The Art Diary December 2023 – Revd Jonathan Evens

Art Diary December 2023

December’s art diary begins with books that would make interesting gifts this Christmas before focusing on our usual eclectic mix of exhibitions that might otherwise be overlooked. Many thanks to all those who have gotten in touch throughout the year to offer thanks for highlighting exhibitions that otherwise might not have crossed their radar, particularly those that engage with spirituality in its many different forms.

Sean Scully has teamed up with his son Oisin to create ‘Jack the Wolf’, a fairytale aimed at children between the ages of five and seven. Sean has produced the illustrations, while Oisin has written the story. The book tells the tale of Jack the Wolf, who lives in a cave on a mountain surrounded by tall green trees. He passes his days luxuriating on his plush, velvet sofa, reading the ‘Wolf Gazette’. Every night, he sneaks into Colourful Town with one thing in mind: pilfering chocolate from one of the colourfully painted houses. One night, Jack finds out that the local children are being blamed for his misadventures. Distressed, he meets Rebecca the Rabbit, who helps him to confess. He makes a message using chocolate biscuits, and the town forgives him, leaving a cake for Jack every night.

Oisin lives in the Hudson Valley, and when not making up stories and drawing with his Dad, he can be found making up stories with his friends and going on adventures with his dog, Charlie. His uplifting tale celebrates the bonds of friendship, the spirit of community, and the virtue of honesty. ‘Jack the Wolf’ is the first children’s book to be published in a new series by Callaway focused on artists creating art with their families.

Peter Callesen is a magician with paper, having animated paper through his hands for two decades, from miniature works in A4 format to large installations at a human scale. With surgical precision, he cuts silhouettes out of flat paper, which he transforms into three-dimensional figures and imaginative narratives. Life and death, grandiose nature, the fragile human being, and the thin-skinned artist are all themes which Callesen audaciously approaches in his white works.

‘Skin of Paper – Selected Paper Works 2003-2023’ collects Callesen’s paper works from that period and is edited by art historian Natalia Gutman. Six writers – Barry Schwabsky, Merete Pryds Helle, Kristian Ditlev Jensen, Henrik Oxvig, Josephine Nielsen-Bergqvist, and Maja Lee Langvad – contribute prose, poetry, and art historical texts inspired by themes in Callesen’s art. Callesen himself contributes six completely new works, created especially for the book, which readers can try their hands at and experience on their own.

Thomas Denny has been commissioned to make stained glass for some forty-five cathedrals and churches. His windows number among the masterpieces of modern stained glass and can be seen in some of our finest cathedrals, churches and minsters. He originally studied painting at Edinburgh College of Art and translated this painterly experience into a uniquely expressive style of stained glass. His works combine the aesthetic invention of modern British forbears, such as John Piper, with subtle references to the medieval and ancient past.

‘Glory, Azure and Gold: The Stained-Glass Windows of Thomas Denny’ explores and explains the subject matter, techniques and dazzling effect of his craft through heartfelt essays, poetry and his own testimony. The writers included are Mark Cazalet, Emma Crichton-Miller, Finola Finlay, Christopher Gibbs, James Melchiorre, David Monteith, John Julius Norwich, William Packer, Chloë Reddaway, Jane Ridley, Chris de Souza, Pamela Tudor-Craig, Roger Wagner, Rowan Williams, Ann Wroe, Michael Tavinor, and Patrick Reyntiens. Some are artists, but the book also includes the voices of musicians, historians and a former Archbishop of Canterbury. The photographs were all specially taken for the book by James O. Davies & Rebecca Lane, Alex Wright, Colin Winterbottom & Finola Finlay. Cazalet writes: ‘It is as if you are being offered a choice between two temporal realities, the deep journey or present pleasures. Thomas Denny’s work provides both a rare and visceral encounter with the numinous here and now.’

In ‘What Would Jesus See: Ways of Looking at a Disorienting World’, Aaron Rosen, a leading expert on art and religion, tackles the question ‘What would Jesus see if he looked at the world around us today?’ by considering Jesus as a visual thinker. He invites readers to use their imagination to explore with him how Jesus saw, what he saw, and why it is important today.

