The main art gallery in the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter has followed up its Gillian Wearing exhibition with a show featuring three artists whose names you’re less likely to be familiar with. Together they form the group known as HIVE, which won a competition run jointly with the local newspaper the Express and Echo. Readers voted for their favourite amongst a shortlist selected from submissions made by groups in the Exeter area. Ian Harbour was the Hive member elected to give some introductory comments at the opening. He made reference to Grayson Perry’s Reith lectures and the light they shed on the machinations of the Art Establishment and the way it sets out to determine taste and what is presented to the public as significant Art (Art capitalised in more ways than one). Ian professed to being a big fan of Kurt Vonnegut, which brought his novel Breakfast of Champions to mind. This book includes a character called Rabo Karabekian, a minimalist artist who has just sold a painting to a provincial museum for $50,000 (bear in mind this is a novel first published in 1973). His painting, entitled The Temptation of St Anthony, is field of commercially produced wall paint (‘Hawaiian Avocado’) with a vertical strip of orange reflecting tape to one side. Vonnegut, who appears as a godlike authorial presence in a diner where everyone gathers, comments ‘I thought Karabekian with his meaningless pictures had entered into a conspiracy with millionaires to make poor people feel stupid’. However, the artist’s explanation that the day-glo strip represents an individual life as a column of light proves a revelation to the depressed author.
Ian also pointed to the Art Everywhere project, which saw works of art in British collections selected by the public appear as posters alongside the usual chaos of advertising signs, as a false example of the democratisation of taste. The range from which people were allowed to choose was preselected and fairly rigidly defined, following a familiar narrative path through the story of British art. Would there really be such a significant representation of the work of the Young British Artists if this were really a popular choice, he asked? (As an aside, I’m now frustrated that I didn’t come across some of my favourites from this selection – Paul Nash’s Landscape of the Vernal Equinox; Samuel Palmer’s In A Shoreham Garden; Richard Dadd’s The Fairy Feller’s Masterstroke; and in particular, Dorothea Tanning’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, whose surrealistic dream corridor would have appeared even more disconcertingly strange when happened upon in a bus shelter. I did see the paintings by Edward Burra and Michael Craig-Martin, Lucian Freud’s Girl With A Kitten – he had two pictures selected, as did Peter Blake – Henry Raeburn’s ice-skating reverend and Barbara Hepworth’s shell-like wooden Pelagos sculpture). However, through this RAMM and Express and Echo competition, he suggested, a real democratic exercise of public taste had been permitted to determine what ended up on the walls. So, what does the public choose when given the chance?
Eine Kleine Nachtmusik - Dorothea TanningThe three Hive artists are very diverse in terms of style and subject matter, but there is a certain shared sensibility (a Hive mind?) which gives their work a cohesive feel when collected together. Whimsy, a playful imagination, an eye for quirky and eccentric detail and a love of the mythic and fantastical run through pictures which are otherwise utterly unalike.
The Green Queen and her Bird - Su ScottingSu Scotting’s work is the most wide-ranging in terms of media, encompassing linocut prints and acrylics, watercolours, and drawings in various shades of ink and pencil. Her subject matter tends towards the Totnesian, a green and new age anthology of the sacred, mythic and folkloric bringing together shamen and fools, hares and foxes, reindeers and unicorns, Buddhas and angels. Her glowing, honey-coloured acrylic painting If the Bee Man’s Hive Thrives, He Thrives provides a symbolic signature for the group. A stylised figure of a man presides over the busy creative hub of his apiary, the trails of bees spinning woozy spirals around him. Some of Su’s paintings form complementary series. Four Seasonal Angels leaves its female figure eternal and unchanging in essence, but rings the changes in the turning colours of leaves and blossoms which make up her hair and clothes, and blushes and dims the bloom on her cheeks. A lino-cut Cherry Blossom Buddha is another seasonal marker from the other side of the world, imprinted in red outlines. The Green Queen and Her Bird and The Blue Prince and His Hare, with their stylised side-on figures, animal familiars and surrounding decorative symbols could be twinned Tarot cards, opposites which suggest a state of completion and wholeness when brought together. God Yul and Peace are colourful folk art Christmas messages (which would make great cards) with a Swedish and Russian flavour. The Russian scene balances an onion domed building on its snowy hillside curve, and surrounds it with more fantastical towers – a wintry Russia of the fairytale imagination.
