Monday, 16 December 2013

Four Southwest Wood Engravers at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter

Exeter - Pam Pebworth

There’s a fine new exhibition at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum showcasing the work of four wood engravers based in the South West. Howard Phipps was born in Colwyn Bay in 1958 and is now based on the border of Wiltshire and Dorset; Pam Pebworth was born in Altrincham in 1931 and studied, taught and worked in the arts and crafts field in Devon and the South West for many years before taking up wood engraving in 1988; Harry Brockway was born in Newport in 1958 (is there a natural connection between Welsh culture and wood engraving, I wonder?) and lives in Glastonbury; and Hilary Paynter was born in Dunfermline in 1943, moving south to study wood engraving at the Portsmouth College of Art. All of them are members of the Society of Wood Engravers. This was an organisation founded in 1920 by a group of artists including Eric Gill, Gwen Raverat and Lucien Pissaro. It was brought to life once more in the 1980s, with Hilary Paynter as a guiding light, and continues, in the spirit of those illustrious founders, to foster the art and traditions of wood engraving.

Hambledon Hill - Howard Phipps
Howard Phipps mainly produces landscapes, and his evocation of the spirit of place and depiction of hill forts, megalithic sites and ancient trackways puts him firmly in the tradition of Paul and John Nash and Eric Ravilious. He ventures into the heart of Wistman’s Wood, the atmospheric expanse of stunted oaks lining the slopes of a Dartmoor valley. The darkly gnarled trunks and twisted branches, lichenous bark and mossy rocks give plenty of scope for tonal and textural variation and contrast. The long sweep of Chesil Beach is depicted with a great sense of spaciousness and dwindling perspective. A grounded boat provides a foreground focal point, whilst weather looms in the distance. Solid shafting striations emanating from black clouds are a dramatic representation of heavy showers on their way. More black rainclouds empty over Stonehenge, with a rounded moon providing milky contrast to show up the shadowy megaliths. More ancient sites feature in Winkelbury Hillfort and Hambledon Hill, and in the old paths bordered by beech trees. Phipps seems to favour winter as his seasonal backdrop. His trees are intricate traceries of bare black branches.

Pam Pebworth’s prints tend to be stylised town or cityscapes with flattened perspectives. Historically significant buildings are selected and collaged together into depictions of place which might lack geographical accuracy but which summon up in concentrated architectural form the architectural spirit of the place. This approach is applied to Chester, Exeter, Bradford-on-Avon, Bristol, Bath, Dartmouth, Lyme Regis, Sidmouth and Budleigh Salterton. The Exeter print was made in 1994, and the tugboat in the foreground is a reminder of the old maritime museum which was still situated in the quayside basin at the time. Aquae Sulis, the Bath print, has a particular elegant formal composition, as befitting its subject. Bath becomes a symmetrical mirror of itself. William Beckford’s tower rises on the hill in the background, a black sun hanging to its side, and provides a counterbalancing note of intemperate romanticism. A solitary figure striding from the shingle beach in the Budleigh Salterton print, easel tucked firmly under his arm, is presumably intended to be a representation of John Everett Millais, who painted his Boyhood of Raleigh here. Pebworth has also created two imaginative and playful alphabets: The Artist’s Alphabet and Touchwood. Both set their letters out in gridded blocks, as if they’re in a typesetters tray. Objects, personages or famous works correspond to each letter – P for palette, V for Van Dyke, E for easel and so on. Touchwood is an alphabet for the worker in wood, featuring engraver’s tools, techniques and carved art. The blocks have an appropriately greater density and roughly grained texture.

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner - Harry Brockway
Harry Brockway is a stone mason and carver in addition to being a wood engraver, and there’s a solid sculptural quality to the faces and figures which are the main focus of his work. From his initial commission to provide engravings for the Reader’s Digest Illustrated Bible, he has produced illustrations for a number of books. His depiction of characters in Crime and Punishment for a 1997 Folio Society edition, arrayed here like a pictorial cast list, show an expressionist intensity and interiority which is entirely appropriate for Dostoevsky’s novel. The psychology or inner cast of the faces shows through in the distorting grain or patina which Brockway lends them. Some seem to be afflicted with plates of psoriatic hide, whilst others are clearly and sparely engraved, simple and pure souls. The illustrations for John Prebble’s book Culloden, another Folio Edition, contrast the gaunt, grimacing and fiercely daubed faces of the ordinary Scots who fought in the battle with the self-satisfied, relaxed and beefily broad visages of the aristocrats whose orders and plans they followed. Screaming, expressionist heads set against posed profile portraits cast the social divisions outlined in Prebble’s polemical history (which were also highlighted in Peter Watkins’ 1964 TV adaptation) in artistic terms. Dulce Et Decorum Est (2007) evokes the horror of Wilfred Owen’s war poem with more wide-eyed expressionist screaming, the face of another figure in the background reduced to the gas mask’s grotesque parody of human features. The addition of colour makes the spreading yellow cloud of mustard gas powerfully palpable. It particularly leaps out at you here given that you’ve thus far seen nothing but black and white prints. The portrait of a woman titled The Pearl Necklace (2003) offers a reflective contrast, and is, I presume, an illustration to Guy de Maupassant’s cruelly ironic tale. A 2011 picture of Harlequin and Pulcinella sets these archetypal commedia dell’arte characters in Brockway’s Glastonbury environs, the tor rising behind them, thus suggesting their universal nature. There also his ten engravings for Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner made in 2010. Brockway follows in illustrious footsteps here, the narrative poem having previously been illustrated by Gustave Doré, David Jones and Mervyn Peake. He manages to elude the anxiety of influence, however, and produce something entirely his own. Swirls and curlicues abound, both in sea, sky and sailors’ beards, all converging in the culminating, ship-engulfing whirlpool. The image of the calm sea sown with the pasty rafts and fishing tendrils of Portugese men-o-war is particularly startling and original. There’s something of the psychedelic poster style to these illustrations, and you can imagine their clearly outlined segments filled in with vivid colours. In fact, you don’t have to, since there are some large blown-up panels on the far wall of the gallery taken from a British Library exhibition of Coleridge illustrations.

The Discovery at Lascaux - Hilary Paynter
Hilary Paynter’s depiction of the Discovery of Lascaux is another print which introduces an element of overlaid colour, here the yellow of torchlight and the brown of the prehistoric cave wall paintings. The cave, shown in yawning cross-section, is thus portrayed as a magical space, a world apart from the black and white reality beyond its subterranean gallery. Stones Over Avebury (1974) maps out the well-known aerial view of the village bounded by circular earthworks and bisected by crossing roads. A surreal touch is added by having boulder clouds hanging heavy over the megalithic site, though. It’s as if the stones in the circle and avenue were splinters sharded off from such hovering masses millennia ago. A playful take on the ancient British landscape can also be found in the comical depiction of the Cerne Abbas giant come to chalk-outlined life and chasing three Victorian ladies across the fields. One of them is evidently making no great effort to escape its clutches. Paynter takes a romantic view of the British landscape and the ancient structures built upon its wild spots. Her print of Hadrian’s wall exaggerates the hills it measures out into a dramatic, Tolkienesque sweep of mountains and far flung plains. Dunnottar is shown as a fairy tale castle by the sea, with a winding path leading to its door, whilst the flinty tower of Carn Brae is made all the more monumentally solid by the blank white background against which it’s set. The cobbled street of Clovelly plunges with heightened precipitation towards the sea, its winding path continued through the curve of the harbour wall and the bends of the river. More romantic sites are found in the sea bordering castle of Chepstow, the gothic ruin of the abbey at Valle Crucis in Wales, and the timbered patterning of Plas Newydd. This Elizabethan house, in which the ladies of Llangollen lived together, is loomed over by a craggy mount on top of which the jagged ruins of Dinas Bran castle stick up like a pile of bones.

