Archive for Reviews

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.

Bath Abbey’s Odyssey into art

Patrick Haines, 'Perennial', 2009

Patrick Haines, ‘Perennial’, 2009


On until 6th May, Bath Abbey is hosting 7 works by contemporary artists under the heading ‘Odyssey: A Long Journey in Which Many Things Happen’. 7 pieces, on paper, doesn’t quite seem to add up to an odyssey, but surprisingly, such is their thoughtful placement in and interconnection with the abbey’s spaces that it feels expansive in the flesh: an opportunity to soak up the resonances of carved or pictured forms in the multi-level languages of ancient and modern.

In fact, such close attention is paid to the siting of the works, that the dialogue between church and art becomes quite a lively one – which is unusual when the context for contemporary work is more often than not a white cube, resistant or even hostile to any community, let alone one with gargoyles and rood screens. So David Mach’s Jacob’s Ladder, 2010, has a conversation with the stained glass window above it showing the ranked descendants of Jesse (as well as the famous sculpted ladders outside at the west entrance), and Damien Hirst’s Saint Bartholomew Exquisite Pain, 2006, is in a chapel dedicated to the martyr St Alphege. If the text alongside the work were overlooked in raising such connections, visitors may well find conversation is literally generated by the vergers or other staff present, whose engagement is a delight.

What seems most rewarding of all, however, is the chance to quietly discover one’s own relation to the works and in this case, for me, the three pieces by Patrick Haines steal the show. Steal the soul might be a more apt phrase. Perennial, 2009 (above), is a 12-foot disconcertingly spindly sculpture of a giant hogweed. With its roots bracing against the bare floor, resisting earth-bound anchorage, it has all the menace of a triffid-like presence (warranted, in fact, by hogweed’s extreme toxicity in real life), until you notice the goldfinch curled and encrusted at its ground-level root ball. It has the red marking, as well as a thorn in its gold beak, a relic of and sacrifice with Christ’s death on the cross. It is so mute, so poignant, that on kneeling at the altar rail to get a closer look, one can’t help being drawn into its story, its passing. Similar smallness is felt in both Grounded, 2013 and Chapel Flight, 2013, where a dragonfly on a service book and a miniature skeletal chapel frame evoke something like an interior fragility. The poise of organic and creaturely life is given poetic and spiritual celebration in all these pieces.

The two remaining works by Koji Shiraya (After the Dream, 2013) and Tessa Farmer (Voyager, 2013) are physically more demonstrative. The former fills the Gethsemane Chapel with dented porcelain spheres, which tumble across steps and altar and the latter has installed a swan in flight in the Birde Chantry whose wing-tips fan out nearly edge-to-edge with the walls. Both have a rapidity and a flow, a sense of life briefly halted, though channelled by the space: Voyager in particular seethes with parasitic ants and other animals. Like Haines’ goldfinch however, the swan and the delicate butterfly wings impressed on its beak, stand out regardless of scale as stubborn symbols of loyalty and love – all the more so in their sacred settings.