Other pictures adapt the styles of painters and traditions of which Su is evidently fond, and which she uses for her own ends. On My Way and Dancing In My Garden both employ the vivid colours and iconography of Mughal Indian miniature paintings and wall hangings to depict women in Edenic landscapes. They’re shown side-on, with huge almond-shaped eyes, wide open, alert and fully alive to the moment.
St Ives - Su ScottingA St Ives linocut distills the town into a representative cluster of buildings as seen through a wide-angled lens, the harbour wall flattened into curving arms extending out into the sea, and waves reduced to frilly parallel lines. It summons up the essence of the town in a few economic gestures. Su seems to have been imbued with the spirit of the ‘naïve’ St Ives artist and fisherman Alfred Wallis. This is also evident in On the Island, I Am Safe in the Rain’, with its outline fishing boat floating flatly on the sea, and its perspectiveless but protectively encircling harbour walls.
I particularly like her pictures made with white pencil on black card. The contrast is very effective, and is eminently suitable for nocturnal, ethereal or uncanny scenes. There’s an owl in the snow before a backdrop of softly blurred stars; a boobyish bird extending ungainly wings which will never launch it into flight; a friendly zig-zag monster set amongst a storm of swirls; and an emblematic reindeer at the edge of a stylised coniferous forest beneath a milky smudge of a moon. A simple pencil work called The Soul Goes Home is beautifully done. A semi-circular boat carrying a calmly recumbent figure is cradled with perfect congruity within the deep trough of flame-like waves. A sickle moon hangs above, echoing the curve of the hull.
Su also evokes the comforting familiarity of creative domestic spaces and the well-used objects which fill them. Alison’s Wobbly Kitchen is an outline sketch, the wavering lines suggesting an in the moment impression, maybe made whilst perched on a stool. This is also true of In the Greenhouse, which feels like a spontaneous sketch intended to capture a moment and the feeling which led to the impulse to record it.
Some of Sam Harrison’s pictures, mainly created with ink pens, also evoke this sense of familiar domestic spaces, comforting corners or favourite spots. Idiosyncratic details can bring an element of magic or the weird into these scenes, though. A drawing of a sofa in brown ink pays close attention to every rip and indentation, as if each has an inherent story to tell. It shows an intimate familiarity with the weathered topography of this characterfully beat piece of domestic furnishing. A bony set of antlers which seem to rise from the abyss at the back of the cushions where pennies, biros and combs disappear adds a slightly unsettling element of ritualism or supernatural manifestation to this site of easeful, lazy repose, however; the familiar and homely invaded and made strange. Stove in a Shed casts a sympathetic and attentive eye on a neglected and battered iron stove which, with its bandaged pipe, has the look of an aged but still-loved pet being cared for in its decrepitude. Continuing the theme of finding value and beauty in the seemingly obsolescent, A Serious Vinyl Addiction painstakingly delineates the closely stacked LPs, dvds and guitars which are the outward signs of someone’s musical passions, locating a distinctive personality within apparent chaos and disorder (although knowing the mentality of the record collector, those LPs will be filed according to a rigorous and rigidly adhered to system). The Old Cassette Player is another piece of obsolescent technology observed with care and affection, a loving portrait of a beat up boombox. Cassette boxes casually left lying on top are titled Loved Up and Hair Loss, old mix tapes whose contents we can only wonder at. Stars emerging from the speaker grille and sequins scattered on top combine with emphatic ‘Wows’ riding on crackling zigzags to add a bit of expressionistic pop art colour, conveying some of the pleasure that the music radiating from this old machine has given over the years.
