For over a decade Charles Avery has been serially evolving elements of his imagined island universe. Ten years ago ‘The Islanders’ was a ten-year project, now Avery has accepted that this interminable pursuit might just be a lifetime’s work, resulting in a multi-volume encyclopaedia. For now though, the script is still evolving: characters are still being fleshed out, places drawn and events are yet to be written. The current exhibition at Ingleby Gallery therefore goes but one stage further in bringing a greater sense of ‘The People And Things of Onomatopoeia’, from that world, into this.
As ever, drawing is at the core of how Avery thinks, narrates and makes his conceptual ideas manifest. It is clear to anyone who has been to the Isle of Mull (the artist’s childhood home) and to the principal town of Tobermory, that Avery has been spending a lot of time there. If the island he is creating is a parallel world to our own, the proximity of the two realities has become closer than ever before. In the early drawings the indigenous generation of townsfolk were principally old twisted figures, hunched, haggard and with necks craned: characters whose lives had been spent; ruined on the local delicacy of Henderson’s pickled eggs. Here within the mise-en-scène of Avery’s current series, we encounter adolescence. The town of Onomatopoeia is being reborn and regenerated: the remote place first discovered by pioneers; the boomtown corrupted by trade and excess is now home to a new generation of islanders and tourists alike.
Still, this destination is not just any place – in spite of the infiltration of mobile phones, fashion garments and other trappings of OUR modern life. Its characters remain uncanny: both rendered listless by the soporific power of island life, and yet equally inspirited with palpable attitude. It isn’t just that Avery’s beguiling drawings are so compelling, so vividly characterful. There is a sexual charge in the increasingly heightened and at times disquieting colour palette too. Slumped in packs, fashioning t-shirts with quasi-philosophical slogans: “WE DON’T STAY HERE BECAUSE OF GRAVITY WE STAY BECAUSE WE LIKE IT”, this new youth culture and its intermingling of out-of-towners appear both familiar and yet as enjoyably curious as any of Avery’s creations.
As life and art collide, Avery’s sculptural objects also blur the assimilation of realities. In the centre of the gallery sits a buoy, bucket and length of rusted chain. This island relic is just that, an everyday object scrounged from a fisherman on Mull and re-positioned, unchanged in the gallery as a proponent of another reality. There are t-shirts, tote bags and bits of silver jewellery that can be bought; a means of bringing (and wearing) slices of Avery’s actuality into our own. Where these are in someway illustrative-commodities, located offsite in nearby Waverly Station is a new public artwork commissioned as part of the Edinburgh Art Festival 2015 programme. It too is unquestionably illustrative, but it is a prop, an object taken off the page of Avery’s drawings and transformed into a five metre tall, three-dimensional bronze and acrylic reality.
Purportedly drawn from one of Onomatopoeia’s municipal parks, its title a playful neologism combining the French ‘jardin’ with our own word for such – ‘Tree no. 5 (from the Jadindagadendar)’ is hard to take measure of. Many of Avery’s past sculptures perform due to the combinations they make of actual, recognisable things, subtly manipulated in form. ‘Tree no.5’ possesses none of these hooks; it is entirely other. Avery’s works are best when seen in conglomerations – on mass – here we encounter the work cold, in a context-less setting. Lacking in both familiar likeness, and contextual reference, what we come across is only an imagined sense of otherworldliness, an object from another (un)reality. Alone with the work on the station platform, I too am left a little cold.