The Art Diary July 2023 – Rev Jonathan Evens

The Art Diary July 2023 Rev Jonathan Evens

The July Art Diary includes exhibitions at Whitechapel Gallery, Hayward Gallery, Firstsite Colchester, Newport Street Gallery and Salisbury Cathedral.

‘Life Is More Important Than Art’ claims the title of the latest exhibition at Whitechapel Gallery. Taking inspiration from African-American writer and novelist James Baldwin, who proposed that life is more important than art which is why art is important, the exhibition explores the intersection of art and everyday life and the role of contemporary art institutions in a time of uncertainty and change. As Whitechapel Gallery Director Gilane Tawadros has explained, Baldwin “meant that we have the bare necessities of life —a roof over our head, food to eat and so on—but life should be more than the bare necessities” and that’s “where art comes in”. So, when the cost-of-living crisis is causing severe financial hardship and the after-effects of the pandemic are still being felt, the exhibition asks what importance we can attach to art alongside more pressing concerns. The work of its 12 featured artists, which encompasses sculpture, photography, film and installation, speaks to different experiences of migration, displacement and border crossing, the entanglement of past and present histories and the interweaving of personal stories with global events.

The Whitechapel Gallery is not alone at this time in exploring the place of art in relation to contemporary challenges. Incubator, in collaboration with Refugee Legal Support (RLS), is presenting ‘Lines in the Sand’, the gallery’s first group exhibition, which brings together four artists whose work looks at issues around borders, migration, war and displacement from personal, journalistic and artistic perspectives. This exhibition attempts to capture the ’embodied experience of borders’, a phrase coined by anthropologist Shahram Khosravi, and features the reportage photography of migrants in motion from Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist Lynsey Addario, a new series of John Richard’s platinum-palladium prints of the sea before dawn, Charlie Gosling’s portraits of refugees from all over the world and a large sculpture by Antrea Tzourovits, depicting the nuanced manifestation of a memory of the Bosnian war.


Evewright Libation Firsite Colchester
Kissi Penny – Sovereign SML ©Evewright Libation Firsite Colchester

‘EVEWRIGHT: Libation’ marks the first solo exhibition in a public gallery by EVEWRIGHT, a British artist with parentage from Jamaica. He is a multi-disciplinary visual installation artist who challenges public environments to make spaces for Black British stories to exist and thrive. ‘Libation’ features drawings, sculptures, digital films, photography, and recent performance, all of which explore themes of migration, identity, race, class and journeys. The exhibition’s title, ‘Libation’, refers to the ceremonial pouring of a liquid to pay homage to ancestors or relatives who have passed away. The ceremony is prominent in traditional Black Caribbean and African cultures not only for funerals but as a celebration of life for unions and weddings. Works shown include ‘££Kissi Pennies$$’, a series of sculptures that challenge the notion of value, currency, slavery and trade inspired by modern-day migration and the ancient African former currency Kissi Pennies. Coinciding with the 75th anniversary of ‘Windrush’, the exhibition also includes works which explore the resilience, identity, and determination of the Windrush generation and reflections on this nationally significant event.

‘To Be Free: Art and Liberty’ at Salisbury Cathedral explores human rights and freedoms and asks, “What does it mean to be free?” Salisbury Cathedral is home to the best-preserved remaining Magna Carta, a document that speaks of freedom, stating that all people have the right to justice and a fair trial, dissolving the absolute power of the monarchy. Accordingly, and looking through the lens of contemporary art, this exhibition focuses on five facets of freedom: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom of expression, freedom of movement and freedom from fear. The exhibition includes work by Yinka Shonibare CBE RA, Jeffrey Gibson, Ai Weiwei, Mona Hatoum and Lucy Jones, among others. A centrepiece of the exhibition is Cornelia Parker’s ‘Magna Carta (An Embroidery)’, a 13-metre-long embroidery installation depicting the Magna Carta Wikipedia pages, sewn by civil rights campaigners, MPs, lawyers, barons, artists and prison inmates.

As part of the NHS’ 75th-anniversary celebrations, Gloucester Cathedral is hosting a poignant new sculpture in the Cloister of the Cathedral throughout the summer. ‘The Hand that Cared’ has been created by Gloucester-based sculptor Deborah Harrison in memory of Fannie Storr, who worked for many years as a Senior Nurse in Gloucestershire before becoming the first Director of Nursing Education in Gloucestershire in 1981. She devoted her life to caring for others and died during the Covid-19 pandemic. Harrison says: “This hand bears the lines of time, experience and strength. Although Fannie died from natural causes, many nurses today are giving their lives in service to the sick, especially to those infected with COVID-19. So, the hand is a poignant reminder of the lives who have cared for others.” Harrison received Storr’s permission personally to create a sculpture based on her hand when visiting her during her declining health. Following its display at the Cathedral, the sculpture will then be on permanent display at Gloucestershire Royal Hospital as a result of a crowdfunding campaign by the Cheltenham and Gloucester Hospitals Charity, part of its project to transform hospital spaces. At the Cathedral, the sculpture can be seen alongside an NHS 75 Community Art Exhibition.