Rosen brings a fresh lens to the Gospels, informed by his experience as an art curator and scholar and his life as a practising Jew married to an Episcopal priest. In the book, he examines Jesus’s eye for spectacle, his strategies for attentiveness, and his tools for discerning truth amid the flurry of false appearances. As he applies Jesus’s unique ways of seeing the world to key challenges facing society today, he taps a surprising trove of examples drawn from art, current events, and popular culture. At the core of Jesus’s ministry, he finds, is a call to look at our world -especially those who are most disadvantaged–with radical empathy. In a time when our eyes have grown weary and unfocused, Rosen argues, Jesus offers us the chance to see the world with renewed vision, focused on those who need us most.

In speaking about the book with Josiah R. Daniels, Rosen notes that “you can only get a deficient understanding of Jesus without understanding his Jewish context” and that “understanding that Jewishness … gives people permission to engage in other forms of interreligious dialogue”. As a result, “there’s no sense that Jesus’s significance for Christians is hindered but only expanded infinitely by recognising these inter-religious trajectories and understandings”.

I experienced the same sense from the opposite direction in curating a new online exhibition for the Ben Uri Gallery. Ben Uri was founded in 1915 in Whitechapel in the Jewish East End of London, and all of its programming initiatives and ingredients stem from the imaginative use of their distinctive and growing museum collection, which uniquely represents the Jewish, refugee and immigrant contribution to British visual art since 1900. The Ben Uri collection is composed of some 440 artists from 44 countries, of which 60% are émigrés.

‘Exodus & Exile: Migration Themes in Biblical Images’ includes a range of Biblical images from the Ben Uri Collection in order to explore migration themes through consideration of the images, the Bible passages that inspired them, and the relationship between the two. This is because themes of identity and migration feature significantly in both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, and images from these scriptures are a substantive element of the Ben Uri Collection.

The combination of images and texts enables a range of different reflections, relationships and disjunctions to be explored. The result is that significant synergies can be found between the ancient texts and current issues. In this way, stories and images that may initially appear to describe or define specific religious doctrines can be seen to take on shared applicability by exploring or revealing the challenges and changes bound up in the age-old experience of migration.

Art Diary December 2023
Shezad Dawood, Leviathan, resin with oxidised finish, 2017

‘Leviathan’ is an exhibition at Salisbury Cathedral by Shezad Dawood that explores the interaction between migration, mental health, and climate change with thought-provoking paintings, textiles, video, and sculpture. Dawood is a multidisciplinary artist who interweaves stories, realities and symbolism to create richly layered artworks spanning painting, textiles, sculpture, film and digital media. Fascinated by ecologies and architecture, his work takes a philosophical approach, asking questions and exploring alternative futures through what he describes as ‘world-building’ and ‘imagineering’. His practice is animated by research, working with multiple audiences and communities to delve into narrative, history and embodiment.

‘Where do we go now?’ is the title of a poignant sculpture placed within the 1215 Magna Carta exhibition space. It presents sailors on a small boat encountering a whale, representing the State. The whale threatens to destroy the vessel and prompts the sailors to throw a barrel overboard to distract it, representing their labour. ‘Where do we go now?’ encourages visitors to consider the legacy of the Magna Carta and the rights and freedoms of refugees. Dawood’s short films, displayed in two of the Cathedral’s chapels, are set in the Mangroves of Senegal and the Brazilian Atlantic Forest respectively and explore the ways in which all beings and the earth are connected. The artist writes: “We need to have empathy not just for other people living in our world but also for the vast array of animal and plant life who are victims of the way we treat our world.”

A central part of the exhibition is a collection of textile paintings hung along the Cathedral’s grand nave. These paintings depict personal possessions recovered from the seabed after a refugee ship was foundered, such as photographs and a passport. They are a tribute to lives lost and those that were saved, prompting visitors to consider how we can find new reserves of empathy and think about ourselves as one humanity.

This suite of textile paintings is based on Dawood’s work with the Laboratory of Anthropological Forensics (LABANOF) at the University of Milan. Led by Cristina Cattaneo, a team of forensic anthropologists go out with UN rescue teams and catalogue personal possessions recovered from the seabed when a refugee ship sinks, attempting the Lampedusa crossing from North Africa to Sicily. This archive is then used to help provide closure to family members of the missing, as well as lobby national governments and the European Parliament when they fail to meet their obligations to refugees under international law. Dawood worked with Cristina from LABANOF to identify a certain number of ‘representative’ objects from the much larger archive to try and replicate the forensic process and find a system with which to treat such sensitive material. Each object or series of objects is painted and screen-printed onto a Fortuny textile to highlight the essential contradiction between what is considered precious and what is not.