Trio - Barbara Hepworth
Downstairs, a new selection from the museum’s fine art collection has been mounted. This includes two of the drawings Barbara Hepworth made of surgeons at work in an Exeter hospital in the post-war period. Her daughter had undergone an operation in the Princess Elizabeth Orhopaedic Hospital, and she got to know one of the doctors there, one Norman Capener, very well. He invited her into the operating theatre as an artistic observer to record the concentrated co-ordination of collective endeavour which took place there. It was, in a way, a means of producing images which celebrated the newly created NHS, lending it an air of bright, optimistic modernity. Hepworth’s masked and gowned figures are semi-abstracted, the bodies amorphously rounded like her sculptures. The focus of detail is all on the hands and the eyes which guide them. In Preparation (1947) we see those hands being washed, clasped together in a way which suggests prayerful ritual cleansing as much as mindful hygiene. The wash of turquoise colour, curving around in a liquid flow to convey the smooth flexibility of the upturned operating arm, extends beyond the outline of the figure to the background, creating a sense of harmony between the surgeon and his environment. In Trio (1948), the predominant tone is a neutral beige. The three figures are merged, like one of Hepworth’s group form sculptures, fused into a singular entity through a common fixity of purpose. A patch of dark blue beneath the operating table is the only hint of depth and perspective beyond the figures. There’s also the slightest daub of green, like a guiding tone to indicated the actual colour of the gowns. The drawing is all about the motion and direction of the hands and the unity of figures with background, though. Hepworth herself wrote about finding, after initial reservations, that ‘there was such beauty in the operating theatre that the whole composition – human in appearance – became abstract in shape’. She was fascinated by ‘the extraordinary beauty of purpose between human beings all dedicated to the saving of life’, and discovered that ‘this special grace (grace of mind and body) induced a spontaneous space composition, an articulated and animated kind of abstract sculpture very close to what I had been seeking in my own work’.

Boy In A Landscape: Portrait of Eric Verrico - John Minton
Also newly on display is John Minton’s Boy In A Landscape: Portrait of Eric Verrico (1948). This is a poetic portrait of Minton’s boyfriend in the 40s, whom he had met whilst teaching at the Camberwell School of Art. The young and beautiful Italian is painted in glistening oils, his skin and clothes coloured in shades of olive and mossy green, a nature boy. He has a calm and contented look, and leans back in a relaxed posture against a wooden chair, one arm hooked over its back. The landscape behind him is a patchwork of autumnal colours, interlaced with the branching black lines of bare winter trees. There’s a slightly melancholic air of acceptance to the picture, with its late autumnal atmosphere; an acknowledgement that this moment won’t last, Eric will soon move on and they will inevitably part. Minton lived a fairly tempestuous life, and was something of a wild man of Soho in the post-war years. He was out of step with the avant-garde orthodoxies of the time (in particular the move towards abstraction), even though he taught some of those who forged them. He came to feel increasingly frustrated and marginalized, although he was relatively successful and well-off, partly thanks to a substantial inheritance. He’d achieved a solid reputation as a book and magazine illustrator, and had a regular job as a teacher of painting at the RCA, a position in which he was generally well-liked and respected. In the repressive climate of the 50s, his gay sexuality led to fugitive feelings of self-destructive despair, and the search for love and companionship never found long-lasting fulfilment. This lonely disconnection, combined with his depressive temperament, lapses into alcohol abuse and the disinterested reception of his new work, led to his committing suicide in 1957 at the age of 39. The title of his final painting, The Death of James Dean, suggests he might have felt more at home in the pop art climate of the 60s, although Minton seems to depict the death scene as a slum Passion worthy of a Pasolini film. But the painting on display here summons the feeling of a golden instant of time, which is captured in all its brief beauty and still repose. A moment of love, happiness and contentment gifted to the modern viewer, something to be contemplated, remembered and treasured.

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Motor: Bettina Buck Invites Marie Lund to the Spacex Gallery

For Motor, the new exhibition at the Spacex Gallery, the artists Bettina Buck has invited Marie Lund to show a selection of her sculptural pieces alongside some of her own recent work. The idea is to underline connections and highlight correspondences between their concerns and approaches. Buck choice of artistic partner is well-made, since these affinities are immediately apparent.

Lund’s five pieces in her Flat Bed series hang on the wall in the conventional manner of pictures at an exhibition, flat and neatly rectilinear at eye level against the wall. Closer inspection reveals them to be smoothed-off slabs of poured concrete into which lengths of cloth of various textures and colours have been embedded, set into place by the hardening mixture. Some of the cloth is velvet, some cotton, some silk pashminas with trailing tassles fixed like fossilised plant forms in shale from an ancient sea bed. The soft, pliant folds of the cloth contrast with the cold, polished and unyielding surface of the embedding concrete. You really want to run your hand over these surfaces to feel the contrast. But I suspect such a tactile response to the art, understandable though it might be, would be frowned upon. The folds might be smoothed out or realigned, the geological contours of these vertical relief maps fundamentally altered. The concrete and cloth frameworks are lent further textural contrast by the whitewashed brick wall against which they are set at sparing and carefully spaced intervals. Weight is another element of these sculptural ‘paintings’. The concrete ‘canvas’ hangs with a heavy, blocklike solidity; the cloth, with its rippling folds and wavering fronds caught in suspension, is light and airy, caught in mid-motion and suspended within the massive gravity of the concrete frame.

Buck responds to these wall-hung works with two installations whose mass roots them to the ground. Pressed Foam (2012) rests a triangular cheese-sedge chunk of rock on a thin layer of foam, which in turn is rolled out onto the slatted surface of a flimsy wooden pallet. Again, the gallery backdrop against which these elements are laid provides a further element of material contrast; in this case, the battered and worn poured concrete floor, with its scraped and scuffed black surfacing. These are like sedimentary layers, consisting of materials of widely differing mass, solidity, texture and tone. The rock, if dropped, would have smashed the pallet to pieces. The cumulative effect of its mass over time might yet splinter its planks. The foam, on the other hand, bears its weight and imprint, but remains essentially intact. The incongruity of seeing such an unwieldy boulder, whose roughly even cut bears the hallmark of human rather than geological shaping, gives it an extra charge. There’s something almost tender about the way the mineral block is laid on a soft bed of foam. It’s almost as if this age-old formation, the product of geological time, is being given the care due to worn and weary bones.

Untitled Marble Block (2013) is placed against the wall in the passageway between the two main galleries, making use of unofficial space. It exhibits a similar fascination for contrasting materials of widely divergent masses and textures. A roughly cut chunk of marble rests on the wheeled hardboard platform of a small trolley, another object from the shop backroom of factory floor used for the movement and storage of heavy or bulky materials. As with the wooden pallet, this utilitarian plinth gives the impression that the rock it carries and displays has been conveyed into the gallery directly from a its more natural environment - a quarry or mason’s yard. There’s also a sense that the pallet and trolley are mediating objects, connecting materials extracted from the natural environment with those of human manufacture. The mass of the marble block on its trolley presses down on a strip of felt carpet underlay, folded up into a right-angled incline against the bricks of the wall, soft layered against hard. We can sense the impression the wheels are making over time, and imagine the indentations they will leave. They would be reminiscent of those indelibly created by a sofa or bed, left behind as markers of former habitation, the imprints of substantial bodies now departed.

In the dark cave of the upper gallery, Bettina Buck’s short film Interlude shows on a seamless loop. A figure (the artist?) is filmed carrying a block of foam, large enough for her to disappear behind, along the slopes of the South Downs and the Sussex cliffs. It’s as if she’s a giant (the Wilmington chalk figure come to life?) lugging a menhir to the appointed megalithic site. There is a visibly and audibly blustering wind blowing across the sea-cliffs. This makes us aware that, in spite of its awkward bulk, this block would be light enough to be blown into the rough seas below were it not strapped to its bearer’s back. There’s a strong element of the absurd to this scenario of an onerous task rigorously carried out to no apparent end or purpose. It’s reminiscent of short films like The Goons’ The Running, Jumping and Standing Still Film, made with Richard Lester, Roman Polanski’s Two Men and a Wardrobe or even Laurel and Hardy’s classic The Music Box. The laboriously pointless task the figure assiduously performs has the odd compensatory moment. The block provides a comfortable bed for the occasional lie down, and makes for an instant bench upon which to sit and enjoy the fine views. The looping of the film, which has no evident starting point, means that no conclusion will ever be reached, no goal attained. Unless the foam monument finds its way to a gallery, where it might end up balanced softly on top of a small granitic slab, a hard and unyielding bed to mould itself around.

Friday, 6 December 2013

Frankenstein and The Bride of Frankenstein

It was such a pleasure to see James Whale’s two Universal Frankenstein movies at the Picture House over the last couple of weeks. Watching films on the big screen which you are personally familiar with, and whose plots offer no surprises, you tend to focus on incidental details or on forgotten moments and supporting characters. I particularly enjoyed the performances of Dwight Frye in both Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein. His scuttling, bug-eyed Fritz in the former is hugely entertaining, and certainly far more interesting than Colin Clive’s dull Henry Frankenstein, from whom he takes his orders. The mad, grinning glee of his face as he peers above the railings in the graveyard from which he and Henry are observing the burial of the body which they are waiting to resurrect is a delightful introduction. Henry just calls his loyal toady a fool and pushes him down again.