‘Dear Earth’, at the Hayward Gallery, is inspired by artist Otobong Nkanga’s suggestion that “caring is a form of resistance” and shows artistic responses to the climate emergency that explore themes of care, hope, interdependence, emotional and spiritual connection, and activism. The exhibition highlights the ways in which artists are helping to reframe and deepen our psychological and spiritual responses to the climate crisis, hoping to inspire joy and empathy as well as promoting a sense of political and social activism. Featuring engaging and impactful works in a diverse range of media, including public artworks outside the gallery space, the 15 artists involved explore the interdependence of ecologies and ecosystems, as well as our emotional connection with nature.
In speaking of ‘EVEWRIGHT: Libation’, Sally Shaw, Firstsite’s director, sums up the contribution that art makes to engagement with contemporary issues when she speaks of art: “raising questions and highlighting issues which are often quickly swept out of sight and forgotten by the mainstream.” Art can “confronts us with imagery, ideas and perspectives which challenge us to question established narratives and examine the hidden and forgotten lived experiences underneath”. Additionally, whilst “difficult subjects are explored, there is also a huge amount of celebration and appreciation of the strength and resolve of past generations.” Similarly, Tawadros speaks about “the critical role that art can play in firing up our imaginations, reflecting our lived experiences and opening up new possibilities for thinking, feeling and dreaming.”

Two exhibitions, which show art fulfilling those roles and connect with the themes of ‘Dear Earth’, take us back to art’s contemplation of our relationship to the land in the shadow of war in the twentieth century. ‘Rhythmau’r Bryniau/Hill-Rhythms’ at y Gaer, Brecknock Museum and Art Gallery, celebrates David Jones, one of the great artist-writers of the twentieth century, with an exhibition focused on the artist’s work in the Black Mountains during the 1920s, just a few years after his devastating experiences in the First World War. Made up of around 70 paintings and drawings, the heart of the exhibition is drawings and paintings made during Jones’ time at Capel-y-ffin, when the upland landscape transformed his work. He described it as “a new beginning”, his time there offering an escape from his wartime experiences and a cultural homecoming. The four years of community he spent in Capel-y-ffin affirmed both his Welsh heritage and his Catholicism. While resident at the monastery, he painted and illustrated prolifically, with this period proving to be among the most productive periods of his career. Numerous paintings and engravings were inspired by the surrounding landscape, and, as a result, he later reflected that the landscape had allowed deeper understanding of his Welsh identity. A sense of mystery and symbolism that invites the viewer to delve deeper into hidden meanings combined with nostalgia, foreboding, and claustrophobia are all hallmarks of British neo-romanticism. Its imagery of nocturnal landscapes and cityscapes illuminated by silvery, crescent moons, ruined cottages covered in tangles of undergrowth and anxious figures sheltering in shadowy woodlands and bombed-out streets reflect the anxiety generated by the Second World War and the nightly blackouts which plunged the country into years of darkness and uncertainty. Neo-romanticism infiltrated key areas of British creative life from the 1930s to the end of the 1950s and was characterised by a renewed interest in the Romantic era’s artistic and literary themes.

Fry Art Gallery, Saffron Walden
John Minton (1917-1957) The Hop Pickers 1945. Image courtesty of The Ingram Collection ©Estate of John Minton, All Rights Reserved, Bridgeman Images 2023

At the Fry Art Gallery in Saffron Walden, a spotlight is being shone on this movement that produced some of the most innovative and captivating works of art in the mid-20th century. The Fry holds a collection of works by neo-romantic artists who lived and worked in northwest Essex and is joining forces with The Ingram Collection of Modern British Art to explore the movement further through an exhibition of 30 works by Graham Sutherland, John Piper, Keith Vaughan, John Craxton, John Minton, Robert McBryde and Robert Colquhoun, and Michael Ayrton. Their deeply atmospheric works often featured strong narrative elements and revived a sense of the mystical, imaginative, and emotional in art.