‘Celebration and Compassion’, the winter exhibition at Chappel Galleries, is a similarly diverse exhibition to ‘Exodus & Exile’ featuring, as it does, work by Alex Debenham, Andrew Gadd, Claire Cansick, David Stone, Francis Hoyland, Frances Mann, Graham Giles, Ian Poulton, John Maddison, Jonathan Clarke, Julie Giles, Mary Griffiths, Michael Fell, Paul Rumsey, Peter Campbell, Peter Kelly, Peter Rodulfo, and Tom Deakins. The exhibition mixes a range of religious imagery with depictions of churches or cathedrals. It includes a liturgical banner designed by Tom and Sylvia Deakins that St. Mary’s Church, Dunmow, has lent.

In 2008, a specially commissioned painting of the nativity by Andrew Gadd, set in a freezing bus shelter, was displayed in bus shelters across the UK. That painting depicted the holy family, with halos, in a dark bus shelter. The shepherds and wise men were replaced with fellow passengers waiting for a bus. Some were watching the nativity intently; others appeared oblivious and were checking the bus timetable and flagging down a bus. In a similar vein, Gadd’s images in ‘Celebration and Compassion’ – ‘Fairground Crucifixion’ and ‘Underground Jesus Study’ – also set Christ compellingly within contemporary contexts.

‘What Are You Looking For?’ at Coventry Cathedral brings together the work of two artists, Michael Cook and Michelle Holmes, who have each responded to questions asked by Jesus. Their artworks are shown as paired responses: a painting and a textile collage sitting alongside one another, with the stitched wording on the latter acting as a shared caption.

June Hill writes that: “The works differ in scale, style and approach, yet act as companions. In this, they reflect how the same question can resonate differently, from person to person and in the varying seasons of life. Michael Cook has spoken of being struck by how direct and powerful the questions are, while Michelle Holmes has described their very human nature and universal relevance. These responses are entirely consistent with the artists’ work.

The bold colours and imagery of Michael’s paintings fill the frame. There is no escaping the impact of the question. It confronts us, asking questions of the viewer as well as the subject. Michelle’s textiles, by contrast, proffer a quiet posing of the same question. Smaller in scale and more muted in colour, her work bids us to be still and contemplate what is being asked. There is difference here, but no dissonance. Neither artist seeks to present an answer. They have chosen rather to live with the question and to use the storytelling qualities of their work to encourage the viewer to do likewise. There is no rush to answer. This is an opportunity to dwell in the place of not knowing.”

From her first public work for the St John Bosco Catholic Church in Woodley, Reading, to the ‘Risen Christ’ on the west façade of Liverpool Cathedral, Elisabeth Frink undertook a number of commissions for churches and cathedrals throughout her career. Her ‘Lectern Eagle’ at Coventry Cathedral was undertaken when she was just 28 and was her first major commission.

Art Diary December 2023
Elisabeth Frink, Green Man (blue) 1991, Dorset Museum Collection. Artist copyright in image kindly approved by Tully and Bree Jammet

The first-ever exhibition dedicated to Frink’s time in Dorset showcases over 80 sculptures, drawings and prints at the Dorset Museum. As part of this new exhibition, her Woolland studio in Dorset, where she worked between 1976 and 1993, is being recreated. This display features her tools and the working plasters that formed the basis of some of her most well-known bronze sculptures, giving visitors a unique opportunity to step inside and see how one of Britain’s foremost artists worked.

Works that Frink produced at Wolland offer insights into her spirituality. ‘Green Man’ was inspired by the book of the same name by poet William Anderson, which looked at ideas of regeneration and healing through nature. Frink was raised in the Catholic tradition, and although she professed ambivalence to organised religion during her life, her sculptures reflect a broad knowledge of religious ideas and thought. ‘Walking Madonna’ is a rare study of a female body by Frink, which casts Mary in movement, striding with strength despite the grief that clearly consumes her face. Political themes also emerged when Frink paid homage to those who had died for their beliefs with the ‘Dorset Martyrs’, a public commission to commemorate the Catholics who had been persecuted in the 16th and 17th centuries.