The accursed stairs - Fritz answers the door, eventually
There’s a wonderful moment during the storm-lashed creation sequence when he hobbles down the winding, gothic stone staircase in Frankenstein’s ruined watchtower laboratory with his stick and lantern to answer the echoing knock on the door. Muttering all the way about the unreasonableness of calling at such an hour and the inconvenience of descending such unsafe and oversized stairs he gives them an abrupt dismissal, even though its absolutely teeming it down outside. Turning to climb all the way back up again (muttering still) he pauses on the bottom step to pull up his sock. This small gesture, combined with his disconsolate complaints, make him an appealingly human henchman, and it’s rather sad when he’s strung up by the monster (echoing the fate of the hanged man he’s earlier cut down from the gibbet). We can assume that the bullying cruelty which provoked his murder was a redirection of the kind of treatment he’d received in plenty, not least from the contemptuous Henry.

Fritz enjoying his work
Frye turns up once more as Karl in Bride of Frankenstein, a completely different henchman, his hair flattened and teeth given rotten discolouration. Whilst Fritz was a hunchback, Karl suffers from a disparity in the length of his legs, the shorter shored up with a hollow platform which is oddly modernist in its spare, elegant functionality. Whilst we can feel some sympathy for Fritz, Karl soon earns our revulsion. He ensures the ‘freshness’ and youth of the replacement heart for the female monster demanded by Henry by heading straight into town, lurking in the shadows and murdering the first suitable, ill-starred soul who passes by. Karl and Fritz are in many ways the shadowy Hyde sides to Henry’s bland, simpering Jekyll, extensions of his hidden impulses manifested as twisted homonculi. They carry out the unsavoury tasks which are essential for the furtherance of his experiments, but which he is unprepared to sully his hands or conscience with. As Stevenson showed with his doubled character, Henry’s respectable surface of moral rectitude is a thin façade papering over the violent appetites of the untamed id, which are just waiting for the cue to be unleashed. The Hyde persona, in film incarnations from the 1920 John Barrymore version onwards, tends to crouch down into a hunched stoop, adopting a lurching primate gait. This suggests a devolution towards atavistic urges, a shedding of the constraints of civilisation.

Ygor contemplates further evildoing
Fritz and Karl follow this pattern, and set the template for the Universal mad scientist’s assistants, and for the many subsequent emulations of the type. An unfortunate offshoot of this is the equation of physical disability with moral turpitude and brutishness, a bent posture read as a backward slide down the evolutionary slope. In the follow-up to Bride of Frankenstein, a natural extension of the family tree giving us Son of Frankenstein, the moral evil associated with the henchman’s hunched posture and limping gait is given direct causation. It is the result of his execution by hanging, which he has somehow survived; he’s as tough as the gnarled trees spiking the dead landscape which the young Baron Frankenstein passes through on the train to his ancestral home. He’s a semi-wild hermit, with more than a touch of Rasputin about him, who haunts the ruins and forests beyond the edge of town, a barbarous ghost feared by the locals. Played by Bela Lugosi, who brings a wily and calculating ruthlessness to the role (this may in fact be one of his best performances), the henchman is here elevated from a put-upon lackey to an active, coercive and highly dangerous force. He is the evil twin of the benign, saintly hermit who befriends Karloff’s monster in Bride of Frankenstein. He’s also given the henchman’s signature name – Ygor. It’s a name which has become comically associated with the classic mad scientist’s assistant, as witness Viv Stanshall’s spoken query in the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band’s version of The Monster Mash: ‘have you watered the brains today, Igor?’

Attempts to revive sympathy for the henchman were made in House of Dracula, one of Universal’s later, slightly desperate multi-monster packages. Here, the hunchbacked assistant is a woman, Nina, who has been promised some radical treatment by kindly scientific genius Dr Edelman, whose unorthodox practice is located in a large gothic castle (so the film should really be entitled House of Dr Edelman). In return, she acts as his lab assistant under secretive and frequently unsavoury working conditions. Alas, her fate, in common with all henchpersons, is an unhappy one; she is killed by the very doctor who has given her hope for a cure after she stumbles across him during one of his twitchy mad scientist turns attempting to revive Frankenstein’s immortal monster once more. Karl too suffers an ignominious end, casually tossed off the roof of the laboratory tower by the monster in the midst of harvesting the storm to awaken the bride. The horror henchman’s calling invariably invites doom.

The pampered prince (or baron) - Elizabeth attends the ailing Henry
Dwight Frye’s richly eccentric characters have many rivals in Bride of Frankenstein. In the first film, the tone is more sober. It is struck by Edward Van Sloan, who reprises the kind of rationalist, paternalistic character he played in Dracula (as Van Helsing) and would go on to portray in The Mummy the following year. Exuding scholarly gravitas, he is ponderous, deliberate in speech, and much given to gesticulating with his spectacles to emphasise his point. The latter part of the film does have an enjoyable performance from Frederick Kerr as Baron Frankenstein, Henry’s father, a blustering old buffer first encountered in smoking jacket and tassel-topped cap. He too complains about the uneven, winding staircase up to Henry’s laboratory, grumbling at its lack of a handrail. It’s a light mockery of gothic heaviness which anticipates the tone of Bride of Frankenstein. The nominal leads are terribly insipid, though, and you suspect that Whale is surreptitiously mocking them throughout. Henry is such an unlikely object of romantic interest, his face never losing its fixed grimace of sweaty anxiety, that the long-suffering Elizabeth is given an alternative, pencil-moustached beau to be by her side throughout. He’s rather obviously sticking around to be there at the moment she realises what a wet blanket Henry really is. In Bride of Frankenstein, Elizabeth (technically speaking the title character) has married Henry and been incarnated by another actress, the young Valerie Hobson (who would go on to star in some classic British films by the likes of Powell and Pressburger and David Lean in the 1940s). She’s also acquired a more voguish 30s wardrobe. Her role is wholly subsidiary, however, and Hobson has very little to do other than react to peril with an appropriate level of hysteria. However, she does deliver the absurd line ‘I do hope he doesn’t upset Henry’, spoken to herself whilst pausing at the door of the bedroom in which she’s left him with the sinister Dr Pretorius, with a knowing quality which suggests she may have been in on the joke.

Una O'Connor prepares to let fly
Both Hobson’s Elizabeth and Colin Clive’s Henry are crowded out by a succession of overpowering character actors. The first to appear is Una O’Connor, who plays the Frankenstein’s housekeeper Minnie as a shrieking gossip. She’s bold when all seems safely under control, but always ready to run flapping and caterwauling into the distance at the first sign of trouble. It’s a great, broad comic performance. When the Monster comes face to face with her, it seems stunned into a state of temporary stasis. Its murderous rage is suspended whilst it just watches her fly, bemused and a little dazed at such an energetically cacophonous outburst. Una O’Connor was an Irish actor, but this is very much a comedy Cockney turn, something you can imagine her having perfected on the variety hall circuit. But here she is, stranded in the middle of what is supposedly a middle-European country. The peasants in Hammer films a few decades on would also tend towards the London vernacular. The Bohemia of Bride of Frankenstein is certainly a very polyglot place. Hans, the father of poor, drowned Maria, has a wife who pleads with him not to descend into the ruins to seek the monster’s remains in a soft Irish brogue. One of the grave robbers who assist Dr Pretorius also has a noticeably Irish inflection. Henry’s accent is an absurd, tormented variant on the twisted vowels of English received pronunciation, whilst Ernest Thesiger employs his wonderfully articulated thespian delivery, richly rounded and waspishly patrician, every syllable dripping with contempt for lesser mortals. Elsa Lanchester’s vocalisations as the female monster come from somewhere entirely inhuman, but her accent in the prelude, in which she plays Mary Shelley, is precious, sharply etched home counties. Above all, this is a very British cast (Karloff included, of course), reinvented Midlands boy Whale gathering around him a fellow troupe of strangers in a strange land.

Dr Pretorius and Devilish Counterpart
Thesiger is marvellously fruity as the Mephistophelean Dr Septimus Pretorius and he is, in many ways, the star of the show. When he first encounters the monster, he has made himself comfortable in a vaulted catacomb, and he observes, with indifference shaded by mild annoyance, ‘oh, I thought I was alone’. It’s a remark delivered with a camp offhandedness which might equally have come from Kenneth Williams or Charles Hawtrey in a Carry On film. Henry is soon under Pretorius’ spell, and the Doctor loses no time in separating him from Elizabeth. As many have commented (including Mark Gattiss in his book on Whale, who calls Pretorius a ‘dessicated homosexual imp’) Bride of Frankenstein has a gay subtext which is so evident to the modern sensibility that it’s not really ‘sub’ at all. It was recently included in a BFI list of ten great gay horror films. Whale, an out gay man entirely at ease with his sexuality in a relatively tolerant Hollywood environment, had great fun with the film’s pointed humour and mockery of conventionally sappy romantic mooning, with his friend Thesiger as co-conspirator. Pretorius’ proud claim that he has grown the miniature people he paraded before Henry from ‘seed’ is one of several highly suggestive lines which he managed to smuggle past the Catholic censors, who were generally more fixated on the blasphemous self-comparison of Frankenstein to God (although they allowed Pretorius’ demi-urge toast ‘to a new world of gods and monsters’ through). The source of the seed is left to the imagination. Evidently something of a misogynist (as his loftily dismissive treatment of Elizabeth makes clear), Pretorius has invented a male means of parthenogenetic reproduction which excludes women from the process of creation. This is perhaps the film’s greatest blasphemy. The bride’s blinking horror and implacable hostility at the end of the film may be seen as a reaction to this attempt to co-opt the processes of life.

