Monday, 4 April 2011

Tim Ellis at the Spacex Gallery

'Lectern' © Copyright 2010 Tim Ellis.

The latest exhibition at the Spacex Gallery in Exeter is by the artist Tim Ellis and is titled The Tourist. It’s his first ever solo show in this country, so we’re privileged to be able to see his work in its proper context (and you can see some pictures from the exhibition here, in the first three rows). This is particularly so since it needs the space to spread out in order to achieve its full impact. Whether coincidentally or by design, the title The Tourist is particularly apt for an exhibition taking place in this part of the country, which is so dependant on the tourism industry. The tourist is essentially a spectator, viewing the unfamiliar sights with which she or he is presented from a distanced perspective. It’s a good metaphor for the experience of the visitor to a modern art gallery, confronted with work from which they often feel disconnected, as if it is the product of an alien and hermetic culture, its meaning beyond comprehension. The theoretical language which accompanies many such exhibitions, self-reflexively pitched at art world insiders, often merely increases such incomprehension. The representative figure of the tourist who is the sole inhabitant of the first room by the entrance to the Spacex is on one level standing in for the curious gallery visitor, then – for you or I (or the ‘journeyman’, as he or she is referred to in the guide). Hopefully the accessibility of the exhibition, and the intriguing nature of the image used to advertise it, will draw many more who might not otherwise think this is the sort of thing for them. They might want to leave off reading the guide until after they have looked around and allowed their imaginations to spark off what they see, however. As with any journey to unfamiliar cities or countries, it’s often better to gain your own impressions, to get pleasurably lost, before reaching for the guidebook to find out where you actually are.

The tiny elevated figure of the Tourist in the first room stands atop his plinth, dwarfed by the space which surrounds him. The small scale renders him deliberately unimpressive, inviting the gallery visitor to think ‘is that it?’ His elevation from the environs in which he has found himself gives him a sense of remoteness, the slightly bewildered detachment of the touristic stranger in a strange land. The plinth on which he stands is octagonal, and I can’t help but be reminded of the characters (a different one each week) who used to rise from the revolving and unfolding musical box at the start of Camberwick Green, descending back into its mysterious interior once their tale had been told. The Tourist figure here is slouched and slack-jawed, his oafish stance at odds with the noble and erect posture of most heroic statuary whose subjects have been deemed worthy of ascending their own immortal pedestal. His hands are thrust deep into the pockets of what looks like a smock, and he sports a loose and floppy hat of the sort bakers used to wear (and may still do, for all I know). This attire, together with his gaping regard and open-mouthed gawp, makes him appear like a bumpkin in the city, awed by the density of novel sights and impressions assailing his senses. Country origins are perhaps further hinted at by the small circle of green baize upon which he stands.

On the wall to his side is the first of Ellis’ banners. These are paintings on loosely hung sheets of cotton, stiffened by acrylic paint and varnish and hung from the brickwork in makeshift fashion by bulldog clips. Their coloured patterns are heavily scored and lined, as if this is a piece of ceremonial fabric which has been folded up, put away and unfurled many times. The suggestion of some public informational or institutional purpose is furthered by the light brown border, edging the whole thing with the practical, utilitarian colour of packing tape. The low key tones of the abstract arrangements of circles and lines and the monochrome colour fields upon which they lie invoke a pictorial language which is readily understood by the natives and so doesn’t have to be shouted out in bright, attention-grabbing primary hues, but which is opaque to tourists and visitors – the plinth-bound gawper and ourselves. It’s classic inter-war abstract modernism of the sort which first started prompting claims that infants could produce work of equal merit. Art which found a home in (relatively) nearby St Ives. We must try to intuit some of the meaning behind these well-worn arrangements of signifying shapes and juxtaposed colours, perhaps by not trying too hard to understand. The Tourist himself isn’t looking at the banner at all. It acts more as backdrop than object of direct scrutiny, the theatrical scenic props against which he and the inhabitants of the next room are set. The Tourist directs his stupefied stare through the window and out to the streets of Exeter beyond the gallery. Maybe he is on his way out as we make our entrance. His casually listless posture suggests that he isn’t terribly impressed by what he’s seen.

