Sunday, 4 October 2009

Art Holiday - Part Two

Kettles Yard in Cambridge is a small gallery and house just outside the centre of the city. The house was knocked together from three old cottages, with a further extension added later, by the art collector and former curator of the Tate Jim Ede. He lived here with his wife Helen from 1958 to 1973. His art collection hung upon the walls, part of the usual furnishings and objects of daily life. The house was opened as a gallery whilst they still lived there and remained as it was after they had moved out. It offers a unique opportunity to view works of 20th century art in a sympathetic domestic setting. The abstract works, in particular, seem to really gain from being juxtaposed against the domestic objects and ornaments, which are in themselves often things of beauty. The spiral of pebbles on the circular wooden table, graded according to a chiaroscuro scale of grey, have been adopted as a kind of house logo. The adjoining purpose built gallery shows temporary exhibitions, some retrospective and some by contemporary artists, as well as hosting concerts of chamber music and jazz.

We’ve been here on many occasions, but this time the current exhibition followed through on its promise to turn things ‘Upside Down/Inside Out’. The house where Ede’s collection normally hangs was given over to ‘interventions’ by artists who had exhibited over the past 14 years, thus giving it something of a ‘best of’ flavour. This idea was particularly effective if you were familiar with the usual arrangement of the contents of the house, as these changes disrupted the experience to which you’d grown accustomed, making you look afresh at objects and spaces which you may otherwise have ignored through casual recognition. The house is well known for the way the light pours in and plays over its objects and furnishings throughout the day. Kathryn Faulkner makes use of this by creating images on photographic paper imprinted by the spectral shadows thrown by sunlight through various glass objects. Literal impressions of light. Judith Goddard put up a fixed door of transparent Perspex barring entrance to Helen Ede’s old bedroom, and set up a security camera inside to sweep it eye across the enclosed space. The slowly moving image could be watched on a tv screen set up on a chest of drawers. Its clinical digital picture seemed both somehow more sharply real and less present than the actual space it reproduced. You half expected to see a digital HD spectre walk across the screen, reluctantly reconfigured from the past and reduced to a diminished virtual existence; a gigabyte ghost. It reminded me of Gwen John’s Corner of the Artist’s Room in Paris, with its empty chair by an open window, and I found its similar record of absence extremely moving.

The table where the radio sat

My favourite piece was probably David Sheppard’s interactive sound art object, a re-tooled old wooden radio from the pre-transistor age. This allowed you to create your own live mix of music by manipulating the three control knobs for band, volume and tuning, which gave access to different sounds, rhythms and pitch variations. Both Stockhausen and John Cage had incorporated the spontaneous sounds of tuned radios into their music, so this was perhaps a nod to their memory. In any case, it was great DIY avant-garde composition fun.

The walls of Kettles Yard are painted white, the better to reflect the shifting shadows cast as the sun measures out the hours of the day. Michael Craig-Martin’s painting of one alcove room in a violent shade of magenta was thus particularly startling, and difficult to ignore. He had removed all the furniture whilst he redecorated, replacing it all again in exactly the same place, save for one chair, which he painted in relief outline on the wall. His intervention was perversely effective for being so wholly out of character with the rest of the house, and for being hidden in a well chosen nook which meant that you came across it unexpectedly.

Along the lengthy gallery of the extension, Douglas Allsop had strung his ‘Blind Screen’, fashioned from lengths of video tape. These shimmered gently in the breeze, which I admit was caused by my blowing on them. The use of what is now an all but redundant recording medium as the material for this installation could have been just another piece of weakly punning conceptual art, but its shiny, shimmering and inherently fragile surfaces made it visually appealing in itself. The mystery of what further images were locked into its magnetic depths merely added to its allure. Just opposite, Mary Lemley had set up a small monitor atop an empty glass-fronted cabinet, which slowly reeled through photographs of every object in her house. This was interesting enough for a while, particularly in the juxtapositions it threw up between, say, an art book and a more practical item such as a mug. It did seem a bit redolent of the ‘let’s look at me’ art of recent times which reflects or perhaps just seeks to be a part of the modern malaise of celebritocracy.