A beaker of gin - his only weakness
Pretorius is fooling no-one when he offers Henry a gin and proclaims it to be ‘my only weakness’. He later makes the same claim for cigars, and could, we imagine, progress through a whole series of ‘weaknesses’. You can’t help liking Pretorius. He takes such evident delight in his wickedness and wonders ‘if life would not be much more amusing if we were all devils’. His dressing up of his squeaking and jabbering miniature creations in the appropriate robes of establishment pomp shows a playful and sharply sceptical sense of humour. Unlike everyone else, he revels in impracticable gothic excess and decay. Climbing the perilous stairs of the laboratory tower, which almost everybody has had a moan about, and which Henry issues an apologetic warning about (‘they’re a bit slimy, I expect’), he cheerfully remarks ‘I think it’s a charming house’. He also finds the sepulchral gloom of the graveyard catacombs homely, the perfect place to unpack a picnic. Whilst everyone beyond the town dresses in contemporary 30s garb (the locals favouring traditional Alpine fashions), he shows his true colours (if such can be said of someone who favours black) by sticking to a sombre Victorian formality. At the end of the climactic creation scene, he acts as splendidly dramatic MC, ushering the ‘bride of Frankenstein’ onto the screen with a sweep of the arms which invites gasps and wild applause. His announcement incidentally helps to create the persistent confusion between monster and creator.

Elsa Lanchester's Bride gives some profile
Elsa Lanchester creates an electrifying effect in her few moments onscreen as the monster. Her jerking, birdlike movements show off every facet of her stitched-together face and white-streaked shock of gravity-defying hair. She looks like an undead model striking a series of Vogue poses, turning her profile to one side, tilting her head up and giving the camera a direct, open-mouthed stare. She’s sensational, and the hissing swan sounds she produces give her an aura of untouchable, bristling strangeness.

Walking and Falling - the monster as giant toddler
Then there’s Boris Karloff, of course, in the role which defined and in a way confined him, establishing at the pinnacle of the horror pantheon, where he remained stranded for the rest of his career. His performance brings profound depths of pathos to the creature, but he can equally well portray snarling, wildly stomping and thrashing rage with frightening intensity. His pathetic, pleading smile, seeking for love and acceptance, transforms in an instant into a teeth-baring, animalistic growl when he doesn’t receive it. Similarly, his circling, imploring hand motions turn into violent, clawing swipes when he feels threatened. He is essentially a giant child, new-born into a world whose most fundamental laws remain a mystery to him. He walks with a tottering toddler’s stumble, leaning forward into his next step and looking as if he might topple over at any moment. His tentative walk reminds me of Laurie Anderson’s spoken word song Walking and Falling, from her Big Science album. She observes that ‘with each step you fall forward slightly, and then catch yourself from falling. Over and over, you’re falling, and then catching yourself from falling. And this is how you can be walking and falling at the same time’. The creatures childishness is combined with an uncontrolled and unconsciously brutish strength, which makes the scene by the lake, in which the game he plays with his new friend Martha goes horribly wrong, all the more poignant. A significant part of Bride of Frankenstein concerns the education of the monster. Under the tender tutelage of the blind hermit who takes him in, he learns about some of the finer things in life: food, wine, cigars, music and, most of all, friendship. He even comes to entertain the possibility of finding love. He also learns the fundamentals of language and through it reason and moral philosophy. This is the closest the Universal monster ever comes to the articulate creature of Mary Shelley’s novel. With the knowledge of self and of basic moral distinctions, as well as the development of his own voice, the creature approaches the condition of being human. He is now accountable for his actions, which can no longer be considered the instinctive reactions of an unthinking brute, but rather a matter of conscious choice. This new level of awareness makes rejection all the more painful, however, and creates the possibility of real tragedy rather than mere pathos.

Entering the underworld
Christian symbolism which runs throughout the film, either offering the monster the possibility of redemption or identifying him as the suffering Christ-like figure. This symbolism finds its ironic centre in the meeting with the blind hermit. He thanks God for answering his prayers and sending a companion to ease his loneliness. The camera focuses on the crucifix on his wall (crucifixes of one kind or another are a recurrent motif in the film) which remains illuminated for a second whilst the rest of the screen fades to black. Ecclesiastical organ music adds to the sanctified mood. But we know that this new companion is a monster created from dead body parts in a laboratory who has just been on the rampage through the local town, leaving in his wake a dead woman and child. This new friend is also scoffing bread and guzzling wine, which runs in rivers down his chin, whilst the hermit prays. The creature’s eventual discovery will lead to the hermit’s hut being burned down, thus making him homeless and bereft of money or possessions. The God who has answered his prayers moves in perversely mysterious and frankly unhelpful ways.

Expressionist titles
Whilst there is a great deal of continuity between Whales’ two Frankenstein films, there are also marked differences in style and emphasis. Frankenstein is more solidly gothic, and its barred shadows, acute angles and exaggerated set design bear testament to the influence of the German expressionism with which Whale was familiar. This debt is made explicit in the titles, which are set against a spinning, kaleidoscopic backdrop of collaged eyes above which a fierce face stares out with hypnotic fixity, very much in the manner of a Dr Mabuse, Caligari or Rotwang. The gothic fixation with the iconography of death is also strongly present.

Symbolist art - death in the classroom
In the lecture room from which Fritz steals the brain, there is a charcoal sketch of dark socketed skull which could have been produced by one of the Symbolist artists of the late 19th century – Odilon Redon, Arnold Bocklin, Alfred Kubin and others. The film begins with a funeral in a wonderfully atmospheric graveyard. A grim memento mori funerary statue of a cowled death, resting on his reaping sword, leans in the background. It is surrounded by a pale of spiked iron fence posts which look as though they’re intended to pen it in as much as keep others out. Neither the gravedigger nor Frankenstein and Fritz, who lurk within death’s pale waiting for the moment when they can dig up the fresh corpse, have any respect for the dead. The gravedigger sidefoots an avalanche of earth into the grave and, when he has filled it and tamped it down with the flat of his shovel, lights his pipe and chucks the match over his shoulder onto the raised bed of soil. Frankenstein frantically shovels the soil back out, flinging it with careless abandon into the face of the statue of death. This irreverence, combined with an aesthetic fascination for the rituals, markers and symbolic representations of death, sets the tone for the rest of the film.

Lauging in the face of death
In Bride of Frankenstein, the irreverence is given greater emphasis. The monster angrily knocks over a tombstone statue of a saint, and Dr Pretorius uses a sarcophagus in a burial vault as a table on which to set out his picnic. He cheerfully munches and sips in the company of the skull and bones his gravediggers have just unearthed for him. The vault is a beautiful set, and it rings to his infectious laughter, which is thrown in the face of death. The youth of the deceased from whom the bones derive is emphasised. Her 19 years correspond with Mary Shelley’s age when she wrote Frankenstein. Pretorius’ supper with the dead may also serve as a reminder of the proto-Goth trysts which the young Mary (Wollstencraft as she was then) enjoyed with Percy Shelley by the grave of her mother in St Pancras churchyard.

The monster in Arcadia
If Frankenstein is classic gothic, from its lonely ruined tower to its mist-shrouded graveyards, timeworn stone stairways and even its gloomy, creaking hilltop windmill (a touch of agricultural gothic), then Bride of Frankenstein has more of a fairy tale air bout it. Terence Fisher would later claim that he thought of his Hammer films as adult fairy tales rather than horror stories. His observation could equally apply here. We begin in the distinctly ungothic setting (thunderstorm notwithstanding) of a Regency sitting room in which Mary Shelley proceeds to unfold her tale. With this ‘are you sitting comfortably’ prelude, we are given the impression of being told a story, a written fiction (or at least one composed within Mary’s mind). The Ruritanian light opera backdrop is perfect for a fairytale, and the picturesque town square is complemented in Bride of Frankenstein by lightly wooded hills in which a hermit’s hut nestles and sheep graze by gentle waterfalls. The monster is the lumbering giant terrorising this otherwise peaceful Arcadia.

