Art on the Borders
A review by Richard Heatly (recently retired head of the Hereford College of Art)
18 November 2015
Out of Nature is an ambitious, generous, accessible and genuinely enjoyable outdoor sculpture exhibition that has just ended its second biennial outing in October 2015. It is the creation of Jenny Daneels Watt who lives at Newport House where the work is displayed, ably assisted curatorially and organisationally by Bronte Woodruff who is a locally based artist. It is most unusual and distinctive in that it takes place in the west of Herefordshire, on the Welsh borders, and is therefore a very welcome addition to an active but predominantly locally based visual arts scene.
The other most distinctive feature of this exhibition lies in its relationship to both its title and theme, and to the work to which it is linked, of a charitable enterprise called The Cart Shed. Out of Nature is intended to link broadly to ideas about the natural world and its importance as a spiritual and healing space both as celebration and expression and to some extent as a counterpoint to some of the things that are happening to it in the modern world. Intrinsic to this is the link that the undertaking has to The Cart Shed based in the woods next to Newport House and in which participants are encouraged to engage in a range of traditional woodland activities and crafts, and in so doing experience a reconnection with nature as a healing and therapeutic force and environment. It supports people with mental health issues and others with learning difficulties, as well as members of the general public. Out of Nature gives both a public platform for this work as well as financial support from any profits from the exhibition and sales, though of course there could only be a profit thanks to the generosity and hard work of the owner and organiser Jenny, as most costs are absorbed rather than charged to the show.
The link between Out of Nature and nature itself, and the work of The Cart Shed, is intended to form the most consistent theme to the show, and the main criterion by which work is selected for inclusion. In practice, very little of the work seemed to me to really make much of that theme beyond some representations of natural forms so perhaps the real strength was in the way that the work sat in the landscaped environment of Newport House and its kitchen gardens and buildings. There was some work which attempted to tackle ideas and issues in the natural environment more directly, such as the installation using a year’s recyclable waste by a group of Hereford College of Arts students, and this did confront ideas and issues in ways familiar in much contemporary art – and with some success I thought, though perhaps without the concessions to formal aesthetics that some visitors might have preferred. The temporary installation of Kate Raggett’s ‘earthwork drawings’, using poplar logs, and the one she inspired of the Cart Shed logo using fruit, vegetables, flowers and other unmediated natural materials, also seemed to draw directly from the environment in which it was made and invited reflection upon it while making something arresting and intriguing from it that was as low-impact in its permanent footprint as the materials themselves. I went to have another look on the morning after the show closed, and there was hardly a trace remaining of the work. Julian Meredith’s equally temporary ‘grass drawing’ took a more formal and geometric approach, but was equally made from and with the organic materials at hand where it sat – and would also disappear with the next lawn mowing.
Other work took a formalist approach and worked more obliquely to these thematic issues – Charlotte Mayer’s spiny and angled bronze pieces appear derived from a study of nature without resorting to mimicry – indeed one stainless steel piece ‘Centrus’ was probably more closely derived from engineering processes (which is not a negative comment, by the way). Other highlights for me included some of Dominic Welch’s purely abstract pieces based on curved organic shapes, the simpler ones generally proving more satisfactory, and Anthony Turner’s highly organic forms (though I did think they worked better the more I could see them as three dimensional shapes rather than as oversized stone blackberries, to take one example). Some work, such as Paul Vanstone’s ‘Forest Torso’ in striated and multi coloured Indian forest marble, or Rolf Hook’s colourful Yew pieces, worked most strongly as explorations of the quality of the material itself.
However, much of the most successful and arresting work worked not as a part of nature or even as any reflection upon it, but in contrast to it and in harmony with the landscape as a setting or backdrop. I am thinking of Shaun Brosnan’s remarkable hand beaten lead faces and fragments, both surreal, figurative and semi-abstract by turns, James Connolly’s partly abstracted low reliefs of faces in Bath stone, and some of Helen Sinclair’s figures. Indeed, I felt that some of the more successful work was in this category – such as Jonathan Loxley’s ‘Dreamboat’ in highly patterned onyx, or William Peers’ geometric marble pieces – sitting well in their external semi-formal landscape location, inviting contemplation from the viewer and working in counterpoint to their situation.