‘The Great Cosmic Mother’ at Modern Art Oxford traces Monica Sjöö’s deep commitment to gender and environmental justice by showcasing her large-scale paintings created in response to the wide-ranging feminist and environmental campaigns she was actively involved in throughout her life. The retrospective of this Swedish artist, activist, writer and eco-feminist similarly considers the relationship between art, spirituality and politics.

One of Sjöö’s best-known paintings, ‘ God Giving Birth’ – which depicts the Creator as a monumental full-frontal, naked Black woman graphically birthing her child – resulted in her being threatened with prosecution for obscenity and blasphemy and was removed from display three times: from Drury Lane in 1969, at the St Ives Arts Council festival in 1971 and Swiss Cottage Library in 1973. It was eventually acquired by the Museum Anna Nordlander in Skelleftea, Sweden.

Self-taught, she dedicated her life ‘to creating paintings that speak of women’s lives, our history and sacredness’. Her imagery is characterised by her visualisation of women as powerful and life-giving; as goddesses whose ancient wisdom can nourish contemporary life. In 1969, she was a co-founder of Bristol Women’s Liberation, protested US imperialism, the Vietnam War and the US missile base at Greenham Common; in the early 1970s, she was one of the founders of the Goddess movement. She was also a co-founder of AMA MAWU named, in her words, because: ‘AMA means to breastfeed/ mother/grandmother in different languages and MAWU is a great West-African Goddess’. The group organised moon rituals, actions against racism, the war against Iraq, GM foods and Globalisation.

‘Surrealism and Witchcraft’ is a group exhibition at the Lamb Gallery that investigates the witch figure’s resonance in art history through the works of 11 female artists inspired by Surrealism. In the first half of the 20th century, when the post-war world was a chaotic blend of progress and loss, advances in medicine and psychology fostered a re-evaluation of the relationship between the mind and the body. In this conflicting context of devastation and development, André Breton and Sigmund Freud spearheaded a new philosophy in which dreams and reality would resolve into a kind of new absolute truth. Rooted in the same exploration of the subconscious and experimentation with the irrational, Surrealism was born and remains popular today.

Although the movement has since been largely male-dominated, women have long employed its practices to liberate the creative potential of their subconscious minds, with Mexico an early hive of female Surrealists including Frida Kahlo, Leonora Carrington, Leonor Fini, Remedios Varo and more. Often drawing on the figure of the witch, the magical entity gradually became a vehicle for women artists to release the depth of their dreams and explore ideas of gender and sexuality.

Blending pre-existing works from other canonical voices like the late Paula Rego’s with new works from emerging artists, ‘Surrealism and Witchcraft’ provides a compelling overview of how manifestations of the witch have evolved. The works in this show range from the beginnings of the movement through to the present, particularly highlighting the witch’s feminist significance through pieces that ironically unravel the Freudian symbolism of these broom-riding women. Inviting viewers into the mystical worlds of its artists, the show comprises new commissions. It highlights the ongoing reinvigoration of the witch through unseen pieces by Sophie von Hellermann and many more.

‘Don’t Stare’ at the Ikon Gallery features new photography and moving image, made in collaboration with Ikon Youth Programme (IYP). Using collage, IYP has collaborated with the artist Ashokkumar D Mistry on his process of making photographic images. These generative and symmetrical portraits of Mistry taken by IYP touch on how our perception of ourselves does not match that of others. Mistry is a proudly Leicester-based, Neurodivergent multidisciplinary artist, writer, researcher, activist and curator working in the UK and internationally. He challenges conventional ways of making and viewing art by subverting technologies and ideologies.

Treading a fine line between the hyper-visible and overlooked, the ‘Don’t Stare’ photo series is accompanied by Mistry’s film ‘Don’t Freak’, which similarly conjures a type of seeing that is oppressive and unreciprocated. In the context of disability discourse — where the uninvited look, or stare, becomes a form of violence — this work affronts the gaze.

Artist and graphic designer Micah Purnell, the mastermind behind Add Art, which showcases global art and design on purpose-built sites across Manchester, is, for one night only, bringing indoors over 30 pieces from the last decade of this celebrated project. The show entitled ‘Street Eyes’ will exhibit work from some of the biggest names in world illustration, typography and photography, including illustrators Matt Blease, Supermundane and Stanley Chow; typographers Anthony Burrill, Gemma O’Brien and Dave Towers; and photographers Anna Devís and Daniel Rueda, Yener Torun.

