East Sussex Gallery Reviews October 2023 – Jude Montague

Nengi Omuku,Hastings Contemporary

The October round-up of exhibitions in the Hastings, East Sussex area features Hastings Contemporary and Project 78 in St Leonards on Sea.

Nengi Omuku: The Dance of People and the Natural World

Hastings Contemporary

7 October – 3 March 

The optimistic landscape through which the earth shows, these paintings are imaginings of the land as giving a home in which people or ghosts grow, float, and exist in connection with the red soil and the grey-blue sky. There are clouds, damp and atmosphere in the work, plus olivey foliage painted on sangan, a new material to me. Sangan is a tightly woven, handspun material from Omuku’s home country of Nigeria. Omuku paints gesso panels on joined strips of the cloth, then creates large paintings on it. These pictures are hung on poles and fall like banners. The Hastings Contemporary has hung it so the visitor can walk behind and see the cloth in all its texture, get up close to the warp and weft. As a woman of weaving families in the north of England, I appreciate this closeness to the fabric and like the framelessness of the pieces.

I find the pictures are optimistic but not frivolous. They feel weighted and ponder people’s relationship to the ground, to the natural ground of a village or wherever it might be. When I discovered through the notes that Omuku was once a florist, I felt a missing piece of what made her into the artist come through for me. Her mother was a horticulturist, and this influence permeates Omuku’s work, but not through the more obvious route of botanical paintings or landscape pictures. These paintings are perhaps about her mother’s love of nature rather than even Omuku’s love of nature. She loves the people who love nature. The gallery notes claim that ‘the foregrounds of Repose (2022) and Swing (2022) suggest the influence of Monet’s garden at Giverny on her work.’

This is an interesting exhibition and an insight into an artist stretching into new fields. The colours are odd, almost jarring, undoubtedly unusual. They are unconventional but not shocking. There is a personality at work here that is not out to unsettle in an aggressive way, yet it does stretch the viewer. The cloth is a signature work, individual and specific, and can also inspire other artists to explore textile that has a personal significance for the creator. I feel inspired. But I also feel that there is further for Omuku to drift in her art, and I look forward to seeing future pieces.

This is a substantial exhibition from the Hastings Contemporary and should help Omuku in her path as a major artist. I think the gallery has made a good choice in this show. I’d urge local artists to take this opportunity to see an uplifting and challenging important exhibition from a mid-career painter.

Quentin Blake, Hastings Contemporary
Quentin Blake: Ink, Hastings Contemporary

Quentin Blake: Ink

Hastings Contemporary

7 October – 12 November 2023

I came across Quentin Blake’s work as a child, as most readers have done. I loved the energy and line of his drawings but was not initially sure whether it was ‘okay’ to draw in such a scratchy, immediate way. A lifetime later, his work has become so important to me that I had to photograph on my phone so many of these pieces so that I could reference their beautiful poetic line and characters. He has three new sets on display here. My favourite set of drawings is ‘High Places and Lofty Structures’, which has a philosophical metaphor for those sages who mentally reach for the heavens but can only totter on precarious thin human-constructed scaffold. The ninety-year-old Blake has reached an exalted age with great success, but even with old age and success, human endeavour is ultimately brought down by the weakness of the body. So perhaps it is foolish to reach for the stars – or is it?

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Geraldine Swayne, Project 78
Geraldine Swayne, Time Slip at Burton Memorial, enamel on aluminium


The Multiple Lives of Geraldine Swayne
Project 78 Gallery, 78 Norman Road, St Leonards on Sea TN38 0EJ

Sat 23 September – Sat 21 October

Wednesday – Saturday 11:00 – 17:00

Geraldine Swayne is deservedly becoming well known for being a portrait artist, but this, her first solo show in Hastings at the interesting and experimental gallery space Project 78, shows off her free-wheeling spirit and multiple personalities. And it displays her professional experience in diverse spheres. The work may be recent, but it shows off her long-term broad career in filmmaking, music/sonics (with the creative band Faust and more), as well as her stained glass and enamel on metal.

Large canvases hang beside tiny corner-screened movies made through improvisation with Jude Montague at St Andrew’s Mews and concert footage of her with Faust. Some of the canvasses were created on stage during Faust’s performances.

Hastings seems to have got under Swayne’s skin, certainly its esoteric presence and past, and there is some site-specific work here. Montague rolls around in the 100-year-old dust uncovered at St Andrew’s Mews when new rooms were uncovered as builders knocked through the wall to hidden areas during their residency there in May 2023. There are also pictures of the two plus Matt Armstrong in an impromptu visit to the family tomb of the Burtons, a pyramid of stone dangerously balanced on a cliff-top. The filming at St Andrew’s Mews appears to feature EVPs as a voice speaks on camera from beyond the grave, startling the artists. And stretched iPhone panoramas at the grave of James Burton inform Swayne’s delicate and moody paintings of the scenes. So, lens-based media is interacting with Swayne’s mental processing of painted scenes.

Swayne has many fans for good reason, and this is an opportunity to see a mixed bag of her Fluxus lifestyle rather than merely consume her important works in a small gallery setting.

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