Archive for Reviews

Seeing ‘The Heart of Things’

Paul Hobbs' 'The Gate' and (background) 'Ten Words'

Paul Hobbs’ ‘The Gate’ and (background) ‘Ten Words’


Prompted by Trinity College’s Quiet Day, on Wednesday I visited an exhibition of Paul Hobbs’ work in St John’s Northgate, Gloucester (The Heart of Things is on until 21st November). Together, the exhibition and the pilgrimage afforded a stretching of perception into something more contemplative, even passive – which is actually a significant part of the Christian tradition, and part of the training of church leaders that goes on here.

The strongest of Paul’s pieces work along conceptual lines which play with different aspects of this passivity and activity. In a work such as Ten Words (2012), consisting of wooden blocks with various colours and printed news stories, the interaction encouraged from the viewer is of direct engagement and physical involvement. One can construct or deconstruct both shapes and language (including the words of the Ten Commandments), one is relationally complicit. However, the nature of a puzzle is also one that asks the viewer to remain if not physically distant, at least mentally distant, so as to frame the purpose of the activity. In this case, the puzzle frames the question of reconciliation between God’s words and the journalists’ words, while yet excluding the viewer’s words. I am both outside and inside this piece.

Similarly, The Gate (1995) as a sculpture of a slightly-too-small garden gate, has a conceptual outside and inside which relates not to the geographical space around it but to the invitation to a passive or an active response. There is literally no fence to sit on, and the point beautifully (if uncomfortably) captures the invitation from Jesus to “enter through the narrow gate” (Matthew 7:13), with all its sense of binary promise. Another striking piece, In Emergency Break Glass (1995), has a machete behind the glass frame we in the West associate with a cry for help or escape when in danger – our way out is here associated with the hand of violence and toxic fear (by way of reference to Rwandan and Kenyan conflict), which causes another uneasy relationship between passivity and activity.

Ultimately Paul’s work, as well as engaging mind and body in biblical or spiritual references (by way of allusive, creative suggestion in paintings, prints, collage and installation), has a deeper, more soulful engagement that’s something like grounding. It’s striking that the four central pieces in this exhibition (Ten Words, The Gate, Holy Ground and Attitudes) all bring attention to their place on the floor. It’s as if groundedness is the only possible starting point and ending point for the work – which turns out to be a great place for a quiet day.

When I met Verity

Damien Hirst's 'Verity' at Ifracombe

Damien Hirst’s ‘Verity’ at Ifracombe


I’ve seen quite a few Hirst pieces in my young art journey: at the landmark Sensation exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1997, and up to recent appearances in Gloucester Cathedral and Bath Abbey. I’m always conscious that it’s impossible to ignore him on the British art scene, but the levels on which I have been interested in his work have nevertheless remained at something of intellectual distance. I’m not shocked by his work, and I don’t dislike it, but there is a sense that I take them on as a kind of conceptual exercise, toys to play with in terms of imagery that gets me thinking – whether the references to disciples and saints, to visual religion, to butterflies. I’ve been recently excited by the techniques of digital foil printing and lenticular printing that he’s employed – glad that he’s doing it, and finding the results quite beautiful at times (‘For the Love of God’ as a 3D lenticular) – but the explosion of his self-marketing has a slightly hollow inflation which I haven’t quite settled in my head.

So it was something of a surprise to find that when I met Verity, on holiday in Devon last week, I was deeply moved by her. Verity is a 20-metre bronze-clad sculpture sited on the harbourside of Ilfracombe, a recent loan to the town where Hirst lives nearby. She is certainly a talking-point, and since installation last year in October, has received much negative and positive press about the connections and benefits she brings to the area – largely negative on the aesthetic response. She stands facing out to sea, in a pose that deliberately recalls Edgar Degas’ Little Dancer (c.1881), one side of her showing unmarked smooth skin and countenance, the other revealing a stripped level of skull, muscle and foetus. She holds a sword aloft in one hand, and scales in the other, while standing on a pile of law books – she represents Justice and truth.