Add Art curates outdoor print projects with a mission to provide a public canvas to support artists and help to offer an uplifting visual narrative for passersby. ‘The ethos is simple’, Purnell says, ‘offer a cheery tone to peoples’ days, using the humour, beauty and humanity found in the revealing, curious and clever work of artists and designers who see life in illuminating ways’.

The exhibition also celebrates the construction of Add Art’s latest outdoor gallery and three newly installed exhibits, including: Sarah Boris’ brilliantly clever ‘Subverting the Rainbow’ piece at Chatham Mill; Al Maser’s stunning expressive abstract painting ‘Compass’ at The Giving Tree, Whitworth Park; and David Towers’ skilfully fun and hand-painted type piece ‘Nope’ at the Mustard Tree, Ancoats.

Purnell explains: ‘Once I became aware that advertising held an aesthetic monopoly on commercial space, I wanted to get involved and mix it up a bit, rather than having to see something that plays on your emotions to get to your pocket, we can offer something light, and easy on the eyes, mind and soul.’ He notes that: ‘Add Art’s values are about high quality, local and global art, of varying disciplines, mostly hopeful visuals, amidst the difficulty of day-to-day life. The works are gentle, friendly, and fun. They may say everything, and nothing at all, with a sprinkling of social critique and a good dose of wit and charm.’

Also in Manchester is ‘In Case You Missed It’, an exhibition responding to the closure and imminent demolition of Manchester’s much loved modernist campus – UMIST. Twenty-six artists have come together to celebrate their affection for the former UMIST Campus through a variety of art forms, including photography, collage, painting, printmaking, video, LEGO and even a hat. Built at the forefront of technical innovation, UMIST holds a special place in Manchester’s cultural identity and history. Its now iconic buildings define the height of 1960s modernism and the city’s strides into science and technology.

Gemma Parker, who conceived the exhibition, says: ‘I’ve often wondered how certain places can anchor people from a vast web of different backgrounds and experiences. Over time, buildings and their surroundings come to represent more than mere bricks and mortar and become placeholders for memories, ideas and feelings. When I learned about the fate of the UMIST Campus and the general outcry against its demise, I had the same thought: What does this place mean to people?’

‘In Case You Missed It’ is an exhibition about these relationships, a collection of creative responses to this Manchester institution. The artists’ personal stories involved ‘tell us about UMIST’s impact just as vividly as the clean lines that make up its facades and stand as a celebration to a place that in all likelihood will only exist as a memory in the future.’

Michael Garaway, whose ‘Barnes Wallis Building’ and ‘Holloway Wall’ feature in the exhibition, is very much into structure, organisation, systems, surfaces, textures, controlled colour and tone and has a wider interest in the influence of technologies on the look of our lives and environments. His work combines observations of the built environment with geometrical drawing and design processes to develop quiet and contemplative interpretations of places and spaces. As a result, his work is often seen as a much-needed presentation of stillness, contemplation and ordered calm.


‘Jack the Wolf’ –  Read More

‘Skin of Paper – Selected Paper Works 2003-2023’Read More

‘Glory, Azure and Gold: The Stained-Glass Windows of Thomas Denny’Read More

‘What Would Jesus See: Ways of Looking at a Disorienting World’Read More

‘Exodus & Exile: Migration Themes in Biblical Images’, Ben Uri Gallery and Museum

Visit Here

‘Leviathan’, 28 November 2023 – 4 February 2024, Salisbury Cathedral –  Visit Here

‘Celebration and Compassion’, 18 November – 31 December, Chappel Galleries, ColchesterVisit Here

‘What are you looking for?’, 18 November 2023 – 2 January 2024, Coventry CathedralVisit  Here

‘Elisabeth Frink: A View from Within’, 2 December 2023 – 21 April 2024, Dorset MuseumVisit Here

‘Monica Sjöö: The Great Cosmic Mother’, 18 November 2023 – 25 February 2024, Modern Art Oxford Visit Here 

‘Surrealism and Witchcraft’, 16 November – 20 December 2023, Lamb Gallery, London –  Visit Here

‘Don’t Stare’, 23 November – 3 December, Ikon Gallery, BirminghamVisit Here

‘Street Eyes’, 5 December, 18:00 – 21:00 GMT, Chatham Mill, Manchester Visit Here

‘In Case You Missed It’, 3 November – 24 December, The Modernist, ManchesterVisit Here

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