David Jones, Vexilla Regis (1947-8)

The converse side of this disruption of the normal display in the house was the use of the gallery for pictures which had been displaced, alongside further works not normally on show. This was a good opportunity to see these displayed in a more conventional gallery space, and grouped together by artist. There were several prints and etchings by David Jones, including his illustrations for The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, which was interesting to mentally compare with those of Mervyn Peake and Gustav Dore. Also on display was his Vexilla Regis from 1947, one of my favourite Kettles Yard paintings. This is a complex interweaving of Roman and Celtic landscapes with a plethora of pagan Christian symbolism. There are Roman temples and what looks like a statue of Diana in a woodland grove alongside a stone circle and a Glastonbury-like mount. The three trees in the foreground, one topped with a Roman legionary eagle, are the trees of Calvary, the foremost of which has flowered into a riot of life at its crown. It is a wonderful picture which really needs to be seen close up to appreciate its dense detail. You can imagine Jones himself, his eyesight failing, leaning close to the surface of the paper to create these thickets of tangled symbolism. It was probably actually better seeing it in this context than in its usual position in the house, where the confined space and domestic furnishings militate against a closer and more detailed inspection.

Elizabeth Vellacott, Bare Trees and Hills (1960) in the house

Winifred Nicholson, Primula and Cyclamen (1923)

Jones worked at least partly in pencil, and there were also several beautiful works in pencil by Elizabeth Vellacott, whose depiction of trees is particularly fine. She somehow manages to convey the mysterious haze which hangs silently over some afternoons. The musical equivalent would by Brian Eno’s Thursday Afternoon, in whose particulate layers of drift you can almost synaesthetically see the dancing motes of dust in beams of sunlight. Winifred Nicholson was represented by one of her many flower paintings and by a seascape of paradoxical solidity. The flower paintings always seem to convey the idea of some kind of threshold. The flowers on the windowsill and the landscape beyond suggest a boundary between inner and outer worlds, of ordered experience and unmediated nature. The flowers themselves, contained in vases, bottles or jugs, positioned on this threshold, are somewhere in between. Their subtly variegated colours could act as a symbol of the act of vision with which we perceive and interpret the world, and of the inner eye through which the artist seeks to transform it in order to express some underlying essence. Nicholson would, in later life, experiment with the use of prisms on the windowsill in order to split light into its spectrum, cracking it open to reveal and examine its contents.

Ben Nicholson, Christmas Night (1930)

Ben Nicholson, at one time married to Winifred and later to sculptor Barbara Hepworth, is represented by abstract work which is more in line with European and Russian currents of modernism and constructivism. But there is also an earlier work from 1930, a domestic interior of his bedroom at night. Painted at a time when his life was in a state of transition, having left Winifred and his children, it has a rather melancholy feel of loneliness. His monogrammed brush set takes on a monumental presence in the emptiness of the room, his occupation of what would traditionally have been considered a primarily female space serving to emphasise his solitude. Outside, the church is swallowed by the darkness, and a horse (or a donkey?) looks longingly in at the light of the domestic interior from which it is excluded. The viewer’s perspective is from the interior of the room, but the curtain is drawn back to frame a wide expanse of the winter night. The depths of this cold darkness threaten to engulf the fragile comforts of the home.

Christopher Wood, Building the Boat, Treboul, 1930

Another Kettles Yard artist featured in the gallery, a friend of both the Edes and the Nicholsons, was Christopher Wood. His Building the Boat, Treboul from 1930 is very familiar from its customary position in the house, and was one of many pictures painted during his stay on the Breton coast. The half-built boat resembles the beached skeletal ribcage of a beached whale, the woman in the foreground sadly cradling a plank of wood as if she is carrying away a relic. The painting seems haunted by death, although this maybe a judgement influenced by the knowledge of Wood’s own tragic passing shortly thereafter.

