Saturday 26 April 2014

Soft Estate at the Spacex Gallery

Artist and academic Edward Chell has gathered together a motley band of explorers for the new Spacex Gallery exhibition Soft Estate. They are all set on venturing into the seemingly blank and barren spaces of urban edgelands and interstitial no-places, intent on unearthing unexpected riches and neglected histories from what at first glance might seem unpromising terrain. By focussing on the wildernesses of the automotive landscape and the monumental ruins of the modernist era, the exhibition positions itself at one end of a continuum which connects it with historical artistic and aesthetic tastes and moods. It’s notable that one of the artists here, Laura Oldfield Ford, also has work in the Tate Britain Ruin Lust show. Her pictures there are ambivalently placed in the Pleasure of Ruins section, near to watercolours of ruined abbeys by JMW Turner and John Sell Cotman, and parallel with John Piper’s large, semi-abstract 1961 painting The Forum. Perhaps significantly, her paintings of battered grey estates and portraits of their inhabitants are placed directly opposite Joseph Gandy’s hovering view of John Soane’s new Bank of England plans depicted, at the request of the architect, as future ruins.

Edward Chell’s own work sprouts up throughout the exhibition, like the hardy weeds and scrubland plants which he celebrates. This is the unglamorous species of vegetation which goes unprized, and is uprooted when it strays into land cultivated by cursing gardeners. But it is resilient and indicative of the profligacy of nature, its stubborn insistence on adapting to and colonising any environment, no matter how inhospitable. Chell’s work is concerned with the artificial landscapes created by man to accommodate the car economy. He is fascinated by the new possibilities this has afforded for nature to flourish in areas hostile to human presence. This principally means motorway verges. The title which he has chosen, Soft Estate, is a term which refers to such spaces. It recognises that they have become distinct habitats fostering a surprising variety of life.

Chell makes ironic play with the proximity of a uniform, mechanised and ruthlessly functional manufactured landscape, seemingly intent on sealing inconvenient nature beneath a hard coating, and the plant species which go wholly unnoticed by those speeding past in their aluminium and moulded plastic pods. Mantel Piece (2013) arranges a varied array of highly polished silencer boxes from the underbellies of cars end up, moulded onto stands. The open ends of connecting pipes give access to the hollow interior like the narrow mouths of flower vases. On the flat sides, silhouettes of tough, straggly plants are etched, giving them a sense of permanence and indestructibility.

This impression is further created in works displayed in the smaller upper gallery. Eclipse (2013) covers the wall with evenly spaced square plaques, which are lacquered to give them a hard reflective shine and make them look like Chinese porcelain. The outlines of plants found on motorway verges are painted onto the surface of the plaque, and the whole looks like a taxonomical collection, pressed into lifeless, memorialised permanence beneath the translucent varnish. Three large drawings on rough-edged paper use dust gathered from motorway verges as the basis for mixing together a new graphic medium. This is used to create more silhouettes of hardy roadside plants. The means of producing the pictures points to the impermanence of the hard manufactured hide layered onto the surface of the world by human agency, which is subject to the same forces of erosion as anything else on the planet. It will, in its turn, break up and be ground down to become part of the topsoil in which vegetable life will establish itself in its own slow time. The glowing granular gold with which these silhouettes are filled suggests an alchemical process, the base material of the motorway transformed into irrepressible, outspreading life. The large scale on which these plants, generally considered unworthy of attention, are rendered gives them a noble, heraldic aspect. Michael Landy has similarly rendered weeds and wasteground plants with a fine art precision. By the very effort expended and attention granted, this lends them a new and magnified importance, directing our attention to the neglected and disdained in the world at large.

