A round-up of exhibitions in East Sussex between Eastbourne and St Leonards in April 2023.
TOWNER 100: The Living Collection
17 December 2022 to 28 August 2023
By Gail Borrow
Towner 100: The Living Collection is an exhibition mounted to mark the 100th anniversary of Eastbourne’s art gallery in the year when hosting the Turner Prize raises the profile of this south coast of England venue.
The beginning of the exhibition perhaps predictably offers the binary contrast of the Towner’s venue for 90 years, an eighteenth century manor house, depicted in a 2005 woodcut on paper by Simon Wood and the iconic shape of the Towner’s current purpose-built venue, an image by Linda Green. This modernist building has arguably become the emblem of Eastbourne and the stencilled ink print on paper is small in proportion but captures the monumental architecture.
Anticipation of the gallery experience ends there however. Stepping into the body of the gallery, jump-out-at-you selections from the Towner collection of over 5000 artworks include Edward Wadsworth’s Bronze Ballet, a 1940 Tempera on canvas applied to a wood panel depicting boat propellers. Huge nautical engineering components are composed in a synchronicity that conjures the lightness of a corps de ballet – an aerial synergy – and that of a dance of natural forms: fins, shell and blooms.
At 10am on a Sunday morning, the gallery is pleasantly populated by four parties of viewers including the family whose joyful chatter animates the space. The children are drawn to canvases with strong shapes at their viewing level and it becomes clear that this free entry gallery offers a relaxed environment welcoming children’s engagement need to get up close.
In coming to Bronze Ballet, they initiate a binary comparison with Roger Hilton’s submerged chalky boat in dark waters shape. The terminology for Hilton’s May 1961 is their articulation; I think Hilton would have approved. In their lively responses, running between the two images, builds enthusiasm in the gallery space. The entire viewing cohort is grinning.
Has this comparative approach been encouraged by the initial two paintings at the gallery entrance, I wonder? Or does the abstract form in Hilton’s Painting, May 1961, catalyse the contrast as a way of referencing shapes rooted in our learning right through our formative education: this is a triangle and this is a circle…
Form-foregrounded work is well represented in the exhibition. I look around the gallery and shapes pop out, prompting a desire for comparison exploring relationships between the works. Curatorial placement, now feel the dominant voice in this mixed show.
The most startling of these partnerships is Ana Maria Pacheco’s Box of Heads (Studies for the Banquet Sculpture) 1984, paired with Eileen Cooper’s Ship Ahoy created in the following year. Both artists are exploring how myth informs their experience and, in their very different ways, myth making.
Pacheco’s wood sculptures of heads are possibly a portal into the story telling registers in her country of birth, Brazil, but that question is one of a number raised with no answers. The facial expressions suggest separate interiors narratives and scenarios in front of each set of eyes, perhaps embracing the complexity of any community in any part of the world. Despite a homogenous palette, these heads don’t seem to fit together. Their setting in the found cabinet gives a sense of individual flats in a tower block, politicians in their chairs in a council chamber, workers at their desk in an office. The work exudes the buzz of busy brains making multiple stories with little connection. The overwhelming sense is of the artist viewing these heads in wonder.
Cooper’s charcoal and conte on paper links with Pancheco’s heads through the palette and the head of a single figure in the composition. The gaze, however feels that it solely reflects life inside the solitary figure. The subject is depicted in an absorbing dream state, not seeming to feel that anything in front of the eyes is remotely relevant right now. As an exploration of the state of childbirth, this is highly relatable.
Cooper offers a torso pregnant with sailing boats framed by hands and folded legs. Referencing global folk art, this is a deeply personal articulation, the “physical and spiritual journey that lies ahead” articulated in the signage captured in sweeping movement in the composition creating woman as a deity so magnificent that she stoops to fit into the frame.
The Living Collection considers Towner’s broad and varied history of collecting and exhibiting over the past one hundred years through a selection of paintings, prints and artefacts accompanied with a lunchtime response programme of events where members of the Towner team invite viewers to a conversation in the gallery. Opening hours of this FREE ENTRY venue are Tuesday to Sunday, 10.00am to 5.00pm. Access facilities listed on the venue’s website include:
• a very large lift to all floors, which is particularly useful for groups
• a manual wheelchair for visitors with mobility difficulties
• an induction loop system at the welcome desk and in the cinema
• large-print exhibition guides available for all exhibitions
What’s On In St Leonards on Sea by Jude Montague
Things I like
Drawings by Martin Symons
25/03/23 – 22/04/23
Project 78 Gallery
Hatched-focused drawings of items from a childhood spent with models of technology, plus cats and varied other domestic pets and objects, highlight a preoccupation with copying. The detail and the form are impressive, and introvert, in particular in the large, grid-plotted drawing, give an overall emphasis of an artist who likes to lose their mind inside the study of form and familiarity.