For me, her monumentality had everything to do with being pregnant and exposed. She seems to exude both triumph and indifference in her state, without being locked into any male gaze of suitable womanhood, desirability, appropriateness etc. She doesn’t have a certain confined self-consciousness – or rather it’s more like a self-possession that means she can stand with her back to the town and the glances of others without seeming to hide. The exposed baby is key – the pregnancy is internally felt by her more than it is externally assumed by others. I love that. I felt an affinity with not just her, but Hirst who has in some way recognized a particularly visceral, interior burden and not simply a rounded glorified symbol of fertility (and/or nudity). This woman’s corporeality is the same as that of Virgin Mother – Hirst’s 2005 version of this sculpture without the objects in hand or under foot. She is not demure, she is feminine, she is humanity doubled – as receptacle of new life she is not just a passive recipient of something external, but rather the configuration and conjunction of internally-borne life, wrestled life, bloody life.

SBL report St Andrews 7-11 July

St Andrews Old Course

St Andrews Old Course


The International Meeting for the Society of Biblical Literature was this year held at the University of St Andrews for 5 days in July. Attended by over 850 delegates, the conference attracts international scholars working across a range of areas and disciplines relating to the Bible, the Society being the oldest and largest organisation in this field. With the University of Gloucestershire team support of Prof Gordon McConville and fellow-student Vivian Randles, I was pleased to be able to present a paper to the Bible and Visual Culture group, along with 7 others over the course of two sessions.

I say pleased, but the rather daunting prospect became even more challenging when my introduction to the conference involved negotiating a densely-packed programme, the combined brains of prolific and renowned biblical scholars, very hot seminar rooms and my own third-stage-pregnancy distractions. A popular opening seminar with 6 papers presented in honour of Richard J. Bauckham included presentations from N. T. Wright and Loveday Alexander; while a seminar on the Bible and Moving Image offered reels of interest on themes such as the unrepresentability of the resurrection and Exodus 8:2 in the film Magnolia. At nearly a dozen papers on the first day, I realised some pacing was in order.

A trip to the beach and an open top bus tour were, after all, necessary in order to better garner the original visual context of the subject of my paper – the 19th-century Scottish minister Rev Dr Alexander Keith. His introduction to photography may well have been in St Andrews through the friendship of Sir David Brewster (then Principal of the University) and his circle of pioneering friends who were making some of the earliest calotypes in the world. Photography led Keith to employ the help of one of his sons in photographing sites in the Holy Land, to undergird his thesis regarding the evidence for the fulfilment of prophetic texts. In my paper I discussed the ways in which Keith assumed a certain literalness of image and text, and their conjoined proof of God’s supernatural involvement in the landscape. Some questions and comments were helpfully engaging, and the paper was well-received.

Overwhelming to me personally however, was the committed and rigorous approach of all engaged in this area of biblical studies, particularly as encouraged by the Chairs of the Bible and Visual Culture section, Prof Cheryl Exum (University of Sheffield) and Prof Martin O’Kane (University of Wales Trinity St David). On both days of the presentations, discussions were lively and animated as to the institutional and methodological challenges of this interdisciplinary field. Questions debated included what objects are we studying, for whom is the research, and how is visual critique to be encouraged in what is primarily a literary field? Though it’s obvious that working out answers to these questions will be ongoing into the long-term, it was nevertheless encouraging that SBL has recognised and fostered the increasing significance of visual modes of biblical interpretation – from the rise of popular culture references in contemporary media to iconographical tradition in the long reception history of the Bible in art.

Garry Fabian Miller in Edinburgh

No. 5, The Sea Horizon (Series 2), 1976

No. 5, The Sea Horizon (Series 2), 1976


Garry Fabian Miller first showed Series 1 of the Sea Horizon series in 1977, and 2 years later, at the Arnolfini in Bristol. These 40 photographs were then published in 1997, and exhibited again at the Arnolfini (also in London), which is where I first saw them, aged 16. My visual diary entry that day:

27th April. Down at the Arnolfini. Blue gets me every time. There were about 20 1ft square of these photos round the walls of one room. This idea of looking at the same thing in different lights is like Monet. I would have got the catalogue – only it was £75. There is a serene consistency in a set like these. They’re wonderful.

16 years later, another set (Series 2) of the same sequence has been printed for exhibition, which I caught just before it closed at the Ingleby Gallery in Edinburgh. For me, the conjunction of my birth year and place, at the cusp of higher education into Fine Art, and now as a practising photographer and researcher, marks Fabian Miller’s work with my own interests in a particularly personal way. Not to mention the repetitive looking at the Severn Estuary, and the later inspiration from Dartmoor. I struggle to write thoughts about his work without being spiritually reflective, preferring something more poetic than descriptive – a foreword from Fabian Miller’s early book quotes Hilaire Belloc on the sea as “the common sacrament of this world”. So at this show, on a hot summer’s day and in an empty gallery, I wrote the following:

The wavering edge of perception and cognition. A thin line or a seam between an up and a down that are held together in some sort of suspension. The down has the most mass or gravity when you can see the frill of the waves, the implacability of a sea surface and a slight perspective shift when you sense your space above it. But it has the least when it’s merely a graded shade of darker plane, either colour-blocked and solidified or a sliding angle inward. None of this edge feels outward to me, maybe it’s the scale (40cm), maybe it’s the square shape – both a tendency to abstraction contained. The clouds and the light are mostly an upwards activity, a shifting screen of billow or streak, sun or rain, pregnant cloud or dissipating veil of haze. Metal grey, azure blue, Monet pink, ricocheted sunset light in gleam or gloom – it’s like a phantasmagoria where you don’t hold the transitions, rather they hold you.

Jutta Koether ‘Seasons and Sacraments’

Koether at the Arnolfini, Bristol

Koether at the Arnolfini, Bristol


Confused, obtuse, tangled, vacuous, fruitless and one of the most frustrating shows I have ever been to. Jutta Koether exhibits recent work in a display hosted by Arnolfini, Bristol (until 7th July), having toured from Dundee Contemporary Arts earlier in the year. Called Seasons and Sacraments, the work draws inspiration from paintings of the same names produced, serially, by Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665). The punchy title is the only thing that carries its weight in the entire exhibition.

Typical of discussions around postmodern painting, this is a display of work that refuses to land anywhere concrete. Display is an integral part of this commentary, as the labels accumulate in corners of the rooms with half-hearted directions to match title with physical piece. Hanging canvasses in such a way as to reveal their reverse is, indeed, to promote painting-as-object rather than as window, and a floor sculpture called Extreme Unction serves to interrupt a doorway into the gallery space. Context – yes, that attention to placement is indicative of painting’s unavoidable self-consciousness ever since Clement Greenberg corralled its reflexivity into/onto itself with Pollock et al.

Koether, according to the critic David Joselit (writing in October, 2009), takes this to another level because instead of bringing to light a visualisation of the networks to which painting belongs, she ‘actualizes the behaviour of objects within networks‘. In an interview this year (and through her performance pieces) she confirms this, as she explains that her work contains inbuilt frustration, where comparative readings win out, perpetually thwarting the viewer who would look to settle the issues at stake. So the feel of the paintings seen in the image above, which show 3 of her 4 Seasons, is one of intensity, but also incompleteness. They yield to a behavioural pattern, which Koether calls ‘propositions about painting, not just surface.’

The trouble is, this exhibition also has an inbuilt referentiality – to Poussin, to his kind of painting, to his titles. We may not know the references, we certainly don’t see the original pictures (only fleetingly in Eucharist, a screening of looped photographs of his pieces), but even if the ostensible priority is painting about painting, referentiality gains the upper hand. I find myself angered by a response to Poussin that is demonstrative of a complete ignorance of their content. Or that somehow such content is irrelevant when ‘quoting’ the work in a new context. Painting ceased to wallow in its preoccupation with form a long time ago, we are visually savvy about the potency of content (since Bacon, surely?) – and that is not to say that the old game of traditional, often biblical, meaning and symbolism such as Poussin brilliantly plays is back, but that we form its new context, and so replay it, regurgitate it, subvert it.

In the absence of such involvement in the work, I sought it in the accompanying leaflet provided by Arnolfini for the show. Disappointingly, this too, clearly struggled with Poussin’s place – on Eucharist (showing on the screen above):

The representation of images ‘as they are’ can be seen in the tradition of receiving the Eucharist ‘as’ the body of Christ (and not a symbol), a blurring between representation and presence.

As much as I would love to jump into photography’s discourse about the really real and its appearance, I am insulted by the trite comparison to sacrament. It is not that the meaning of the exhibition-wide references to church symbols and doctrine cannot be enlivened and enriched by contemporary appropriation, it is rather that they are taken here as insincere ‘profound’ labels for a meaning that is decidedly unexplored and unengaged with. Hence:

‘Baptism’, represented by an image of the German racing car driver Sebastian Vettel is a contemporary depiction of idolatry.

A deeper thread of the legitimacy of content in contemporary painting is the twenty-first century context of awakened religion and faith. In the media, post-9/11, the Western secular world has had to face and reckon with an insistence that representation of religion is to be taken seriously, and while the Christian heritage of this country is often a less forthright part of this dialogue, it cannot be ignored. Painting needs to catch up.