Chell’s four large paintings in the main gallery also make a significant link between the medium and the subject matter. These depictions of motorway verges, with flowering banks filling the foreground and most of the frame, are finely detailed in buttery yellow oil paints. These are daubed onto a smoothly reflective surface of shellac, rolled out over the linen field of the canvas below, which provides a dark contrast to these two-tone compositions. This hard shellac surface echoes that of the built-up motorway environment depicted. But the main focus of the pictures, as mentioned, are the verges, which glow with a flowering yellow radiance, a soft surface which belies the brittle, chitinous backdrop upon which it lies. There is no sign of human presence in these pictures. The overexposed, bleached light hints at an intense solar radiation, the burning glare of a post-human future, or one in which humanity has been forced from the surface of the world. The spirit of JG Ballard inhabits these depopulated concrete and tarmac landscapes. Their linear regularity, softened by nature’s incursions, are suggestive of inner topographies in which all inessentials have been pared away. Ballard’s presiding spirit hovers throughout the exhibition, in fact. The clipped psychogeographical musings of Iain Sinclair (particularly in London Orbital) and the wanderings of Robinson in Patrick Keiller’s films are further literary and cinematic satellites orbiting the work here.

Other literary and artistic precedents and pointers are invoked by Chell more directly. William Gilpin, John Ruskin and William Wordsworth are given their own personalised custom car plates. Some kind of progression in the aesthetic view of the ideal landscape is traced in this roll call of worthies, and the manner in which they are presented. Gilpin formulated the notion of the Picturesque in the late 18th century. This moved away from the rigorous formality and order of classical landscapes, which martialled landscape features into carefully controlled patterns. Gilpin’s idea of the aesthetically pleasing landscape incorporated rougher, less linear and symmetrical natural forms (deciduous trees, for example). But it was still controlled and made hospitable to the presence of the human wanderer, if only through the careful framing and placement of the individual elements. Nature was subtly altered and improved upon.

Ruskin played a key role as a critic in the development of Romanticism in the early nineteenth century. This drew upon the Picturesque, but emphasized the more rugged elements. In its valorisation of the sublime, the mountainous, cavernous and chasmic, and the pleasurable terrors they inspired, it also set the individual against their surroundings rather than placing them comfortably within them. The landscape and its attendant weather became something against which to test the heroic soul. Wordsworth stands for the literary side of the movement. He is another bridging figure, developing the Romantic worldview in his poetry from the Picturesque tastes which preceded it. Both movements, and the work which they gave rise to, still exert a powerful influence on the way we think of landscape and nature, and what we find beautiful in them, to this day.

The different styles of lettering on the car plates symbolise changing tastes over time. They also draw parallels between the modern car culture, which has transformed the landscape physically and in the way we see it (generally framed in a windscreen or window), and the 18th and 19th century worlds in which these aesthetic viewpoints arose. Gilpin travelled in horse-drawn coach on his picturesque tours of England, at a pace which made discoveries of special places all the more pleasurable. Wordsworth could write about he coming of the railways and the steam age in his 1833 poem Steamboats, Viaducts and Railways, not without a certain measured optimism, or at least philosophical acceptance. Ruskin wholly rejected industrialisation in his later life, yearning for a return to human craftsmanship rather than machine manufacture. But his promotion and approval of the Gothic revival as the appropriate architectural style for the age certainly had its effect on the look of the world the rapidly spreading railways made. The car plates look forward from this world to one in which pre- and post-war Shell Guides pointed the way to Picturesque and Romantic views, with accompanying illustrations by some of the prominent English landscape artists of the time such as Paul Nash, Eric Ravilious and Graham Sutherland.

Chell further explores this link with more signs on the walls. These can be found in parts of the gallery not generally used for showing art – the inbetween places which the visitor usually walks obliviously through. Chell thus reflects the theme of the exhibition in the very manner of its display. His signs are even put up on the outside walls of the Spacex, originally competing with brightly coloured bill posters declaring Luke Haines Is Coming (he isn’t any more, alas). The aluminium plates use the blue background with white borders and the lettering which are the uniform graphic style of motorway signs. They employ the same reflective materials which make the message stand out with optimum visibility at a distance. Rather than distances or directions, however, these signs offer outlines of flowering verge plants (hemlock, ragwort and lady’s bedstraw), making roadside icons of them. These bring to mind the sign which Patrick Keiller keeps returning to in his film Robinson in Ruins, zooming in to pick out the detail of lichen which adds its own congruent element to the overall pattern. Another sign frames lines taken from a recent variant on Romantic nature poetry by Andrew Taylor, which is subjected to a modernist fragmentation of the regular metre. The instantly recognisable blue of the signs contrasts well with the red brick in which they are set. It was a good idea to have the exhibition spreading out to the exterior of the gallery like this. Unfortunately, it does have its hazards, and Songbird, the sign with the poem, appears to have been nicked.