However the other side of the show that makes it most unusual for one of its breadth and ambition is a different aspect of its location, that of being on the borders. Not in this case its geographical situation, but its relationship to the Art World – that strange hall of mirrors where values and reputations are determined, meanings and lineages assigned and traded. Unusual because it isn’t just outside that world, it appears to be quite unconcerned by it and more than merely indifferent to it, almost unaware of it. In many ways this is a great strength: if in some ways this world of galleries, artists, critics and collectors can seem to act like a sort of collective bully against ‘the public’, deciding what is good, bad, in or out, then the best way to deal with it is probably to ignore it. Of course the converse might also be true –being on or outside the borders of the art world could just mean that you get borderline art.
Certainly the public reaction appears to be very positive – although there are no formal evaluations, feedback questionnaires or impact reports or any of the other paraphernalia that are part of the price paid for public funding, I was told that many visitors spent a considerable time there, many made repeat visits and there were many positive comments from people who ‘don’t really like art’. I certainly heard many positive comments and saw for myself evident enjoyment of the work and the setting in which it is displayed, by and large without reference to the normal judgments or criteria applied to contemporary art. In other words, left to their own devices, there were many visitors who just liked what they saw for their own reasons, and certainly enjoyed the event and where and how the objects were displayed.
Of course this idea of being on the outside is something of a caricature – there is no monolithic ‘art world’ in reality, and limited consensus about what is or is not good art (one could say that ‘the market’ does decide on values, in terms of what actually gets paid for any piece; but it is a very imperfect, ill-informed and segmented market if it is one). However it is true that a number of the artists shown in ‘Out of Nature’ are not represented by major galleries, widely exhibited or written about in contemporary art magazines, journals and criticism. Probably these include many of those making more figurative pieces, which perhaps not surprisingly are also among the more popular, according to the organisers at least, and certainly those whose work appeared to take the theme of the exhibition most literally by actually ‘looking like’ something out of nature. Objects that represent natural forms – plants, flowers, animals – by being to some extent simulacra of those objects in other materials on the one hand clearly reference a very long history of sculpture, while at the same time being slightly adrift from it in the sense that in most cases there is very little sense of any reflection on that tradition or comment on it. We are, after all, post (ie after) modernism – it’s happened, and it’s not something anyone can un-invent.
So I did find myself wondering about some of the more literal squirrels, flower heads and birds-nests lurking in flower beds and adorning the lawns. But in some hands such ‘real’ figures have a life and a dynamism that lifts them into the realm of the uncanny, the surprising and marvellous. For me, that included Heather Jansch’s horses made from driftwood but which transcended their materials to become mobile and alive, and Sally Matthews bronze dog who stood poised and ready for action.
While all this might mean that it proves harder initially to attract star names to exhibit, for many others what Out of Nature is doing has proved very attractive, and indeed a number of well-known names have participated over the past two exhibitions including Charlotte Mayer, William Peers and Peter Randall-Page, and it has also attracted a range of other artists whose work may not be so well known at least in this country, such as Jean-Patrice Oulmont from France whose work based on the appearance of weathered and worn wood has proved very popular and was both distinctive and intriguing. As this exhibition and others like it develop their audience and consequent sales, I have no doubt that more artists will be asking to be included.
And this independence has other advantages too: there are first time exhibitors, students and relative unknowns in there, and the broad range undoubtedly is attractive and accessible for many visitors, as is the inclusion of many smaller pieces that are relatively affordable (and indeed appeared to have sold well). Sculpture is by its nature quite expensive both to produce, transport and install, and for many people the significant cost of bronze casting for example is something they have probably never considered. The prices are generally not high, although some work would need deeper pockets than most visitors’ – to a certain extent, like all art, pieces are priced by the yard, so that large pieces in expensive materials (bronze or marble) are much more expensive, though in some cases there appeared to be a limited apparent rationale for significant differences in quoted prices. Maybe it’s just that art market at work again – or perhaps a fairly optimistic view of how it works from some of the artists. But as they say, the price is really just what anyone will pay.
Of course these are personal responses, and others will have their own preferences and favourites. For example, Aragorn Dick-Read’s ‘fire sculptures’ are probably truly spectacular in action – ie when full of fire – but a couple would have been enough. But this was such a varied and enjoyable show to visit that any criticism has to be balanced against gratitude to those who made it happen, and a hope that it can be repeated and that it continues to develop. Perhaps slightly greater selectivity might increase its impact next time around, and there were probably more than enough different artists and pieces in this show for the capacity of the place and, in all probability, the organisers themselves. This year there were some three thousand visitors – it deserves at least twice that number next time around, and based on the quality of the work and the setting in which it is placed, I can see no reason why this should not be achieved.