Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Giles-Peyton-Thompson ‘Aspects of a Collection’ Craven Museum & Gallery, Skipton 18 January 2011

Another friendly preview at Skipton’s Art Gallery and a fascinating exhibition which rewarded the extra time I spent getting to know it over the evening.

The three artists have spent the previous year in residence at the museum, with a free pass to access the entire museum’s collections. As most people know, only a fraction of a museum’s holdings are ever on display at any one time and museum stores are true Aladdin’s caves as all three of these artists has clearly discovered.

A first glimpse of the resulting work, mostly painting and print, proved a little disappointing. It appeared to be a show entirely made up of simple representations of artefacts from the museum’s collections, kitchen implements, clogs, children’s games and so on. However, as mentioned already, upon closer inspection, an entirely different story emerged.

Joanna Thompson’s work made the most immediate impression. ‘The Relics’ is a series of medium-sized acrylic canvases with peculiar museum objects dangling or placed centrally against an apparently whitewashed wall with torn fragments of garishly patterned wallpaper applied to it. In her blurb she describes how she was inspired by strange-looking, surreal, mysterious objects in the stores, it was irrelevant to her what the function of each object was, instead they began to take on a life of their own. Surreal they certainly were, some of the items began to look like slave chains or instruments of torture with spikes and hinges. Each item was painted as if a strong light was being shone onto it throwing a dark shadow against the white background as if in a horror movie or an interrogation room. A collection of paintings showing giant butterflies pinned through their thoraxes was equally unsettling.

Sarah Giles’ paintings are on a much smaller scale. Again she portrays life-like images of museum artefacts. There is a slight optical illusion, at first sight I believed that she had miniaturised normal-sized objects, a pair of clogs, a set of dominoes, a teapot, however, the museum has helpfully set up a case with some of the objects in nearby and it turns out that the items are in fact as small as they are painted. The illusion has been created by placing each object in a relatively large empty space. As Sarah describes “There is sometimes sadness in the work, a sense of loss, something missing suggested by uncomfortable spaces.” Handling the objects, once loved and played with and now abandoned forever have clearly left their mark on the artist.

Helen Peyton has gone a step further than the other artists in that her work is not only inspired by but also actually made using a museum artefact – a huge 19th century Britannia printing press. Unlike the other two artists, the objects she chooses to illustrate are much more familiar, at least to the older generation of visitor. They are the objects of post-war modernism and prosperity, the Bakelite television, the 1950s gramophone, the enamelled cooker. The muted creams, turquoises and greens of the reduction lino prints are quite beautiful and perfectly redolent of the period. The inks used have produced a shiny surface to some of the prints which harks back to the shininess of the new enamel and formica surfaces of those once modern kitchens, sparkling and clean after the griminess of the coal-heated Victorian kitchen. The butterfly collection has also caught her eye and there are a number of decorative prints showing cut-out silhouettes superimposed one on the other.

So, all in all, an exhibition that is definitely worth a second look. Closer contemplation uncovers the eeriness behind the realism of Giles’ miniature objects surrounded by empty space like abandoned children, lonely and frightened, or Thompson’s quaint curios, turned into instruments of interrogation, hidden in cellars with whitewashed walls and torn wallpaper and unshaded, brightly-burning light bulbs. Peyton’s prints are perhaps the least disturbing with their unashamed nostalgia for the domestic objects of our parent’s youth but even they with their hints of technical drawings, front, side, top and back of the Bakelite television for instance, remind us that the factories that produced these symbols of prosperity so readily, had only a few years before been mass-producing weapons of war.

The exhibition continues until 2 May 2011. Further details here www.cravenmuseum.org

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