Other artists respond to the idea of urban edgelands and automotive landscapes in varying ways, which contrast with each other in a stimulating and thought-provoking manner. In the lobby, several of Simon Woolham’s drawings and lithographs are hung, their white surfaces illuminated by the sun which pours through the windows in the mid-morning and early afternoon. These are like obsessive and very precisely scribbled doodles, tightly compacted and clearly delineated around the edges. They seem to depict mazes, pens and tunnels, confining structures and boundaries. To various degrees, these structures have begun to unravel in certain parts, as if worn by age, or pulled apart and kicked in. A ‘pop up’ book contains more of these expressive no-places, although the pop-ups and cut-outs seem to offer no ingenious structural delights or surprises rising from the page at you. They don’t pop up at all. The accompanying text evokes the world of enervated teenagers, boredom alleviated by sullen vandalism and ‘shagging’. The language and behaviour is vicious, wild and nihilistic. These are deserted borderlands which have been turned into occupied territories, in between spaces for in between ages. They are half reconstructed (with the cuts of superimposition still evident) through imagination and memory (which always leaves ragged, unfinished edges). There is presumably some irony intended in the requirement to don white gloves to turn the pages of Woolham’s book – another example of fine art techniques and associations lending nobility to the legions of the disdained and overlooked.

George Shaw also depicts the worlds of childhood estates where he grew up in his paintings, drawings and lithographs of the estates in the Coventry suburbs where he grew up. It’s the lithographs which are on display here. I first saw a number of them in an exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge alongside the Michael Landy ‘weed’ prints mentioned earlier. They show the borderlands where the built environment abuts areas of scrubby nature. It’s a messy, ill-defined boundary zone, with rectilinear and organic shapes and forms thrown into unplanned proximity, sometimes harmoniously, sometimes not. This could be seen as the incursion of a now shabby Picturesque into human territory, or as the pushing back of the Picturesque by the expansion of dense human habitation. In The Birthday (2012), a stand of trees gathers in the shade at the edge of a block of sunlit white buildings. I seems as if they are looking on, poised to shuffle a bit further inwards during the night, when nobody is watching.

Either way, incursion or pushing back, these are uneasy spaces. The Picturesque is no longer a comfortable, pleasurable place to inhabit or look upon. The absence of human presence becomes inherently threatening. A path curves like a stream towards the black cave mouth of an underpass. The title of the picture, The Gamble (2012) makes explicit the danger which might loiter within. In Playtime (2012), the rope raggedly dangling from an outstretched gibbet arm of a branch looks as if it might be the remains of a noose from which a pendant body has been cut.

Laura Oldfield Ford’s 2011 Walsall Drift series also depicts housing estates, high-rise blocks and their borderlands – canals overshadowed and superceded by flyovers, gaps of horse-gnawed scrubland, motorway footbridges and derelict breweries. Her pictures are, like those of Shaw, filled with inherent violence and despair, voiced in the writing which is scrawled and incised across them. This is a graffiti which is part observation and pyschogeographer’s field notes, part projection of inner states. The words are obscured by smeared washes of pink, the messy traces left by attempts to scrub out graffiti. A similar attempt at erasure surrounds the head of one of the rare human figures found in the exhibition with a bubblegum cloud. He is a man standing with his bicycle beside the motorway footbridge. The disparity between the two modes of transport, and the evident fact that he will have to (or has had to) heave his bike over the bridge, suggests that he is almost as out of joint with his age as Gilpin might be if he slipped through time and found himself riding through the modern Walsall landscape.