Sean Scully creates expressive, multi-layered abstract paintings which fuse the colouristic traditions of European painting with the scale and expressiveness of American abstraction. Through arrangements of coloured bars and horizontal beams, some with inset or relief elements, his paintings spurn the cold rigour of Minimalism in favour of an impassioned application of colour that infuses his work with an intrinsic vitality. Though abstract, his paintings are rooted in the real world, referencing elements of the manual labour he was involved in since leaving school at the age of 15 – typesetting, stacking and construction work – as well as the landscapes he has encountered in his numerous travels. His concern for the environment and his focus on nature is reflected throughout his work.

His exhibition at Thaddaeus Ropac’s Pantin space in Paris has works which combine different aspects of key series that have characterised his work and career. In these images, Scully draws on his early work with interlocking lines and contrasting colours to form an intricate textural tartan into which he insets squares of more densely arranged rectangular shapes characteristic of his ongoing ‘Wall of Light’ and ‘Landline’ series. Begun in 2013, Scully’s ‘Landline’ series marked a shift in the artist’s practice, evoking horizons and landscapes rather than the architectural, brick-like structures that had thus far inspired his ‘Wall of Light’ compositions. Works such as ‘California Deep’ combine both geometries, embedding one painting within another to establish a dialogue between image and frame, inside and outside, the natural and the manmade. The new large-scale ‘Landline’ works have an earthy palette of moss and ochre that illustrates his new approach to colour, a reduction in the brightness of colour to focus on the materiality of colour.

‘A Great Light’ at Damien Hirst’s Newport Street Gallery celebrates Brian Clarke’s 70th year with a collection of stained-glass works from 2002 to the present day showing how flexible and wide-ranging the medium can truly be. Natural forms have always been a vital source of inspiration for Clarke, and these are interpreted as spiritual beings made of subtle lines and explosive colours. The creation of sensations of motion and vitality in these works conveys both aesthetic and spiritual meanings. His latest work, ‘Ardath’, a 42m2 wall of mouth-blown glass, bathes the gallery in light and colour as flowering meadow motifs build up a rich and dense tapestry in etched glass. A second key theme is reflection on mortality, with another new work, ‘Stroud Ossuary’, depicting hundreds of skulls towering some 10 metres above visitors. Each graphically etched skull is carefully placed on traditional lead lines. Other works are on a more intimate scale, with his recent ‘Kabinettscheiben’ being based on a series of collages and drawings. Across his five decades-long career, Clarke has consistently pushed the boundaries of stained glass as a medium, both in terms of technology and its visual potential. This is particularly so with his large poignant leadworks, which either fully or partially eliminate glass to create a contemplative environment and the triple-layered sheets of dot-matrix glass which he uses to build up translucent and transparent images of battleships and beach boys, as if in a distant haze.

‘Embodied Visions’ is an exhibition of paintings by Ella Baudinet spanning the artist’s spiritual journey of creation, manifestation and resolution. Baudinet’s works have an inherent abstract-surreal quality, encouraging the viewer’s complete presence and facilitating introspective reflection. ‘Embodied Visions’ invites visitors to explore their own subconscious through the provocation elicited by the paintings. The collection reflects the evolution of the soul, documented through the exploration into uncharted painting terrain. Baudinet’s work has been integral to her healing and mindfulness journey, utilising art for growth and transformation. Baudinet says: “The unity of the mind, body and spirit are at the very heart of my work. Painting continues to be an exploration into my own journey of healing and discovery, documenting the evolution of Self through the process. Art, as an expression, is like a flowing dance between conscious and subconscious, and in turn, the paintings often serve as a mirror both to myself and to those who engage with them. My healing and art practices are intertwined – one cannot exist without the other. At its core, my work is an expression of duality, an invitation to reconcile with the conflicting aspects within while celebrating the power of love as a transformative force.”

‘Life Is More Important Than Art’, Whitechapel Gallery, 14 June – 3 September 2023 
‘Dear Earth’, Hayward Gallery, 21 June –⁠ 3 September 2023
‘To Be Free: Art and Liberty’, Salisbury Cathedral, 15 May – 17 September 2023
‘The Hand That Cared’, Gloucester Cathedral, 1 July – 1 September 2023
‘EVEWRIGHT: Libation’, Firstsite, 8 July – 29 October 2023
‘Rhythmau’r Bryniau/Hill-Rhythms’, y Gaer Museum, 1 July to 29 October 2023
‘A World of Private Mystery: British Neo-Romantics’, Fry Gallery, 8 July – 29 October 2023
‘Sean Scully: Landline Weave’, Thaddaeus Ropac, Paris, 3 June—29 July 2023
‘Brian Clarke: A Great Light’, Newport Street Gallery, 9 June – 24 September 2023
‘Embodied Visions | Ella Baudinet’, The Arx, 26th May – 11th July 2023

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Lead image: Brian Clarke World Without End 2017,  Courtesy Brian Clarke Studio


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