn them all, it wasn’t going to happen again! This was painted rage.

I have also imagined the pure horror and blind panic that went through the artist’s mind when they realised that they were running out of space, literally running out of wall.

But in the long run, I feel that this small creation stands as testimony to man’s determination in the face of daunting odds and sheer ridicule. The fact is, they pressed on with the rest of the word, the ‘kin’ bit. But even then, tougher times were ahead – just look at that G. It’s barely recognisable as such.

One interpretation of the sign could be that it is a visual metaphor for human life – we start off bold and fearless, then doubt and fear creep in as we attain adulthood. Finally, towards the end, our life is often extinguished with a whimper and the realisation that we are insignificant in the wider context of human history.

Welcome to my world. Next up, a semiotic exploration of the hidden politics and sexual subtext that surround the formation in which people put their binbags out on the pavement the night before collection.

Everybody’s clever nowadays

February 15, 2010

Byker is a photobook by the Finnish photographer Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen. To me it has all the elements of great art – it is in turn humourous, dark, life-affirming and deeply touching. Konttinen came to England to study film-making and although she was originally based in London, she moved to the Byker area of Newcastle in 1969.

The book is a product of the twelve years that she spent there and it as much a social document as it is an artwork. The 1970s saw a proliferation of British documentary photography and the medium became, in many respects, a political occupation, albeit with aesthetic intent. Photographers were giving a voice to those who are marginalised or simply forgotten (For example Shirley Baker, who documented the compulsory demolition of working class areas of Manchester). 

Konttinen’s work appeals to me because it has authenticity, largely due to the fact she chose to live in the area that she photographed. Whilst she would always be an outsider because of her nationality, it gave her an objectivity that perhaps wouldn’t be present if she was born and bred in Byker. But one of the many roles of an artist is highlight the beauty in places where people see none.

An intriguing aspect of the work is the way in which Konttinen interweaves words with the images. In selected parts of the book she includes conversations or monologues from residents, an atmospheric approach that really brings the people to life. The speech she includes is heavily accented and punctuated by slang but it provides a brilliant window into the everyday life of the area. In less considered hands this may have been construed as condescending but it is an amazingly heart-warming work.

Photobooks tend to have a standard approach, normally featuring an artist’s statement followed by a daunting and somehow intentionally impenetrable academic essay. By recording the thoughts, speech patterns and worldview of the people, the book creates a fantastic sense of atmosphere and it documents a community that has long since disappeared: much of the area was later bulldozed in the name of redevelopment.

I have been working in Art & Design for the last decade and when asked to name my favourite artists, I don’t struggle for answers. But rather than produce a list of names, I think it would be interesting to share some images and perhaps explain what attracts me to them. Some will be big names, others upcoming artists who haven’t received much attention.

George Shaw is Coventry-born artist who specialises in landscapes, although the subject matter is non-traditional. His early work depicted buildings and urban scenes from the Tile House Estate in Coventry where he grew up. Following his early exhibitions, much was made of his use of Humbrol paint (normally used to paint Airfix models) to realise his work, but I have always felt that this is a minor detail that only serves to detract from his intentions.

What struck me about the paintings has always been his unusual choice of subject matter. Aside from some of his early work, there are no people in his paintings, just renderings of drab environments – pub car-parks, concrete underpasses and badly maintained playing fields. I suppose many would view them as depressing, but there is a depth to his images that made me want to explore his motivations. I am particularly interested in the reasons for selecting the particular locations he paints.

A key reason why I was intrigued by his work was the fact that his images seem to be lifted directly from the area that I grew up in. His rendering of early seventies pubs, short cuts behind garages and vandalised playgrounds could have easily have been drawn from the estates I used to explore (although I must point out that Kingswinford is hardly a ghetto). I think it’s easy to forget that when you are a child, your geographical boundaries are very restricted – but a by-product of this is that you form an intense memory of the spaces within which you move.

Until I looked at Shaw’s work, I think the nearest cultural touchstone I had to refer to, that reminded my of my environment, was Gavin Watson’s book Skins, which is a photographic book that focuses on the Skinhead movement. With that publication I was perhaps interested in the urban environment depicted in the book as much as the early Eighties movement that it documented.  I was never a skin – more of a Two-Tone/Soulboy during that period (when I was nine-ish), but their influence was huge, threatening but also familiar. 

In Shaw’s  work, the idea that he was rendering such familiar-looking scenes rendered in a painstaking fashion was something that appealed to a feeling that I have always had – that anything has value and that every environment has a meaning, however harsh it may seem.