Guildhall Door, Totnes (detail) - Sam HarrisonSam also has a liking for objects, places and details of greater antiquity, and in particular for the strange folk art and medieval craftsmanship to be found in the south west. Guildhall Door, Totnes uses finely drawn in detailing to get into the weathered warp and rift of the medieval wood and the granitic grain of the arched frame, giving an impression of character incrementally inscribed over the centuries. C16 Door, Exeter zooms in on the lion’s head carved on the grand oak door to be found in the Cathedral Close, and once again we get the impression of the aged texture of timeworn wood, conveyed through subtle shading and an accumulation of wavering lines. Sam goes into the sacred stone groves of the chapel to find sculpted and carved creatures both quirkily characterful and disconcertingly strange in its chapels and naves. A mermaid drawn from a misericord triumphantly displays her catch, and her wooden form is given vivid life with bright watercolouring. A Bird Lady is another figure from the fecund Medieval imagination hidden under the choir seats, and Sam colours her into life too, turning her fish tail into a decorative weave of Saxon knotwork.
Drawn from the original - The cathedral mermaid misericordHugh’s Owl is drawn from one of many such creatures populating the chapel dedicated to Hugh Oldham, the Bishop of Exeter in the early 16th century. Sam, with her Lancastrian background, may well feel an affinity for him since he was born in a village which has long since been absorbed into the sprawl of Manchester. Her owl is given a softly stippled texture, lending the appearance of stone glowing in evening sunlight. It’s quite lovely. Another Owl for Hugh adds colour, giving it pale blue eyes, beak and claws and caramel feathers and setting it against a red background. It gives it back the vivid colouring most of the statues and carvings in the cathedral would have worn in their medieval heyday.
There’s a further owl painted in oils (an oil owl) on a small block of unframed canvas which looks like a squared off boss. A characterful portrait of someone called Dave Warren, a man with wild hair and a pleasantly lived-in face, is also painted in oils, a medium with which Sam is also evidently comfortable and adept, and is maybe looking to explore more extensively.
Hugh's Owl - Sam HarrisonThe piece de resistance as far as her pen and ink work is concerned, however, is After A Portrait of Elizabeth Flaye, which carries the further explanatory inscription ‘by an unknown artist – possibly James Gandy c.1625-1630’. The original oil painting, whose subject was an Elizabethan businesswoman, can be found in the history galleries below. The drawing technique here is fine, relaxed and assured. Gentle stippling of the nose, mouth and eyes gives her face a soft and kindly look, whilst a combination of concentrated, compressed curves and subtle shading delineates the spread of ruff and the lacy puff of sleeve cuffs with great delicacy. The black dress is inked in with many carefully directed strokes which suggest the texture of the material and the way in which it hangs. Sam’s pictures may be smaller in number and size than those displayed by her Hive cohorts, but they’re no less impressive for all that, and make an impact out of all proportion to their modest scale.
Ian Harbour’s paintings are the ones which immediately grab the attention when you walk into the gallery, partly because of their eye-catching colour contrasts and boldly outlined shapes, and partly because a number of them are simply larger than anything else in the vicinity. A wall of miniatures form a prefatory bloc to the right of the entrance, introducing us to the alien landscapes, pink and purply blue shades and amorphous, microbial creatures which constitute his imaginary worlds. Flat bottomed sugar mice and pac man jellies indicate a strong element of playfulness and whimsy, but the elements in the paintings are carefully ordered, the amusing fantasies presented with formal rigour. A racing scene involving the aforementioned mice and some curiously unaerodynamic hovercraft (indicating a planet with low gravity and a thin atmosphere, perhaps?) set off along plane broken up by arcades which could come out of a de Chirico painting (if they weren’t pink, of course). Holes in the ground bring to mind the architectural collisions of crazy golf courses to mind, too.