Christopher Wood, Jean Bourgoint with Siamese Cat (1926)

Wood was born in Liverpool, but took the traditional artist’s passage over the channel to France, and it was here that he established himself in the fevered atmosphere of the golden age, the ‘harlequin years’ of Paris in the 20s. The portrait ‘Jean Bourgoint with Siamese Cat’ is of one of the young men in Jean Cocteau’s circle. Wood himself shared a studio with Cocteau in 1924/5, and it was through him that he met Jean and Jeanne Bourgoint, a brother and sister with a very close bond. They were to become the models for the central characters of Cocteau’s novel Les Enfants Terribles, later filmed by Jean-Pierre Melville. Wood’s full length portrait depicts Jean as frankly sensuous, with his relaxed, crossed-ankle posture, red lips and blue-eyed gaze. This sensuality is further reflected in the Persian cat which he strokes, and which shares his blue eyes. The cats claws are spread out and digging into his leg, however. Maybe Wood is alluding to a vicious and parasitical side to his charms, of which he is all-too conscious. He is like the cat in that he expects to be taken in, fed and loved but feels under no obligation to give anything in return. There may even be an element of jealousy here, Wood digging in his own catty claw. The rumours amongst Cocteau’s gossipy hangers-on were that he was now favouring Jean over Wood. The visible fragments of sketches in the background of the painting suggest that Wood abandoned it before applying the finishing touches, perhaps tiring of the subject and of the Parisian demi-monde in general. What remains, however, is the perfect portrait of the gilded and offhandedly destructive youth of the period. Sadly, it was during this period that Wood, and Jean’s sister Jeanne, picked up and addiction to Cocteau’s drug of choice, opium (and Cocteau has, fairly or unfairly, been accused of wrecking a succession of lives at this time). Neither was able to shake their addiction, and both ended up committing suicide, Wood beneath the wheels of a train at Salisbury station.

Alfred Wallis, Boats Before a Great Bridge (c.1935-7)

When living in St Ives, Wood became friends with the ‘naïve’ artist Alfred Wallis, moving into a house a few doors away from him. Many of Wallis’ paintings, confined by the space of the scraps of card or packing-case wood which he used as canvasses, can be found in the upper gallery of the house extension, and several made it into the gallery exhibition too. Wallis intuitively reached some of the same compositional distortions of perspective which modern artists were adopting, the flattening out into clearly separated blocks and shapes of colour, perhaps making a virtue out of technical limitations. Both Wood and Ben Nicholson, and through them others, took inspiration from him and his untutored and thus, to them, somehow purer eye. Wallis made the break with tradition that they were seeking by virtue of being unencumbered by knowledge of it. The fact that he was a retired man (an ex-fisherman) who painted out of personal need rather than with a commercial imperative made him all the more appealing.

Jim Ede at Kettles Yard

Wallis is now seen as an important, if eccentric, English (Cornish, if you prefer) artist, largely, but not solely, for his influence on others. It is interesting to speculate as to how others like him have existed in parallel with the recognised figures of art history, their work lacking the patronage of well-placed artists which Wallis’ received and destined for the bonfire after their deaths. There is something very satisfying about seeing these vivid paintings on their scraps of discarded packaging hanging on the whitewashed walls of a modern gallery. No conceptual commentary behind the use of material, it was just what lay to hand. They are so very far from a small Cornish fishing village at the corner of the country, and also from the commodified ArtWorld ™ which often seems to exist largely to reflect upon itself and its market processes. The exhibition, and Kettles Yard in general, serve to remind us of some great British artists, but also that they didn’t exist in isolation. Their work may have been distinctively British, but it was also fully aware of and had strong links with the European movements. This is no little Englander art. Ultimately this is a place which retains the atmosphere of a home, and as such is a tribute to the openness and generosity of Jim and Helen Ede, who did so much to accommodate and encourage the artists who were also often their friends.

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