The main gallery of the Spacex, open to the light once again after its enclosure for the last exhibition’s films, is populated by a number of objects cradled atop (or grasped within) a diverse array of plinths and display stands. Some are alone, others paired companionably together. They look very much like a group of figures, drifting spectators in a gallery, in fact. Their solid bases topped with more intricately detailed assemblages makes them resemble the kind of anthropomorphised robots which plagued the screens in the wake of Star Wars. Closer inspection reveals that their ‘heads’ are mostly formed from what appear to be the glass shades and coverings of wall or ceiling lights. The others have appendages which give them the appearance of noisemakers, ready to emit a loud or piercing blast of sound when triggered. The figure referred to as ‘Lectern’ (and this is where the ground plan available on the table by the entrance comes in handy) is the first you come across as you enter the room. It has two outward facing metallic discs mounted on a pole (the lids of old pans, perhaps) which resemble loudspeakers, or crude cymbals ready to be clattered together. ‘The Arrival’ is a round, red object with an ornate cap which looks rather like a Russian samovar. Two conical ‘ears’ emerge on either side, ready to let off a shrill, steamy whistle. Perhaps these two are the ‘guides’. They do have a slightly more commanding, aggressively solid air than the paired figures, with their fragile glass craniums. This dominant status is reflected in the names they have been given. The Lectern would suggest an authoritative font of knowledge, whilst The Arrival could be some local guide, ushering and herding the directionless flock of newcomers.

'The Arrival' © Copyright 2010 Tim Ellis.
The light-shaded figures appear to be waiting for someone to flick a switch, at which point the whole assembly will flicker back into life from their state of suspended animation, consciousness illuminated once more, and begin gliding across the floor in a spinning and spiralling dance of spectatorship. The varying shapes and decorative patterning of the glass shades make for distinctly different characters (perhaps even different species). The stands and plinths which shoulder them also display a variety of forms and colours and further this sense of divergent personae, whose predominant characteristic is crystallised by the names which they are given. These names also underline the fact that the paired figures are of greater and smaller stature, dominant and subordinate personalities attaching themselves one to the other. The tin sounding-stand of The Lectern threatens to boom out over its companion, with its glass bulb resembling the flowering head of a soft evergreen cone, which is identified as Willing Servant. A figure with a pineapple-shaped casing resting in a marbled glass bowl, which is described as Interloper, attaches itself to a smaller figure whose squarely circular cut-glass shade resembles a fancy cake, an effect enhanced by the piping of acrylic paint icing its crystalline crevices. The stand on which this cake crown rests consists of four bulbous blue legs, hunched rigidly and nervously together, exuding a withdrawn and nervy body language which earns it the soubriquet The Fearful. In the final pairing, the taller partner is capped with a grey-white globe which resembles the ice-cracked surface of Europa, one of the moons of Jupiter. It is girdled with another shade (as is the Interloper), a circular drum closely strung with semi-transparent nylon or plastic, vaguely akin to the constructivist sculptures of Naum Gabo. These create a strobing visual effect as your circle them, spinning an illusion of flickering zoetrope motion around the planetary globe. This figure is the Well-Wisher, looking down patronisingly on its neighbour, a light which is shaped like the head of a rush. This constricted form is contained within its own base of lilac and subdued red, four inward-facing wooded wedges forming a protective but repressive brace. It is called The Subordinate. In the far corner of the room is a solitary figure topped with a ridged, peach-coloured bowl shade in a vaguely art deco style perched upon a solid stand with a skirt of fabric around its base. This is known as All Seeing, a name which hints at a kind of remote viewing which could apply to all of the glass light-shade-headed figures. Normally designed to diffuse light, now they absorb it, transformed into organs of vision. Perhaps, my associative imagination, warped by years of reading science fiction, prompts me, they are hosts for downloaded conciousnesses. This would explain the titles of the three backdrops on the walls: To Live Long and Maybe One Day Forever.