Sleeping Beauty
At one point, Karloff’s creature throws off the lid of a sarcophagus in the burial vault, uncovering the translucent, perfectly preserved features of the young female corpse lying within. Her face softened and rendered spectral by a veil of gauze, she looks like a Sleeping Beauty waiting for an awakening kiss, or a Snow White in a witch-cursed coma. After his recovery from the travails of the first film, we discover Henry propped up in a bed with an absurdly oversized and fussily baroque headboard. He’s like a big baby in its cot, or a pampered prince liable to throw a tantrum or fall into a sulk when things don’t go his way. Pretorius is a wizened, beaky Rumpelstiltskin, a wily and persuasive trickster. His tiny homunculi, imprisoned beneath their private bell-jars, are miniature fairytale characters in themselves. There’s a little mermaid, a Thumbelina ballerina and a besotted king and disaffected queen. And there’s a devil, that mainstay of many a folk tale, a pocket-sized chip off the old block. Elsa Lanchester’s bride, dressed in her stiff white robe, and with her jagged frosty bolt of white hair, is like an ice queen, or a swan temporarily transformed into human form. With her limbs moving in sudden jerks, she also resembles a puppet brought to awkward life.

The town's gothic underside
In Frankenstein, there was a definite divide between the gothic world which Frankenstein inhabited and the light operatic set of the town, in which festive dancing is always on the verge of breaking out and steins of foaming beer are swung in time to a lusty chorus. This divide seems less definite in Bride of Frankenstein. The town is even revealed to have its own gothic corners in the form of a grim dungeon with a monumental throne on a stony dais ready for the monster to be chained upon. This is a place stuck in a fantasy of 18th & 19th century feudalism, even though we are supposedly in the 20th century, a fact marked by the loosely hanging suits of Henry and Victor and Elizabeth’s ‘30s wardrobe. The age of technological modernity takes refuge in the unlikely gothic surrounds. In locating the Tesla coils, transformers and resistors of the scientist’s lab in castle vaults and crumbling towers, Whale and his Universal successors make the link between Frankenstein and the alchemists and necromancers of bygone centuries. The gothic is the form in which the past returns to haunt the present, and it does so here with crackling surges of electric current. Fritz Lang made a similar connection in Metropolis, locating the scientist-mage Rotwang’s laboratory in a medieval hovel crouched idiosyncratically amongst the gleaming modernist towers of the future city. He has a cabbalistic pentagram etched onto his wall to mark his intellectual ancestry even more plainly. Pretorius is aware of the shadows of their ancient progenitors too. As he jovially remarks to Henry whilst they are preparing for their great work, ‘it’s interesting to think, Henry, that once upon a time we would have been burnt at the stake as wizards for this experiment’.

Art Deco laboratory
The vaulting lab set is magnificent, and the way the creation scenes are shot further illustrates the difference in tone between the two films. In the first, expressionist lighting is the key, given a logical source in the actinic flashes from the sizzling machinery. The filming is fairly conventional, with the impressive set and props allowed to carry the dramatic impact through a measured observation of their operations. In Bride of Frankenstein, the emphasis is much more on the editing, which shows the experimental influence of Soviet montage techniques. There is a tilting of the space within the frame, dramatically uplit close-ups of faces, sometimes shot from above, sometimes below, and a juxtaposition of human effort with the dynamic motion of machinery. The lab is noticeably better equipped the second time around, too. Art deco technology makes the contrast between modernity and ruinous antiquity even more evident. This sequence is masterfully achieved, and its swelling rhythms (much enhanced by Franz Waxman’s stirring score) create a mounting sense of anticipation which leads to the triumphant climax of the unveiling of the bride.

Seeing these films in beautifully restored clarity on the big screen, a few slight infelicities inevitably showed through. The backdrop of the overcast sky definitely could have done with a thorough ironing. But with a little imaginative readjustment, those wrinkles and folds become shafts of rain or sunlight. In the scene on the laboratory rooftop in Bride of Frankenstein in which the monster pursues the torch-waving Karl up the Escher-like stairway to nowhere, the two figures are evidently projections. But their spectral transparency gives the scene a haunted, slightly hallucinatory cast which enhances its nightmarish quality. These are minor matters, anyway, and in no way mar these undisputed masterpieces of the horror genre. Any chance to see them in the cinema is a privilege and an unalloyed pleasure. To a new world of Gods and Monsters!

Thursday, 21 November 2013

Lisa Watts and Lucy May's Skitter at the Spacex Gallery

Lisa Watts’ and Lucy May’s exhibition Skittish at the Spacex Gallery is just coming to an end, culminating with Watts’ performance of her piece Snowgum on Saturday (the 23rd November). This will involve the use of chewing gum, using its elastic and adhesive qualities to connect the internal body with the outside world. It sounds like it will have its gleefully childlike aspects, too, taking us back to the days when we would stretch a bit of well-masticated juicy fruit to its maximum extent or splodge it onto a convenient surface with the press of a grubby thumb.

This has been a responsive exhibition, with something of a collaborative chain of influence and inspiration. Lisa Watts invited the curator of the Spacex to choose a sculptor whose work connected with hers in some way. She could then contemplate and respond to this work and use it to build up a series of performances moulded around it. Moulded is a good word, in fact, given the malleable, viscid materials they both work with. Most of Lucy May’s sculptures are made from twisted and intertwined strands and nodules of wax which she has mixed together herself to gain just the right colour and consistency. There’s definitely something of the charnel house about the Spacex with these sculptural tangles hanging from the walls. They look like viscera, freshly disembowelled guts, kidneys and muscle, and appearance enhanced by the glistening quality of the wax and the colours used. Other, smaller works have the same tangled form, but are cast in bronze and laid on marble blocks, making for a pleasing contrast of materials whilst retaining the glistening, reflective surfaces they share with the waxworks. As Instant Steve points out on his blog, there’s an element of the baroque to all of this in the intricacy and ornamental joi de vivre with which the wax is wrapped around itself into a riot of scrolled, balled and spiked detail. If these do bring guts and gore to mind, then they are nevertheless beautiful, celebrating inner beauty in a literal sense, rather as David Cronenberg did in some of his early films.

One sculpture mixes materials around its wax core, entwining it with coiled creepers of coloured foam and draping it with streamers of cheap and cheerful artificial flower decorations. I seem to have come across a number of works which incorporate gaudily colourful toys and gewgaws over recent years, including Hew Locke’s Jungle Queen II, currently on display at the Artists Make Faces exhibition in Plymouth. The whole erupts like a bizarre fountain from a plaster base studded with shells, which gives it the look of an oversized piece of surreal seaside memorabilia.

Unfortunately, I didn’t get to see any of Lisa Watts’ accompanying performances. She has left traces behind, however, which give intriguing hints as to what she might have been getting up to. Wine gums and cubes of jelly are stuck to whitewashed walls and ceiling like tiny fragments of coloured mosaic. Pieces of foil moulded to the shapes of arms, legs, feet and a torso and face are strewn about, looking like the dismembered remains of a cyborg or the discarded cuirass, greaves and helm of a medieval suit of armour. The artist was clearing away whilst I was there today, and these were rolled up into one big ball of foil, the fragility of the material made instantly plain. The debris of the weeks’ performances and experiments was making way for Saturday’s Snowgum climax.

Watts’ also has a film showing in the hived off upper room of the gallery. Made in collaboration with Alice Maude-Roxby and Ron Wright, Bad Luck (2006) unfolds in an ordinary bedroom with an ordinary self-assembled pine bed and dressing table. Within this everyday space, a formless figure completely tented in black rises and spews out coloured umbrellas from a pouch over its stomach. They spin round in a spectral blur before being unceremoniously cast aside, where they pile up on the floor. There’s something defiant about this momentary flourish of primary colour against the enveloping black cloak, which erases any trace of personality. I had thought that this might be an oblique evocation of the controversies around the wearing of the burqa, and a wider comment on the continuing oppression of women around the world, the expectation that they should be confined to the domestic sphere. Lisa Watts told me that this wasn’t the case, but that I wasn’t the first person to make this connection. In fact, she said, there was no direct narrative intention behind the film. The umbrellas being pushed out of the stomach panel before expanding into their chromatic segments does make a connection with Lucy May’s visceral sculptures, however.

A second section features a nearly naked female figure, who we might assume has emerged from the erasing shroud of black material. She makes awkward stepping gestures, as if moving to a disjointed music, and is encumbered by two other sets of cloth limbs attached by a brace to either side of her own legs. Both parts of the film have the feel of a sinister variety show, routines played out in a private arena and serving as some kind of therapeutic personal psychodrama played out in the privacy of the bedroom. The soundtrack, electronic drones which swell to an ominous pitch before suddenly lapsing into silence, adds to the atmosphere of intensely focussed interiority, and of something of great personal import being worked through in a soberly ritualistic fashion. Whatever interpretation you choose to put on it (or not), it’s an intriguing and absorbing film which creates a strangely compelling mood of domestic strangeness. The electronic drones leak out into the rest of the gallery, too, and thus serve as a good soundtrack for the show as a whole.