I am reminded of the work that my brother made when I was at school. The focus is impressive, and my brother went on to become an electronic engineer and more. I feel that this kind of work illustrates a very different mind to my own, someone who is fascinated by collecting and structure. Of course, this interpretation is very much me connecting this work to my own upbringing.
I find introspective art harder to relate to, but at the same time, I gained a feeling of comfort and affection from these grey visions with no background in which the things were plucked from the outer sphere and placed in the white space of the paper, rendered in small pencil strokes. The drawings illustrate more than what they observe, but they illustrate a particular mental approach to the world where order and calm are used to analyse and exist in a world of chaos, simplifying and organising in order to manage it effectively. Skills that can help us to cope.
1 April – 7 May
There’s a noise in my circles, a buzz about this exhibition. My artist friends seem to be of the opinion that her painting is skilful and attractive. The consensus is that her work is impressive.
It’s difficult to be objective when work comes with such a description; it’s a weight when it comes to reviewing or evaluating an artist’s output, so I try to shake it off and assess the pieces for what they are and how I feel about them.
First of all, I like this kind of work very much. The brush lines, the use of wax and crayon the way the figures are represented on the canvas and the paper. As a fellow printmaker (she explains this practice has been important to her), I can see this mixed-media approach in her paper pieces and feel it has influenced her oil paintings. I like the studies of the figures and the way they are abstracted but vigorously and affectionately sketched. I like the unfinished quality of these studies, the colour choices, and the way the green and brown lines vibrate and sing together.
There is a romantic nature to the faces and figures, and poses. In our short discussion, Kiff mentions Francesca Woodman, whose expressive and natural studio art has influenced many other women artists who I think respond to her body art and her images of naked self half-lost inside large rooms and empty, dilapidated buildings. To bring this sensibility to the world of oil painting is a clever emotional step.
Woodman took her life so young, jumping out of a loft window where she lived in New York, and her tragedy has given further longevity to her work. It seems incredible that Woodman was not valued in her short lifetime. I haven’t thought about her delicate, hard-hitting, black-and-white photographs for some time, but I remember now how impressed I was by them when younger. I think she speaks to so many beginning female artists and has inspired so many to take their young selves seriously and place their material and mental self at the centre of their work.
I admire Kiff’s paintings, in particular the consistent sensibility that runs from picture to picture. They reflect the attraction of drawing live models in paint, the core of traditional art education and take this into a personal sphere rather than remaining the observer of the model, giving the paintings a psychological value and a sense of describing inner worlds rather than being an exercise of the eyes. I feel I personally have much to learn from these paintings and that they have already given much to me.
April 4 – 14
The Stade Hall, Hastings
Photopia is an initiative that grew from the PhotoHastings group. This is the second show following their inaugural show at the Stade Hall last summer. It brings together fifteen photographers under a generic title which refers to what many of that group seem to understand is at the heart of the activity defined as photography. Many of these images focus on places or people in the Hastings area. This is a town with a lot to offer someone who sees the streets and human interaction there as the subject of their lens. The total effect and approach remind me of Dziga Vertov, his documenting of early socialist Moscow, and his interest in documenting the city ‘as it is’ (however contested this has been since). Here there are pictures of close-ups of corners and sections of buildings, a bench with different people sitting on that bench at different times of day, figures walking down the prom, pigeons being fed, and feet in the water. One of my favourite pieces is a graphic experiment put together by Gary Willis. He has photographed faces from Dom’s foodbank and put those mouths on a set of table mats, placing it on a dining table. It’s pretty gross, especially the photos of tongues, close-up, and the black and white bristles of the men photographed. Why mostly ageing men? For me, this is the best installation of his that I have seen so far, activism that works visually. Another standout work for me is the bench photographed by Chris Coombes. I like his choice of photographing people from the back and his connection with the bench itself and the sitters. This is street photography that engages with its subject rather than taking advantage of its photographic-ness. My friend is taken with the detail and texture in the captures of Neale Willis. And Katie Redfern’s beautiful shot of the Cambrian mountains is a landscape I would take home, with its contrast of dark wintry trees, light evaporating mists and soft hills. ‘Theatrical weather’, Redfern says, and her photo demonstrates how she loves to be in the audience.