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Monthly Archives: December 2012

An Admission

An Admission

Somewhat unsurprisingly the area around Piccadilly is not one of my usual haunts; the Ritz and the Wolseley being just a tad out of my price range, and even further out of my interest range. Being more of a Camden girl myself, were it not for the lure of David Harkins’ recent exhibition at Bury Street I may never have stepped past that territory of the super-rich, to discover that just beyond is hidden a veritable wealth of artworks, bustling for space in the innumerable galleries which line the back lanes.

I recently found myself squeezed amongst a lively throng inside a single element of this compound treasure trove; a beautifully intimate gallery at 3 Bury Street. Artist, actor, and probation officer, David Harkins’ work is an immediate delight to the inquisitive eye. In terms of physical scale his pieces are relatively small, and so when hung create an astounding aesthetic of contrasting and collaborating imagery spread across the wall like a huge, woven patchwork quilt. A tapestry of individual stories.

Indian Mathematics

Indian Mathematics

Indian Mathematics is instantly reminiscent of Miro, with its deep swirling blues which begin to swallow the splashes of colour above; seemingly dissolving before your eyes into the canvas. The titles add another dimension to the paintings, leading your senses towards a subconscious aspect you may not have explored; their playful suggestiveness mirroring the dreamlike theme running through pieces such as An Admission and Egyptian Headstand, where dominant forms and intricate paintwork create a weave of storytelling. A distinctive thread running through the series is the horizontal line. Drawing the eye across the canvas it moves toward the continuation of the story, past the boundaries of the surface. Within the abstract pieces this linear tool conjures landscape, providing spatial forms which determine a perspective focus for the viewer and work together with other patterns such as the mountainous triangular shapes in Crowns, or Emergency Ponchos.

Egyptian Headstand

Egyptian Headstand

Turning around the room and stretching to place my line of sight above the mass of heads at the opening night, I began to discern a sense of the time spent creating this series of works. A period of exploration seems to come across, of pushing the boundaries of experience and comfort. Indeed, speaking to a fellow observer I was told that David’s previous work is far more abstract. His use of figuration and narrative in this show mark a new period of experimentation where monochrome abounds and materials in collage writhe in and out of the 2D boundaries. However, although the meditative narrative may draw us through lighthearted stories, there are also explicit elements of darkness. The use of the black and white palette and mono-printing technique strips away the detail of other works and returns us to a raw, expressive language. Here the lines reappear, possibly suggesting the bars of a prison in a reference to David’s work as a probation officer. The figures which feature are also noticeably alone and sometimes with explicitly negative emotions, as in The Anxious Man, an astute capturing of melancholy tension.

The Anxious Man

The Anxious Man

David Harkin’s art seems to draw influence from a unique collaboration of various styles. A strong tribal element runs throughout; bold, powerful, colourful and symbolic, yet there are plenty of moments of quiet tenderness, delicately intertwined with the understated storytelling of a thinker, a seer. Humour abounds. Tongue-in-cheek motifs use the force of simple production and dark satirical undertones to create powerful impact in works such as A Saint in Wolf’s Clothing. I clearly wasn’t the only one to have been absorbed into David’s brushstrokes and collages. As the stickers flew on and the works flew off the walls, I thanked my lucky stars I had been quick enough to grab Crowns, my first (and undoubtedly favourite) Christmas present of 2012. Pressing my way through the crowd towards the exit, like Indiana Jones having acquired his fought-for treasures, I knew this would not be the last I saw of David Harkins. I think I can guarantee the same for you.

A Saint in Wolf's Clothing

A Saint in Wolf’s Clothing

Emergency Ponchos

Emergency Ponchos

Seeking: Everyday I

Seeking: Everyday I

Doors (For Ghosts)

Doors (For Ghosts)

The Piano Player

The Piano Player

Abacus (one daily)

Abacus (one daily)

River Among Trees

River Among Trees

Bird on a Wire

Bird on a Wire

For more information on David’s work see his website here

Photographs by Alex Bamford 

John Everett Millais – Mariana 1851. Image courtesy of Tate

I am indeed a person of fairly strong opinion (to put it mildly). Certainly not closed minded, but generally responding to visual art instinctively. Liking or not liking. Interested or not. The Pre-Raphaelites at Tate Britain has caused me to buck that trend. To discover appreciation and excitement for something wholly unexpected, which must be one of the most rewarding means of discovery. It was this which I experienced as I herded my way around the exhibition at a (not very) private view at the Tate.