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Modern and Contemporary Art in Plymouth: Artists Making Faces, Hidden in Plain Sight and Luke Fowler

There’s an excellent range of modern art on display in Plymouth at the moment. In the City Museum and Art Galleries an exhibition with the witty title Artists Make Faces gathers together a diverse hoard of heads; phizogs painted, inked, scrawled, sculpted or assembled from gaudy gewgaws. They have been chosen by the estimable Monika Kinley, and is a variation on a similar exhibition which she put together in 1983 with her late partner, the poet and curator Victor Musgrave, and showed in their London home. The title is particularly well-worded given the tendency towards facial distortion. The visages here are pulled into gnarled grimaces and goofy grins, blurred with sleep or caught in moments of shock, aggression or slack blankness. Partly, this reflects the modernist deviation from direct representation into more expressionist, surreal or abstracted views of the subject. But when that subject is the human face, it’s almost impossible to separate the form from the emotional affect of the picture. Once recognised, the features of a face can’t be reduced to a cool analysis of line, colour and textural qualities. They invite a more direct and immediate response, with an appreciation of their artistry possible once familiarity has been established. As with people in the flesh, it’s through the face that first impressions are most firmly imprinted.

One of the most significant aspects of the exhibition is the inclusion of work by so-called outsider artists, which introduces an intriguing dimension to notions of direct, ‘artless’ expression. Kinley and Musgrave were both champions of outsider artists; Musgrave organised a major exhibition in London in 1979, which helped to define the idea of such art as a genre in itself, and they both amassed an impressive collection, which Kinley continued to expand after Musgrave’s death in 1984. It now resides in the Whitworth Gallery in Manchester. Maybe she feels a certain kinship with these artists who exist well beyond the boundaries of any establishment, creating purely at the behest of whatever need or spirit drives them. As a Jewish girl and the daughter of progressively minded parents in 1930s Europe, she was herself marked as an undesirable outsider and driven across the continent by the expansion of Nazi power and ideology until finally ending up in England as a young teenager in 1939. Although a life-long lover of the visual arts, she had little formal training; the nature of the world in which she grew up made that an almost impossible proposition. In the post-war period, she found herself a job in the Tate Gallery shop in order that she might be close to the world which was so dear to her heart and enjoy the intense discussions about the latest movements and artists which were a part of that milieu. Evidently a very personable and passionate character, she got to know some of the newly emerging artists in London at this time, and started to use her home as a private gallery in which to show their work and foster interest in it. She found a fellow spirit in Victor Musgrave, and together they did a great deal to promote new British art (as well as much more from beyond these shores) in the in the 60s and 70s. Musgrave had opened a gallery called Gallery One in the 50s in Soho which moved to Mayfair in the 60s, and it was here that Bridget Riley had her first exhibition in 1962. The event was captured in a photographic portrait by Musgrave’s previous partner Ida Kar, the subject of a previous exhibition in the Plymouth Museum and Art Galleries.

Of course, once the term Outsider Art became a familiar part of the art historical lexicon, the work it referred to could no longer be considered to be wholly outside. Its very acceptance brought the basis of its difference into question. Other terms applied to it tried to steer around such tricky questions whilst still setting it apart from the idea of an authentic art. The USA, as a country keen to establish its own artistic identity, and with a philosophical bias towards favouring singular individualism over collective endeavour, has been much more open to the idea of the self-taught oddball. This is apparent in its rich history of musical mavericks and inventors, from Charles Ives and Harry Partch to Conlon Nancarrow, John Cage and all the folk, blues and street musicians who fashioned instruments from whatever came to hand. Outsider art here was often included within the traditional rubric of ‘folk art’, which brought it within the wider pattern of American history and culture. In France, under the patronage of Jean Dubuffet, it was known as Art Brut, or raw art. This was a term intended to sum up its rough authenticity. But its implications of creativity unmediated by conscious design risked patronisation, or even the exploitation of the vulnerable for the sake of manufacturing a subversive theoretical opposition to established values. There’s always been a dangerous and misguided tendency to ascribe some special visionary quality to the perceptions of social misfits or the mentally ill, as if they have somehow penetrated through to a more fundamental layer of reality inaccessible to the balanced, rational mind. Their artistic productions are more likely to be attempts to express or come to a greater understanding of their unanchored and drifting selves. As such, their work often seems congruent with that of modern artists who have tried to respond to the turbulent course and rapid, violent changes of the 20th and 21st centuries, and the crises of the human psyche which have resulted.

The Artists Make Faces exhibition places both Outsider and insider artists in unremarked-upon proximity to each other, making no distinction between them. It’s difficult to tell them apart until you look at the accompanying literature. Some of the better known names declare themselves to be the ‘genuine’ article, simply through the virtue of recognition. But distinctions soon grow nebulous and vague. Are self-taught people like LS Lowry and Cornish born David Whittaker outside or inside? The latter achieved widespread recognition when he won the National Art Competition in 2011, an award which specifically aims to bypass the insider world of galleries and dealers. They have operated outside of the mainstream, and still struggle to gain wholehearted critical approval, whilst enjoying broader public appreciation. Also, the lifestyle and behaviour of the likes of Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon shows that the most universally lauded of art world insiders can share similar personal qualities to those which are supposed to drive the compulsive creativity of Outsider Artists. The modern myth of the artist existing beyond the strictures of social convention as a condition of their creativity is a strong one, perhaps originating with Rossetti and the Aesthetic movement and the flamboyant Augustus John. It’s an image which many of the current generation of British artists play with in a very conscious and carefully controlled way, creating their own cults of celebrity controversy. This is exemplified here by Marc Quinn’s drawing of his 2006 sculpture Self, which was chiefly notable for the material it was made from – several pints of his own frozen blood. There’s a definitely a strong ‘look everybody, I’m mad, me’ attention grabbing element to it.

There is a wide geographical spread to the Outsider Artists on display. We have the Austrian Rudolf Horacek’s concentrated coloured pencil scribbles, made from the confines of a mental hospital; Englishman Albert Louden’s flattened faces with reductively mask-like features flushed with bright colour; the intricate ink doodle-hatching and weave (the kind of obsessive detailing characteristic of a number of Outsider Artists) of the American TH Gordon’s remarkable 48 Heads In A Frame, an almost anthropological study of comically grotesque expressions; similarly detailed features drawn by Richard Nie from Britain; the Serbian Sava Sekulic’s symbolic image of the devouring father Napoleon and his Daughters, the latter forming his hair and beard and stiffly arrayed in a queue like strips of beef jerky waiting to be chewed and swallowed by his loosely chomping teeth (this is the image used for the exhibition poster); Jimmy Lee Sudduth from Alabama, known for creating his own pigments out of mud and other elemental materials; the Glaswegian Scottie Wilson, another who weaves together an intricate mesh of patterned lines which are then coloured in with pen; and the German-born Agatha Wojciechowsky, whose paintings and drawings often derive from her activities as a spiritualist and medium in the USA, thus pointing the way towards the occult and New Age realms of automatic and channelled creation. This is an area of Outsider Art less likely to attract the attention of art historians and theoreticians since it comes with its own explanatory framework and is therefore more resistant to meanings being imposed from without (or within).

These artists are placed side by side with works by Lucian Freud, Frank Auerbach, Richard Hamilton, Roland Penrose, Eduardo Paolozzi, Marc Quinn, Howard Hodgkin, Gibert and George, Allen Jones and others. Hamilton’s Hugh Gaitskell As A Famous Monster Of Filmland (1963) is an amusing transformation of a sober statesman, a leader of the Labour party during the MacMillan years of the 50s, into a pop culture cover star. I don’t know whether there’s any angle of political satire intended here – Gaitskell as a well-meaning but blunderingly destructive Karloff monster. Apparently his rhetorical style was rather dry and clinical. Maybe Hamilton was just struck with a certain likeness, and felt compelled to place the blocklike head in this context. Eileen Agar’s Portrait of Dylan Thomas (1960) drips a white outline profile over a patchwork of colours (a synaesthetic representation of poetic language, maybe), the line flattened into an expressive smear. A startled swirl of an eye is added as a final flourish, giving the poet his wide-eyed vision. Nigel Henderson’s collaged Head of a Man (1956-61) was included in Patrick Keiller’s 2012 Tate Britain exhibition The Robinson Institute, and looks like a face embedded in the grain and cracked contours of a block of granite. Jean Dubuffet’s Smile II (1962) is a grinning gumby whose ragged outline suggests that the artists fully absorbed the raw spirit of the Outsider Artists he admired so much.