In Walsall Drift 4 (Tower Blocks), the graffiti is more profuse. Its surrounding pink miasma fails to occlude the urgency of the story it tells of a woman living in one of the flats, the ‘mother of a bright ten year old’. The reductive delineation of her room’s contents gives a sense of confinement, of having gazed at these furnishings too long and too often. It’s like a modern variant of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s classic story of domestic mental disintegration, The Yellow Wallpaper. The feeling here are so intense that they leak out like curling smoke, filling the air with half-heard murmurations. There is a fiercely moral aspect to Ford’s pictures. Ruskin, with his insistence upon the necessity for art to have a moral dimension, would have approved of the sentiment, if not necessarily the mode and tenor of its expression. Laura Oldfield Ford’s work is gaining a great deal of recognition this year. She was included in the Ruin Lust show at Tate Britain, and will soon be a part of the British Library’s exhibition Comics Unmasked: Art and Anarchy in the UK.

As previously mentioned, there is a good deal of potential overlap between Soft Estate and the Ruin Lust, the Tate Britain exhibition. Day Bowman and Robert Soden could certainly have been included in the latter. Bowman’s Gasometer 4 (2011) is a large, semi-abstract painting in greys and whites, the barrel shaped form of the subject filling the foreground, as if viewed in looming close-up. The spattered ‘spillage’ of paint is akin to industrial spoil. Two smaller pictures from the 2012 Weymouth/Portland series combine painting and collage, and studiously avoid the attractions of the picturesque offered by the Dorset coastal locales. The Weymouth here is more like the secret militarised landscape portrayed by Joseph Losey in his 1963 Hammer film The Damned. The razor wire topping a security fence is outlined against a fierce orange sky, with explosions of cut-out purple flowers overlaid. Another gasometer is situated in a barren space bordered by chain fence links and blearily burnished by the unsparing sodium glare of night streetlighting. The picture is divided foursquare into discrete sections, which both complement and contrast with each other. Pink campion flowers offer the same defiant intrusion of life into the wasteland as can be found in Edward Chell’s work. A painted border at the bottom resembles a fragment of one of Monet’s water-lily canvases. Both paintings have more paint splatter spoil, and the latter has oily black mug-base rings. These look like they might have been made by barrels leaching some chemical effluent.

Robert Soden paints John Piperesque ruins, the rubble of ‘redevelopment’ sites, often in his native Sunderland. The shattered skeletons of buildings rent by wrecking vehicles and the tangled thickets of their wire and twisted iron frameworks hark back to the Turneresque romance of ruins. For a brief period, the urban space is opened up and the sky revealed, the city afforded a more expansive prospect. The Caretaker’s Hut (1985) is set against a complex foreground of tangled weeds and yellow flowers. The hut itself is painted a dark green, suggesting an affinity with this semi-wild environment, to which its incumbent evidently takes a relaxed attitude as far as trimming and taming is concerned. It bears the hallmarks of a hermit’s hut, a feature of many a Romantic landscape.

The same could be said of Guyhurn Layby Sit In Transport Café (2010), one of the photographs produced by the Caravan Gallery, Jan Williams’ and Chris Teasdale’s gallery housed in, you guessed it, a caravan. A converted blue shipping container is lodged in a bower of bright thistle heads and abundant weeds. A short bridge of steps leads to the entrance. It’s like a monkish cell, an enclosed retreat in the semi-wild borderlands. In No Way Out, Thurrock (2011), a roundabout road sign beneath a concrete overpass shows a broken circle ,with stubby radial arms sticking out at irregular intervals. It looks like a broken wheel, a symbol of stasis and inertia. All directions point to the sprawl of the Lakeside shopping centre. There is no way out, no escape, no possibility of pulling free from its massive gravitational attraction. It’s a picture which brings to mind J.G.Ballard’s 1974 novel Concrete Island, a latter day Robinson Crusoe tale about a man marooned on a small patch of land between stretches of the Westway heading out of London.