I must admit I knew very little of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. I have come across many of their paintings as individual pieces, but never happened to look at the group as a whole. The first room serves mainly as an introduction, linking with contemporary precedents such as William Dyce’s King Josh Shooting the Arrow of Deliverance, 1844. It’s bold clarity could be seen as using the subject as a vehicle for the painting of the figures and is in stark contrast to Lorenzo Monaco’s Adoring Saints 1407-9, sat firmly at the opposite end of the spectrum of influence.

William Dyce – King Joash Shooting the Arrow of Deliverance, 1844. Image courtesy of Fine Art America

Lorenzo Monaco’s Adoring Saints 1407-9

The Pre-Raphaelites emerged at a time of dissatisfaction with the industrial era. A group of like-minded painters who met regularly to discuss political and artistic climate and to practise their craft. A selection of individual portraits of the group in room one give an impression of a close, intellectual clique, bright-eyed and passionate. As a woman standing behind me put it, ‘a rather incestuous looking group’. The group went on to weather a number of internal storms, much centred around the loss and acquisition of each other’s wives. Tales of romantic drama can be loosely traced through their work, such as in The Order of Release, 1746 where we see Millais using Effie Ruskin (later to leave John Ruskin and become Millais’ wife) as a model.

John Everett Millais – The Order of Release, 1746. Image courtesy of Tate

Aside from group politics, the Pre-Raphaelites’ artistic aims were to hark back to a time of simplicity and beauty, an era before commercialism and huge industry had dulled the senses of the nation. They deliberately rejected the idealised representative narrative; the tale of military might or the glorification of god through idealised beatific figures and faces. The group believed deeply in the the realistic portrayal of the human figure; their grief, agony and pain. Their love, passion and sex. To deny the truth of humanity is surely an affront to the god you believe created you in his image? It appears the Pre-Raphaelites believed so, and went on to shock those who believed otherwise. That eternal section of the art world who will forever be offended.

The group resurrected medieval styles, using great swathes of pattern throughout the paintings and imbuing them with rich, explicit colour. The treatment of the medium was in itself seen as shocking, which seems strange considering the high-esteem in which society held great masters such as Michelangelo, himself an advocate of luminous hues. It is perhaps more likely that the colour was considered insulting in addition to the perceived sordid treatment of the subject itself; enhancing the vulgarity of images such as Millais’ Mariana, 1856, which showed a female figure in an un-idealised pose, pushing her hips forward with erotic undertones.

Their desire for naturalistic representation fed through literally and metaphorically into their art, as they embraced unconventional settings amongst gardens and woodland. The group would spend much of their time outdoors, painting from real life rather than in a studio, dedicated to capturing a true likeness of the world around them; a pre-cursor to the Impressionists who were to come later. They travelled widely, particularly to grapple with the landscape of religious subjects, in which they portrayed the subjects as explicitly human, eliciting strong protest from high-profile critics such as Charles Dickens, who accused Millais of out and out blasphemy for painting Mary as ‘horrible in her ugliness’ in Christ in the House of His Parents (The Carpenter’s Shop) 1849-50.

John Everett Millais – Christ in the House of His Parents (‘The Carpenter’s Shop’) 1849-50. Image courtesy of Tate

The Pre-Raphaelites insistence on challenging society’s conventions on what art should be (particularly attempts to gloss over human flaws in representation)  resonated deeply with me. Their belief in the beauty of reality; that deliberately false vision is not beautiful but dull and meaningless, is something we would do well to realise in these days of airbrushing, plastic surgery and advertising. There is no true emotion, no true feeling in idealism. Attempting to deny what is visually true only serves to rob us of a layer of humanity we seek to ignore; age, disability, asymmetry etc. It seems to me we are due a Pre-Raphaelite resurgence – bring it on. In the words of those Groove Armada – “If everybody looked the same, we’d get tired of looking at each other”.

Ford Maddox Brown - The Pretty Baa Lambs, 1851. Image courtesy of Tate

Ford Maddox Brown – The Pretty Baa Lambs, 1851. Image courtesy of Tate

William Holman Hunt - The Scapegoat, 1854. Image from Wikipedia

William Holman Hunt – The Scapegoat, 1854. Image from Wikipedia

John Everett Millais - A Huguenot, on St. Bartholomew's Day, Refusing to Shield Himself from Danger by Wearing the Roman Catholic Badge, 1852. Image from Wikipedia

John Everett Millais – A Huguenot, on St. Bartholomew’s Day, Refusing to Shield Himself from Danger by Wearing the Roman Catholic Badge, 1852. Image from Wikipedia

Henry Wallis – Chatterton, 1851. Image from http://www.echostains.wordpress.com

rossetti_ladylilith_Tate

Dante Gabriel Rossetti – Lady Lilith, 1866–68. Image courtesy of Tate