The third room, approached via a ramp and identified as room two on the exhibition plan, is full of various neatly ordered and categorised relics which might have been brought back from his travels by the tourist. Memorabilia – key-chains and snowstorms, as Marc Almond once put it. They are also the kind of relics which you might come across in a museum, mysterious artefacts from a history and culture of which you know nothing. The contents of this small, enclosed room are discretely hidden from immediate view by a screen which seems to have been put together using cheap beach mats. Both this and the free-standing shelving behind it are constructed from bamboo canes, the signature material of fifties ‘exotica’, the ultimate in faux touristic dabbling in alien cultures. The shelving bears an immaculately symmetrical hierarchy of paired iron bookends in various novelty forms, topped off with guardian eagles, then bulldogs (that symbol of proudly insular Britishness), cannons, sailing ships (a Rule Britannia memorial to faded Empires built on naval dominance) and monks. The whole assemblage is entitled Through Authority We Serve. Opposite is a selection of long, dark wooden poles (mahogany?) topped with proportionally small casts of heads. The poles are too tall to be walking sticks for any but a giant race, although they rest in a walking stick stand and the whole is entitled Growing Old Together. The figures have a historical feel, with Punches and Pickwicks and regally bearded and moustachioed visages of noble mien. The disarrayed sheaf of the poles brought woodcuts and prints of the old London Bridge to mind, with its guard towers displaying a grisly selection of heads freshly (or not so freshly) supplied from The Tower.

Utilitarian object as abstracted design icon
On the wall behind them are hung three copper ‘bats’, akin in form if not material to the oriental fans which were one of the essential accoutrements of fashionable fin-de-siecle Japonisme. They are adorned with the simple symbols of graphic informational design; white circles within green lozenges and inverted white Vs outlined in red. Perhaps they are some kind of signalling baton of the kind used by those fearless souls who direct taxiing aircraft or by modern day station conductors indicating that the train can leave, the coloured shapes clearly semaphoring instructions. Utilitarian objects removed from the context of their original usage can be admired in isolation for the elegance of their design and the function which it served to embody (a function which remains mysterious in this case). The graphic representation of differently coloured traffic cones on the first two Kraftwerk LPs springs into my mind here. These three objects are collectively given the utopian slogan Towards a Common Understanding.

Beside the wall opposite the entrance to the wall is a small table with an array of seals or ink stamps set on the end of handles in the shape of Greek columns, thick and sturdy enough to stand up to the firm and authoritative thump of an official imprint. These are neatly stacked like pipes in their own rack. The signs and sigils embossed on the seals have their own inferred symbology of stars, pyramids and pentagons, with more fragmented and irregular patterns of shapes hinting at a more occult and strange visual language – the marks of some secret, hermetic order. This collection of tools bearing the hidden signs of power is given the self-revealing Masonic title Through Authority We Serve. Hanging on the wall above this table is a strange design on an oval of white cardboard made up of contrasting curled and angled lines and calligraphical swirls, all of which hint at an abstracted representation of an owl’s face. The connection is immediately made in my mind with the owl pattern painted onto a set of dinner plates discovered in an attic which sets off the emotionally charged supernatural narrative of Alan Garner’s novel The Owl Service. This eerie design, which feels like it belongs in an overstuffed Victorian parlour, is housed behind a convex glass frame, visible only after closer, squinting scrutiny. It resembles the bulging cornea of a watchful, predatory eye – another manifestation of the All Seeing. It is given the vaguely religiose title ‘Through Form Becomes Meaning’, a variant on ‘In the beginning was the Word’ from St John’s Gospel.

These are all personal responses, of course, associations triggered into associative branching through whatever region of my brain such paths take by the objects on display here. The mysterious and suggestive aura which they radiate, a blurred and shimmering horizon beyond which lies the promise of clarity, understanding and perhaps even revelation, invites such imaginative fancy. I suppose this is what is meant by the guide’s rather dry assertion that ‘every object, whether in isolation or as a collection is dependent on a creator, mediator and audience’ and the further suggestion that their positioning within the exhibition ‘offers the opportunity to question their purpose and meaning within a new or altered context’. Well, just go along to the Spacex and allow your imagination to create its own personal meaning. Become creator, mediator and audience. Be an active tourist.

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