Some of the faces here make amusingly incongruous or strangely appropriate neighbours. Hew Locke’s Jungle Queen II (2003) dominates one wall of the gallery with a huge, brightly yellow head of Queen Elizabeth II cobbled together from cheap plastic souvenirs and throwaway toys and decorations. To its left, Ana Maria Pacheco’s untitled sculpture of a head with a spiky shock of hair looks out, mouth open in a frozen scream of horror. It could be the petrified Medusa’s head; it could be the head of a falling body, hair streaming out in the accelerating slipstream; or it could be the decapitated head of a queen from centuries past, caught in the disbelieving moment when it takes its tumble from the executioner’s block to the awaiting basket.

In a smaller adjacent room, an antechamber of the larger gallery which can also be reached by passing through the Victorian murk of the cloisterd library and print room, an exhibition appropriately called Hidden in Plain Sight is on display. This brings together a number of abstract paintings and sculptures from the museum’s collection. Most were produced in the 60s and 70s and acquired by the forward thinking director of the museum at the time, Alex Cumming. There are a number of works here by familiar artists associated with St Ives: Bryan Wynter’s Pas (1970), Patrick Heron’s Rectilinear Reds and Blues (1963), John Wells’ Variations (1961-3) and Barbara Hepworth’s Three Forms Bronze (1970). But others demonstrate what a strong centre for abstract art Plymouth was at this time.

Gentian - Derek Holland
Derek Holland and Alexander Mackenzie, whose paintings Gentian (1968) and Manganese White (1967) are on display, were both heads of art at Plymouth College of Art in the 60s. Holland’s Gentian mixes abstraction with pop art patterning, the zig zag stripes which form a bracketing ground to the painting, reminiscent of the psychedelic insignia on a Sergeant Pepper band jacket. They bring a touch of warm colour to the steely skies filling the rest of the canvas. Mackenzie’s Manganese White, meanwhile, restricts its painterly activity to a band stretching across the middle of the canvas. What look like two separate, mismatched photographic strips converge to create a single focussed image in the centre. This central area has the look of a geological surveyors aerial mapping of an arctic expanse of icy blue and white, circled and triangulated with the marks of cartographical orienteering. The thick black verticals threaded loosely together with wiry lines have the appearance of a provisional fence battered by the elements, marking out the boundaries of the known. Beyond, all is a white void, the purest kind of abstraction.

Manganese White - Alexander Mackenzie
This raises one of the perennial issues with which abstract art has to contend: the tendency of the human mind to create patterns from and bring associative notions to arrangements of shape and colour which have no concrete subject and are intended to be appreciated for their formal qualities alone. No matter how hard-edged the abstraction, how fervent its insistence on its complete repudiation of representation, the human imagination will always latch onto something and think ‘hmm, that rectangle reminds me of a table’, or ‘that circle is obviously represents a flower’. Lar Cann’s White-Brown Advancing-White (1967) is probably meant to be seen as a completely abstract composition. But its white island block, into which a series of linear strips have been excavated to admit the brown of the moat which surrounds it, brings to my mind the outline of docks and wharves. This is undoubtedly associative on my part, given the city in which it’s displayed and in which the artist was born. Relief sigils impressed upon the paper add textural detail and are suggestive of map details or maybe even guild signs. The passion still adhering to debates on the relative merits of abstraction and figuration or representation are indicated by the fact that this is the only one of Cann’s paintings from this period which he didn’t destroy.

White-Brown Advancing-White - Lar Cann
Other works here still trail shadows of representative subject matter. Margaret Lovell’s 1970 sculpture Barquentine III admits as much in its titling. Its twin bronze seed wings stand on a contrasting base of dark slate and, like her Sail which was displayed in the Women in Art exhibition in another gallery of the Museum, draws from the shapes of sails given curvaceous form by prevailing offshore winds. Michael Snow’s Tower III (1967) is a spindly bronze structure planted on a steel base, which has the look of an architectural model, prompting speculation as to its provenance. Is it a watchtower on some borderland of the imagination, the skeleton of an age old Babel structure long since blasted by divine lightning, or the framework for a new utopian block rising up towards the sky? It’s certainly difficult for the active imagination not to weave some kind of story around it.

Other artists use unusual materials to bring an extra textural effect to their work. Peter Tysoe uses slab glass, epoxy resin and welded steel to give the hunched amber wings of his Standing Form (1967) the look of a crystallised insect subject to the dense gravity of another world. Exeter-born Justin Knowles’ Three Reds with White (1967) paints its segments of ill-fitting red onto rough canvas, lending it something of the quality of 70s wallpaper. It’s fitted into an unconventional frame, a triangular form with curved sides, rather like a giant guitar plectrum. This shape gives the whole a feeling of tension, with the contrasting shades of the darker reds against the light background giving the impression of dimensionality caused by some external pressure. Beryl Clark’s Frame Tent (1968) has actual dimensionality, expanding out of the frame into a built-up geometrical relief. Silver metallic facets reflect light onto darker surfaces and contrast with shadows cast by other projecting spurs. Marie Yates’ Vertigo (1965) has the dizzying effect of a piece of op-art, with its receding set of nested black, white and grey hexagons set at lop-sided angles to each other. The whole looks as if it were about to set into spinning motion, like a movie title sequence designed by Saul Bass (who did indeed create the titles for Hitchcock’s Vertigo).

Two works bring us abstract painting from more recent decades and also make play with the physical qualities of the materials used. Ian Davenport’s untitled work from 1989 uses Pollock-like drips of liquid paint but allows gravity to create the motion of action art, creating chance effects by standing the canvas on its end. Julian Lethbridge also leaves his 1991-2 work untitled, both seemingly unwilling to give the viewer any distracting cues. He mixes oil and graphite on linen to create a brittle black surface which is then fractured into a webbed craquelure which radiates out from a central point of impact.

Keith Rowe's cover art for the CD re-release of AMMMusic 1966
There are two labels on the walls for a work by Keith Rowe which don’t appear to refer to anything visible in the general proximity. A low-level progression of creaks, metallic scrapes and electronic murmurs has been subliminally apprehensible throughout, however, and it gradually becomes apparent that this is what the labels refer to. I had at first thought it was the soundtrack to the footage of Patrick Heron painting in his studio being shown on a screen in the corner. An sudden strident electronic squelch seemed to correspond with the sweep of Heron’s brush across a blank expanse of canvas at one point. Rowe is a visual artist as well as a musician, and produced a number of distinctive album sleeves for AMM, the group he has been part of at various times. But the work referred to here is a performance recorded in New York on September 11th 2011 at the Amplify Festival. Rowe is best known for his unconventional guitar playing and electronic soundscaping in AMM, a free improvisation group which came into being in the 1960s. They emerged from regular rehearsals a the Royal College of Art in London, and thus have something of a fine art pedigree. Their music lies somewhere between the guided chance operations of modern classical composition in the John Cage mould and the hard-boiled, non-idiomatic improvisation emerging on the avant-garde fringes of the British jazz scene. Their first LP, AMMMusic 1966 was released on Elektra Records in 1967. In the same year, the label released The Doors’ debut album, Tim Buckley’s Goodbye and Hello, The Waterson’s Frost and Fire, The Incredible String Band’s The 5000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion, Love’s Forever Changes and Mort Garson’s Zodiac Cosmic Sounds. AMMMusic might seem to come from another world to these artists. But they are at one extreme of a strong experimental tendency which ran through the music of the time, and which brought the ideas of the avant garde into the more exploratory areas of pop music. The pure and lofty academy intermingled with the beer-stained cellar of the rock club for a brief period. AMM were a peripheral presence on the London underground scene, attracting the attention of the ever-inquisitive Paul McCartney, inspiring some of Syd Barrett’s wilder journeys into improvisatory space during Interstellar Overdrive and sharing a certain affinity with the likes of Soft Machine. The relevance of Rowe’s inclusion here (the labels making it clear that his sounds are an integral part of the exhibition rather than providing Satie-esque musical furniture) lies in the fact that his music shares the same drive towards abstraction as the visual art. He was also born in Plymouth, which creates a further connection.