Pink Planet also features a surrealist plane, this one populated by semi-abstract shapes reminiscent of Jean Arp and Yves Tanguy. Blue Dinosaur and Pink Balloons maroons a diplodocus which looks like it’s been fashioned by a balloon folder with a surrealist bent amongst the linear skyways of a futuristic metropolis. The Riddle has pink snakes sporting bizarre headgear emerging from their purple urn dens, pinwheel eyes making them look a little dazed. They’re adjacent to a hole opening onto blue depths and the wall of a maze above which the perky light-blue ears of a rabbit peek. Figure that one out.
City Limits - Philip GustonThe influence of Philip Guston is an abiding one, but comes through particularly in two ‘conehead’ paintings. Coneheads Rally and Coneheads Meet both bring Guston’s klansman pictures of the 70s to mind, odd works in which the hooded figures go about everyday tasks, maintaining a permanent anonymity, as if the masks have become their true identity. Ian’s coneheads are in fact cone bodies, white geometrical beings with beadily blinking eyes and furiously flapping arms which allow them to hover, as they do in the first painting. Despite their rallies and meetings, there are none of the sinister overtones of the Guston paintings, with their sense that deep rooted hatreds lie close beneath the surface of the modern American psyche. These coneheads exist in their own self-contained world, and whatever they’re doing, it’s strictly their own business.
Fish Slide - Ian HarbourThey could be part of some notional computer game. The colourful, simplified forms of the paintings certainly have something of the look of old games graphics. They are filled with a sense of motion, which is particularly evident in the paired Alien Fish Slide and Endowment pictures. Both also share a sense of transformation, of circular or cyclical processes in action. In the former, squared off glaciers floating in translucent seas are carved with steps on one face and a slide on the other. Oval tadpole forms swim underneath and shoot up onto the steps, at which point fins become dancing flipper feet. A gleeful slide back down into the ocean and they turn back into fins, ready to start the joyful process all over. The Endowment paintings feature a pink tower rising against a purple sky, with arcing skyways leading into and out from dark arches. Hopping Weebly eggheads (egg bodies) make their way into one and exit from another with a new pair of skittering insect feet. Their swift motion, signified in comic strip style by bouncing and rushing lines, suggest that this is some sort of conveyor belt, hurrying through a mass evolutionary process of instant transformation. Another Vonnegut novel comes to mind: Galapagos, in which the remnants of the human race, watched over by the immortal ghost of the son of Kilgore Trout (the imaginary science fiction writer who is a recurrent Vonnegut character), devolve over the millennia into simple simple seal-like beings, and are much happier for it.
Ian furthers the evolutionary theme in his largest painting, Bird Tree. The tree here is a snaking purple and pink striped variety transplanted from a Dr Seuss book or a Tim Burton animation, with green leaf splodges like waving hands at the end of the branches. Curious and diversely weird birds take their places in the tree, one to each branch, as if acting under direction to demonstrate the variety of forms which the evolutionary process can create.
Jellymen Watch the Drop - Ian HarbourOther pictures inscribe colourful outline objects and creatures onto backgrounds of abysmal black. In Jellymen Watch the Drop, the eponymous beings supervise a rain of purple and green jellybeans (instantly reminding me of Harlan Ellison’s story “Repent, Harlequin!” Said the Ticktockman) from their promontories as they plummet into a deep chasm. The multi-coloured arrangement of beanshapes suggest that Miro may also be an artist for whom Ian has a liking. Again, there’s a sense that this could be taken from a frozen screenshot of some imaginary computer game. Press an invisible button and it will all be set into floating motion once more. A series of paintings of aliens on wilderness planets feature stripy snail-like creatures struggling up a challenging slope, and amoeboid space bugs with chirpy antennae encased in the circles of their encompassing pods, which float and land like hardy soap bubbles.
So what do these pictures say about the tastes of the public? They like bright colour and bold forms; the exercise of a vivid imagination; whimsy and quirky humour; the close observation of place, and of surprising and unusual local detail; the depiction of corners of comforting familiarity, but also of the familiar inflected with elements of the strange; folk art and emblematic or traditional images of the spiritual or the fantastic; but above all, pictures which delight and bring a smile to the lips. The HIVE contains all of these elements. It’s sure to thrive.