Another traffic island can be found in the Caravan Gallery’s photograph The Island of Sheppey (2009). This one is a little less busy. It’s partly a visual pun, but also plays with the ideas of the picturesque and the sublime. A small platform edged with curved curb takes the form of the stereotypical paradise island. Instead of a gently inclined, off-centre palm tree, however, it has a battered and extremely grubby bollard. The island also seems to have drifted into a layby, butting up against the shore of a roadside verge. It serves no apparently useful function. In the background below the Thames estuary spreads out in all its muddily expansive glory. The play on perspective suggested by the title (the traffic island as Sheppey) enlarges the estuary channel to an awe-inspiring scale, elevating it the status of the sublime landscape.

Tesco Superstore, Nottingham or Wherever (2006) offers an alternative view of roadside verges to Edward Chell’s nature reserves. The verge here is the hidden reverse of the automotive consumer society. The picture is taken from a perspective beneath the slope leading down from the sliproad curving into the superstore car park. The grassy incline is covered with a drift of detritus, packaging litter from the instantly consumed food tossed out of car windows. It’s an invisible no-space, out of sight and therefore beyond care or concern. There’s clearly a symbolic dimension to the picture. Behind the wry humour, there’s a moral dimension of which Ruskin would have approved.

John Darwell’s photos from the An Allotted Space series (2013) frame details of allotments in a spare, austere light. The Picturesque or conventionally pleasing is studiously avoided. There are no brightly red tomatoes or impressively bulging marrows here. The only real sign of colour and productive growth we are granted is a small string of red chillies, and they have been discarded on top of a compost heap, as if deemed to exotic for such surroundings. Instead, the emphasis is on the provisional nature of the cultivation of these edgeland spaces. This is like land coaxed into life by pioneers in a new world, or survivors in a harsh post-apocalyptic environment. Conical stacks of dead stalks look like miniature hayricks, bathetically echoing a favourite subject of painters of the idealised pastoral. Darwell seems most interested in the use of the recycled detritus of society in the allotment plots (descendants of the medieval peasant’s strips of land). The plastic bottles, mulching bin bags, buckets, chicken wire, corrugated iron and yoghurt pots which are adapted for a variety of purposes. They take their part in a cautiously optimistic new perspective on the Picturesque; one in which nature and consumerism strike a balance within the bounds of a test environment.

A key component of the Soft Estate exhibition is the sound which pervades all corners of the gallery. The poem outside (whilst it was there) sets a scene in which ‘the air cools (and) distantly I hear the hum of motorway’. This anticipates what we hear inside. Tracking down the source, we have to kneel down on the floor of the small gallery to look at a film on the pocket screen of an iphone. The image is reduced to a distant prospect, and it is the sound which disseminates across space. The rush of wind down the motorway corridor blends with the slipstream woosh of speeding cars. In one of two films, both shot from flowering verges, the cellophane flapping loose from a roadside memorial provides a secondary screen, a plastic veil through which to view the rapidly passing world. Human and vegetable time is contrasted, and we are reminded that Death dwells in Arcadia, too.

An alternate soundtrack can be heard by donning the headphones piled atop the tomblike black plastic block of the TV which is the visual focus of Hind Land (2013), a video and sound installation by Tim Bowditch and Nick Rochowski with Matthew de Kersaint Giraudeau. The picture on the screen is a static shot of a concrete bunker, which seems to be contained within this monumental mass. A triangular opening between adjoining spaces lends this subterranean interior a ritualistic aspect – a darkly sacred catacomb. The sounds which fill your head once put the headphones on (which also serve to block out the motorway hum) are suggestive of noisome, chaotic and heavily mechanised activity going on just beyond the stillness of the coolly and symmetrically framed picture. Electronic sputterings, ratcheting clatter and general grinding and shrieking conjure up vast machineries. A sound reminiscent of a heavy stone being cumbersomely dragged across a paved surface creates a gothic ambience. We can assume there may be braziers burning in this adjacent space. Blending in with the sounds of strange industry are traces of human voices. But they are transformed, made strange, metallic and distorted – part of the machinery.

These alternate soundtracks denote the divergent tendencies apparent in the show, the varying positions the artists taken on the spectrum between the sinister and the sublime. The diverse nature and outlook of the work, along with its shared focus, make this a fascinating, stimulating and highly enjoyable exhibition.

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