Rowe lays his guitar on a table, behind which he sits with studious concentration, and he often appears to be dissecting it rather playing. Various small devices are used to make contact with the recumbent instrument. He strives to avoid conventional guitaristic sounds, coaxing and tweaking sonorities and noises from the strings, neck and body. It’s as if he were approaching it as an amplified sculpture rather than an instrument tuned to predetermined pitches and designed to be played in a particular style developed over several centuries. He often incorporates the sounds of a randomly and occasionally roughly tuned radio into his performances. In this case, a half-heard passage of mournful romantic orchestral music leaks through the static fog enveloping the weak signal. These days there are more digital elements which make the production of electronic soundscapes less of a physical process. Rowe is no longer a part of AMM, partly because of his desire to explore the new possibilities of electronic music more thoroughly. The group have always been riven by conflicts associated with the inward-looking ideological head-bashing of the post-60s factions of the revolutionary left. Rowe, along with bandmate Cornelius Cardew, was a Maoist ideologue for a time, which caused a lengthy schism. AMM have persisted in one form or another through five decades now, though. The very fact that the acronymic foundation of those letters have never been revealed suggests an emblematic commitment to abstraction which continues to this day. Keith Rowe will be playing at the Plymouth College of Art this Thursday (the 21st November), a return to the place where he studied art in the early 60s (although it's now changed beyond recognition). So you can see just how he wrangles sounds from that potent structure of wood, metal and strings, and what other devices will be cluttering up his experimental table.

The elder EP Thompson in full flow
Over the busy ringroad, around the roundabout island with its bombed out and stranded church and under the bleached bus station you come to the old town and Plymouth Arts Centre. Here, Luke Fowler’s film “The Poor Stockinger, the Luddite Cropper and the Deluded Followers of Joanna Southcott” is currently showing on a loop in the curtained-off gallery space on the lower floor. It starts more or less on the hour, and lasts for about an hour. It is based around the journals and class reports of the young EP Thompson from the post-war years when he was teaching WEA evening courses in various towns in Yorkshire. The film offers a view of a time when idealistic people of Thompson’s stripe were trying to provide a non-autocratic form of education for the working classes (or anyone else who wanted to attend) who might ordinarily feel excluded from institutions of higher learning. The students were encouraged to shape the courses according to their own needs and interests, and Thompson observations make it clear that the tutors in this context were likely to learn as much as anyone in the classroom. Some of what Thompson experienced during his years teaching in Yorkshire led him towards the writing of his magnum opus, The Making of the English Working Class, a landmark history which was first published in 1963. It was his historical reclamation of the lives of ordinary working people in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

It’s from a passage in the introduction to the book that the title of Fowler’s film is extracted and condensed. Thompson’s sentence in full reads “I am seeking to rescue the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the ‘obsolete’ hand-loom weaver, the ‘utopian’ artisan, and even the deluded follower of Joanna Southcott, from the enormous condescension of posterity’. It could be said that Fowler is trying to rescue Thompson and his fellow WEA proselytisers for the transformative power of open, accessible and democratic education (amongst them Richard Hoggart and Raymond Williams) from a similar retrospective condescension. His choice of a Welsh reader to taken on the role of the young Thompson is surely significant (as is the fact that he is audibly of more mature years, giving the whole thing an air of retrospection). His rich, lyrical voice replaces the slightly patrician tones of Thompson familiar from footage (some included here) of talks and interviews recorded later in life, once his reputation (and wild white-haired persona) was established. A connection is made with the proud traditions of self-education which prevailed in the Welsh valleys, which gives the film a greater universality. The reader also sometimes comments on what he is voicing, asides which Fowler has decided to retain. This creates a further sense of distancing and reflection. This is a Thompson coming to us at some remove, almost as if he were a character in the early part of his own biopic. Mysterious pieces of archive footage are interpolated at various junctures; firemen putting out a fire in the streets and a group of people walking down a newly constructed and as yet unopened motorway underpass. These hint at untold stories, and invite us to fill in the narrative blanks.

There’s a geographical particularity to Fowler’s images, however. They focus on the telling detail and the broader land and cityscapes. There’s a carefully framed pictorial quality to his shots, which are often lingeringly static. This stillness and reflective pacing draws the viewer in to the environments Fowler explores. Its visual tone invites comparison with the similarly contemplative style of Patrick Keiller’s Robinson films. There are occasional bursts of rapid editing and more fluid camerawork. These serve as interludes, chapter endings, or perhaps just as a means to snap the viewer out of a trancelike fugue. Interiors and exteriors are contrasted, with many shots looking out of windows at the vistas they frame. We get a feel for the spaces in which the evening classes took place, many of them now silent and empty. They are often to be found in Victorian buildings, and the legacy of industrial expansion and of the less visible socially progressive and philanthropic ideals of the later nineteenth century which shore up the WEA endeavour are made plain. Fowler contrasts the architecture of the industrial age with the concrete structures of the post-war era, which bear their own mass of ideological intent. An image of soaring and ruthlessly functional concrete roadways snaking over an old Victorian wrought iron bridge, rich in colour and decorative design, is particularly striking. There is a sense of a visibly layered history, of eras which looked to the future and were intent on shaping a new world, both in the built environment and in the less tangible constructions of the mind. Later accretions of steel and glass monuments and overarching malls provide the imposing architectural markers of a present in which all futures have already been bought up. The film is imbued with a certain nostalgia for the sense of manifold possibilities which the post-war period seemed to offer. It ends with dark clouds gathering above wintry hills. Richard Youngs (whose songs are heard at intervals throughout the film) sings an old ballad over Fowler’s slowly plummeting electronic sine waves. We’ve already heard Thompson talking about William Blake’s apocalyptic visions, and he comes to the rallying conclusion that the Beast is now more in the ascendant than ever. Through the chronicling of the small, everyday triumphs and disappointments of the travelling teacher, we gain the sense that this was a period suffused with the modest radiance of a golden age, one lit by lamps on a common, local and therefore human scale. An age before the darkness began to descend, particularly densely in the industrial north in which Thompson was teaching and which Fowler has documented on film.

Luke Fowler in the editing room
I went to see Fowler talk about this film and his work as an artist in general when he travelled down to Plymouth from Glasgow a couple of weeks ago. Patrick Keiller, Lindsay Anderson and Free Cinema were mentioned, and he expressed his admiration of Anderson’s If… ( a favourite of mine) and of its star Malcolm McDowell, whose youthful looks he shares to some degree. If… was the film he chose to be shown as a supplement to the exhibition. It takes a similarly iconoclastic stance towards traditional educational values, and its possible to see a little of Thompson in Graham Crowden’s eccentric professor, who rides into the classroom on his bike and tries to get the boys interested in the savage ironies of twentieth century history. Fowler also talked about his collaboration with Toshiya Tsunoda on the installation piece Flutter Screen which was shown in Plymouth as part of the British Art Show 7 in 2011. It initially sprung from a meeting at the Arika festival in Glasgow, and was partly an attempt to counter the static quality of the cinematic experience, the passive spectatorship inherent in the gazing up at a large image on a flat, unmoving screen. In Flutter Screen, a loose, silk screen is blown by a strategically placed fan. Projected images of wings, clouds and liquid surfaces are moved by the rippling of the screen rather than the unspooling of film or reading of digital bytes. When addressing the variety of his artistic modes (film, poetic documentary, visual art and music) he refused to be limited by definition or to accept a neat compartmentalisation dividing these different aspects of his work. Everything is sound art, he suggested, possibly implying that other connections could by adduced to bring seemingly disparate strands of work together. Questions were asked about whether galleries were the right place to show fairly lengthy artists’ films, and whether he minded if people wandered in and only stayed for a fraction of the full running time. He admitted that such work might not be for everyone, but that was alright. Even if only a small number of people got something from it, they were able to return and gain a deeper insight into what the film meant. He also said that in making his films (and he was referring to the Thompson film and All Divided Selves, his portrait of the anti-psychiatrist and 60s guru figure RD Laing) he was in effect educating himself. The Poor Stockinger…. Was therefore in effect a meditation on voluntary and participatory education in which the director himself partook.

Richard Youngs and Luke Fowler at the Bread and Roses
After the talk, people repaired to the Bread and Roses pub on the other side of the roundabout where Fowler played a short set with Richard Youngs, who had also come down from Glasgow. It was a prelude to their performance in a trio with Neil Campbell at the Colour Out of Space Festival in Brighton on the ensuing weekend. They were hived off into a hastily assembled corner snug at the end of the long, narrow space of the Bread and Roses front room. Youngs played a cheap old Casio keyboard, on which he stabbed chords, held down reedy drones and bent notes with reckless abandon on the pitch wheel. Fowler bent studiously over a sleek slab of digital gimcrackery from which he stroked looping beats and circling melodic patterns. Repetition was the theme of the evening. Youngs sang phrases over and again as if they might reveal a different meaning each time. The repetitions of the music seemed to ground the wide spectrum reveries found on many of his recordings, refining them into a point of narrow, pin-bright focus. There was a slight feeling of a work in progress, but even if this were so, it was enjoyable witnessing its unfolding.