The New Art Gallery Walsall, Gallery Square, Walsall, West Midlands WS2 8LG

Darren Banks: The Raven

The New Art Gallery Walsall

4 December 2014 - 26 April 2015

Review by Christian Luebbert

Within his current show ‘The Raven’ Darren Banks examines the nature of institutional and personal collections and their overlaps around the eclectic life of British sculptor and cult figure Churton Fairman, A.K.A Mike Raven (1924-1997).

In his early twenties, Churton Fairman started an aspiring career as a ballet dancer and photographer. He later worked in theatre as a musician and under stage manager, then as a production manager for early ITV drama programmes. In the sixties he adopted the pseudonym Mike Raven and became known as a London based horror movie actor, pirate DJ and blues pioneer. He broadcasted shows on Radio One and played a starring role alongside Christopher Lee in ‘I, Monster’. Without a word, Fairman moved from London to Cornwall with his wife in the 1970s, deciding to live a life as a sheep farmer and a wood carver, dedicating the rest of his life to art, farming and religion.

Based on long-term research of Fairman’s legacy, Darren Banks re-enacts an unexpected life, which has nearly fallen into oblivion. With a particular sense of humour and playfulness, Banks draws content from his own practice, Fairman’s wood carvings and biography, as well as found objects, placing them alongside a selection of works from the gallery’s permanent collection. One might even sense the installation as a walkable movie set, with its elements becoming protagonists within a fluent conversation, constantly shifting their role and meaning while the visitors pass through.

An introductory scene staged on a pyramid-shelving unit features a golden medallion with the initials “M.R” juxtaposed with a postcard of the painting ‘Venus at Her Mirror’ by Diego Velázquez, which leans against a pile of horror books including Dracula and Frankenstein. A large-scale mirror on the wall next to the pyramid shelf reminds the audience of their own presence and pulls the attention back to the room.

Beyond the curatorial limitations of labeled categories and meanings, the artwork introduces the viewer to a striking approach to non-linear story telling. On one hand, there is the Velásquez postcard: a demure reproduction, with its depiction of a mirror, facing the spectator and Venus at the same time – a symbol for the aspiration of beauty and the relationship between art and reality. On the other hand, there is the actual mirror, which is reflecting the visitors and makes them part of Banks’ installation. Then, there is Dracula, in book form, who cannot see himself in the mirror, much like the experience of the spectator who is part of the circuit of narration but can never be reflected in Velasquez’ painting. Banks’ installation bounces and refracts the visitor through the indexical objects on display, allowing for unexpected correlations between the collection, Fairman, and his alter-ego Mike Raven to emerge.

Rather than a simple biography, Banks’ objects appear to be both actors of Fairman’s story and agents of their own history. Story and history telling merge into a vital flow of interrelations. A sketch by the early 20th century sculptor Jacob Epstein picturing a man holding a rock drill finds its equivalent in one of Banks’ installations. Prominently positioned, Epstein’s studio stool acts as a tripod, a body which props up the head played by Fairman’s Sacrifice sculpture. This construction performs its part as a possessed body channeling Epstein’s famous Vorticist sculpture The Rock Drill. Epstein called this work a “sinister figure of today and tomorrow” and “Frankenstein’s Monster”, which Bank’s calls upon by placing it in dialogue with Fairman’s interest in the occult, religion, art and horror.

Also of concern is Fairman’s interest in sexuality and the role of women in art. Expanding the constellation of artefacts, a poster of Ken Russell’s biopic ‘Savage Messiah’ depicts Henri Gaudier Brzeska wielding a rock drill. The film characterises Brzeska as an eccentric artist who publicly rebelled against common ways of displaying art. This unruliness within institutional constraint points to the previously discussed postcard of ‘Venus at Her Mirror’, within Ken Russell’s film a performer reenacts Suffragette Mary Richardson’s extreme attack on Velázquez’ canvas with a meat cleaver.

Banks’ exhibition design rejects the usual institutional approach. The jazz record ‘You Can’t Sit Down’ by the Phil Upchurch Combo provides a soundtrack, oddly echoing through the classic museum display of the permanent collection. Mirrored plinths emerge from the floor, reflecting the space they occupy, as if the wooden planks themselves rise up to support the objects; everyday items such as a rock, a book by Aleister Crowley, a turntable or even nothing. Even one of Fairman’s idols exists aesthetically on the same plane as a cactus or a kneeling stool. There is an interchangeability, a democracy of forms. However, Fairman’s wood carvings find their way into the exhibition within various versions. In one instance they are displayed among domestic inventory, in another they appear in glass vitrines, and finally they flicker as recorded images on three piled up screens.

In this last piece Banks appropriates Fairman’s wood carvings using horror movie film editing techniques for alienation. A ‘jump cut’ or the ‘dolly shot’ originally used to generate suspense merge Fairman’s work into a new form of sculpture. A two dimensional video inscribed by encircling panning shots now imitates a three dimensional object. With a variety of objects and forms of display, it appears that Darren Banks suggests all things, even the art works of the permanent collection, are equally valid actors.

In ‘The Raven’ Darren Banks explores Churton Fairman’s personal history, unravels it through his own practice and brings it back as a narration through the relationships and transitions between objects. He considers the objects as vessels for our memory and history - vessels that carry knowledge, eager to be shared by fictional and non-linear means, against classical forms of representation. Banks creates a new version of history-telling, leaving gaps for the visitor to intervene. This method proposes an alternative to the traditional collection display it is surrounded by, which is not considered as redundant, but questioned in its nature by suggesting an equally contemporary and historical version.

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