Historically, new artists with a distinctive aesthetic have often emerged in reaction to a previous movement. ‘Annuale 2015’ not only skillfully eludes this tendency to be ‘other than’, but a majority of the works succeed in having a distinctive new aesthetic, while intelligently incorporating an impressive art historical awareness.
Paul Newman’s ‘The Visitation’ (2014) reveals this skillful multiplicity by use of bric-a-brac that in one sense refers to the studio the painting came from, but also has its own ‘role’ as a formal element of a painting installation. The grey wall against which the painting leans also appears to reference the studio by way of contrasting with the white of the rest of the gallery, and to the same effect the painting is notably unframed. The historical references appear numerous but Constable seems unavoidable – the image is a rendition of Constable’s ‘Hadleigh Castle’ (1829), the cable reels on which the painting is casually propped are at once studio props and the wheels of The Haywain’s cart. A charcoal drawing on an opposite wall, ‘Study for a Storm’, Newman (2014) appears to reference the fact that Constable made his painting of Hadleigh Castle from a drawing he had made some years earlier. However, despite all of this art historical grounding, Newman’s painting is fresh, distinctive and pictorially eloquent.
Rafal Zar’s work continues this meaningful dialogue with art history. ‘My Very Dark Lady’ (2014) reduces two urn-like forms in dark blue to a meditative canvas which not only functions with lower light levels, but also retains sufficient figurative capacity to allow reference to the tradition of Virgin and Child paintings in European art.
Similarities with more contemporary works can be seen in Corey Hayman’s ‘Swimming While Black’ (2014). Presented on a screen facing up from the floor, this video piece forces the viewer to look down, as one typically does towards the level of water. Thematically, Hayman is dealing with important subjects and it seems highly appropriate that in the lead-up to a general election, ‘New Art WM Annuale 2015’ includes work dealing with racism and hierarchy.
Not withstanding the impressive art historical awareness evident in this exhibition, there are also universal ways in which the show engages an audience. A number of the pieces allow the viewer to ‘see’ miniature landscapes and townscapes in painted and drawn surfaces.
Matt Westbrook’s collages are an example of this. ‘Tehran’ (2012) and ‘Facility’ (2012) appear at first to be exquisitely presented drawings of selected buildings from a modern city. However, something of the architecture refuses to be familiar enough to be buildings, and something of the lines and shading refuse to be familiar enough to be pencil. Both ‘Tehran’ and ‘Facility’ are collages made from details of machine tools depicted in engineering catalogues. The effect raises interesting questions about why there are common shapes on both micro and macro scales, and whether our willingness to see what we expect should tell us anything about the degree of certainty we feel about our knowledge base.
This exposition of our inner landscapes is also present in the work of Barbara Witkowska. A series of works combine a range of painting materials and techniques with what appears to be a divinatory capacity to create landscapes which are both imaginary and yet ‘of archetypal imagination’. What might be the tiniest spore of fungus might also be a gigantic ancient tree, a vast volcanic chasm may simultaneously be the tiniest water droplet. If Witkowska’s process is in anyway divinatory, what appears to be divined is a lesson to us about our effect on our environment. What is potentially beautiful, can also become apocalyptic and we often project onto what we ‘see’ as much as we take in from what is actually before us.
The role of the imaginary is also apparent in the solid reality of photographs. Vanley Burke is represented by five black and white photographs of stunning formal quality. Yet while all five of these photographs are exemplary of the kind of dynamism Cartier-Bresson called ‘the decisive moment’, they also allow the viewer to effortlessly merge with the kind of hypothetical narrative one would find in so many of Doris Lessing’s novels. This multiplicity of impact is perhaps connected to the fact that the photographs were taken between 1970 and 1991, whereas the other works in this show were made after 2009.
This gap in time is bridged however, by a palpable sense of universality, particularly clear in the paintings of Graham Chorlton. Stretching the tension of semi-abstraction, areas of colour dance into and out from a canvas, as in ‘Marketplace’ (2009) until our eye’s mind allows them to become figurative elements.
As ‘New Art WM’ is a showcase of new and emerging works, one could say that we are seeing now what was the future for the people in Vanley Burke’s photographs. What is more clear, is that while our future looks bleak from an environmental and socio-economic perspective, the quality of work in ‘New Art WM’ is surely indicative of a continued flourishing in British art.