One of the over the overriding feelings his work creates – particularly when you see them in a gallery setting – is a sense of tension and unease. The lack of human figures in the works could be construed as a device to create a sense of loneliness, as the viewer seems to experience the locations in a solitary way. But fundamentally I feel that people are essential to his work, in that each painting contains human traces – whether it is via graffiti, damage or a path worn by feet.

Another aspect of the work that interests me is the idea of the encroachment of people into nature. The area I grew up is a kind of hinterland between the huge West Midlands conurbation and the countryside – and where the two meet it is not normally attractive. But there are elements of beauty in these urban woods, as well as a sense of danger and secrecy. I’m probably not alone in remembering the kind of characters that are attracted to these areas (such as a man we called The Coat Man. He used to hang his coat on the branch of a tree and then ask us if it was ours. He also brandished a knife at us on one occasion. We thought he was harmless but there you go).

Shaw is interesting as an artist in that he also writes, which is fairly uncommon. I own one of his books, which contains no images and although fairly unstructured (much of it was written in the kind of pubs his work depicts) it forms an ideal companion to his art. He has a strong obsession with cultural iconography, particularly British popular culture and in this respect I think keeps good company with figures such as Morrissey and the filmmaker Shane Meadows.

I’ll say this for him, he has catholic taste. This is Shaw on his youthful aspirations “I couldn’t decide whether I wanted to be Jimmy from Quadrophenia or John Everett Millais … or Francis Bacon … the list was endless and I couldn’t decide which messiah to follow. All I could really do was draw quite well.”


More on Shaw


Anyone with a surface knowledge of the footballer George Best will probably recall the two defining elements of his life – namely football and alcohol. But I have always felt that there is more to his story, that there was somehow a deeper reason behind how he chose to live, or rather how life happened to him.

I’ve always had the impression that he was a man who was somehow bemused and confused by life, as is often the case when someone is blessed with a pure talent. It can somehow become a curse – when you are not engaged in using that talent, what defines you?

As a young boy, whenever I heard people speak his name, it was often followed by a reverential sigh, as if they were speaking of a saint or a departed statesman. His was one of the names that resonated with me as I grew up (alongside others such as Lennon and McEnroe). Despite the fact I was too young to see him play, I somehow knew that his was a rare gift. As the years passed I saw clips of him in action with Manchester United and Northern Ireland and everything fell into place.

It may sound strange but this post isn’t really about his talents as footballer, although they were clearly in realms of the supernatural. It is a well-trodden line to say that he was the first superstar footballer. The intertwining combination of his skill and dark good looks meant that he was attractive to both sexes in equal measure.

The received opinion is that he squandered his talent early and spent the rest of his life on a continuous round of alcoholic binges and disastrous relationships. I won’t defend his choices in life and cannot hope to comprehend why alcohol had such a hold on him. But I feel that it is easy to write him off as someone who disregarded his innate ability in favour of a hedonistic lifestyle.  His relationship with the world and people in it were far more complex than that.

Many people overlook the fact that he was essentially a very shy man, which seems a contradiction when one considers the sporting arenas that he graced and the masculine environment that his talents seem to effortlessly dominate. Intense public focus was inevitable; some thrive on it of course, but I feel that Best never really wanted a part of that. 

It is true that he benefitted from his fame as he became caught up in a whirlwind of external interests led by opportunist investors. A mini-industry grew up around his name and he fronted a range of questionable campaigns, including flogging sausages for long-forgotten brands and ‘gentlemen’s grooming aids’ (the strangely named Fore! range) that presumably, if the low-grade advertising was anything to go by, smelt like horse piss. He even opened his own Manchester boutique, selling mod-influenced menswear that has gained a cultish following in recent years .  

At this point it may be worth pointing out that, in a rather circuitous and convoluted way, I am working towards the relevance of the photograph above. It features the house that Best had built on the outskirts of Manchester, a bachelor pad that was designed to be a retreat from the pressures of public attention.

Despite its sleek, modernist appearance, it was to become impossible to live in.  In fact, Best came to hate the place, describing it as a ‘madhouse’.  Some of the reasons for this are comical, such as the fact that it featured state-of-the-art electronic blinds that repeatedly opened at awkward moments (such as when he was walking around naked). But the main reason he left the house was that its location soon became well known and he was plagued by fans.

To me, the house acts as a kind of metaphor for his life. He was in many ways a deeply private man and had a need to escape from a public attention that he simply didn’t understand or desire. His early retirement from football was related to his disillusionment with the game and having won every major honour open to him at the age of 27, perhaps he felt there was nothing else to prove. But perhaps in the end, he may also have felt that he had nowhere to go.