Taking a cue from Nathan Coley's seminal text work, currently on display in London as part of ‘Sculpture in The City’, Parafin’s summer programme creates a series of shifting dialogues and encounters between works by the artists the gallery represents. Coley’s work highlights the ambiguity of language, and can be read as a statement of fact, an exhortation, a critique or even a lament, and this series of staged encounters will be similarly open. Multiple potential meanings are produced by changing contexts. Every week a different group of works will be placed ‘in focus’ in the front part of the gallery's main space.
The first encounter is between a group of Melanie Smith’s ‘diagram paintings’ and Tim Head’s seminal 1980s painting, Frozen Planet (1988). In these works Head and Smith explore the role of information in shaping (and perhaps distorting) our world views. Smith’s paintings present anonymous diagrams shorn of all data referents and Head’s work utilises satellite imaging of the oceans. Lacking any context, the images become abstracted yet also ominous.
The second encounter is between a work from Indre Serpytyte’s Pedestal series and a group of recent paintings by Uwe Wittwer. Both artists explore questions around history and memory and in particular the legacy of trauma.
Serpytyte’s series Pedestal addresses the gulf between past and present by contrasting archival images of statues of Lenin and Stalin, once sited in grand public spaces in Lithuania, with their current existence in Lithuania’s Grutas Park, a kitsch ‘ostalgia’ theme park. While elements of the composite images are congruent, suggesting continuity, there is a sharp contrast between the black and white archival photographs and the richly coloured contemporary images.
Pedestal, Neckerchiefs (2017) is accompanied by an audio piece, Toppled (2016). For this work the artist employed a professional narrator specialising in film and television descriptions for the blind to interpret footage compiled by the artist of the dismantling of public monuments after the disintegration of the Soviet Union. The audio descriptions, presented without emotional inflection, often focus on unexpected or surreal details and provide an arresting counterpoint to the images of the statues.
Wittwer’s paintings are based on archival images of East German ‘Pioneer’ camps. The idea of the camp, with its contradictory associations with leisure and imprisonment, home and displacement, is a theme that Wittwer has returned to many times in his career. In a series of watercolours derived from holiday postcards, the imagery is disrupted by the poignant messages sent home written on the reverse of the cards. In the large oil painting Flags (2018), a seemingly innocent image becomes allusive and ominous as red paint resembling blood runs, drips and stains the ground.
The third ‘encounter’ in Parafin's summer programme is between a group of Hamish Fulton’s ‘walk texts on wood’ and Tania Kovats’ drawing diptych All The Islands of The Arctic Circle (2014). Both artists are concerned with mapping and measuring the land. Fulton often uses time and distance – the number of days, the number of miles walked – to structure his works. Kovats has made many drawings which explore ideas of geography and map-making.
Hamish Fulton is a ‘walking artist’. Although only Fulton experiences his solitary walks directly, the works he presents in exhibitions and books allow us to engage with them. Much of Fulton’s work is concerned with simple acts of counting and measuring: distance travelled, days spent walking. In these ‘walk texts on wood’ Fulton’s handwritten texts are placed on pieces of recycled wooden ruler, thus emphasising the importance of measurement. The works are configured to resemble simple pictograms of landscape features such as mountains.
Tania Kovats makes sculpture, installations and large-scale time-based projects exploring our experience and understanding of landscape. She is also a keen advocate for the creative possibilities of drawing. In her ongoing series of works on islands, she draws each individual landmass in a given area on separate sheets of translucent mylar before layering them. Superimposed, geography is reconfigured and ghostly new cartographies emerge.
The fourth chapter of Parafin’s summer programme explores the vanitas theme by juxtaposing works by two leading figurative painters, Hynek Martinec and Justin Mortimer. A group of Martinec’s paintings of skulls, the classic memento mori symbol, confront paintings of dead and dying flowers from Mortimer's Breed and Taxa series. Like Martinec’s recent works, these paintings by Mortimer subvert and reimagine classical genres, in this case still life and flower painting, creating fragmented moments of heightened reality juxtaposed with fluidly abstract backgrounds. Mortimer’s Breed and Taxa series are meditations on mortality but also address the dialectic relationship between abstraction and realism in painting. In a similar way, Martinec’s The Flaying of Marsyas (2019) depicts a horse skull that seemingly hovers halfway between life and death, and is set before the backdrop of a vast Icelandic glacier.
Nathan Coley’s text work, which is the cue for this ongoing series of encounters, in this context becomes itself a kind of vanitas, suggesting that death comes to us all in the end.
The fifth instalment of Parafin’s summer programme brings together Alison Watt and Hugo Wilson. Both artists look to the art of the past for inspiration, but to very different ends.
Hugo Wilson combines motifs and forms from Western art history and from a variety of cultural sources – including Graeco-Roman and Baroque sculpture and contemporary sci-fi movies – in order to explore the ways in which systems of belief and ideology are encoded in culture over time. In his paintings and sculptures, Wilson deliberately manipulates and triggers our shared cultural references. Object (2018) is constructed from forms reminiscent of horses, human bodies, trees, undergrowth and rocky outcrops. Yet everything hovers at the edge of recognition and legibility, allowing meaning to become something fluid rather than fixed.
Alison Watt’s paintings Helical (2017) and Volute (2018) are from a body of work developed for a major solo exhibition at Abbot Hall Art Gallery, an investigation and meditation upon the still life genre. Both works reference the Modernist photography of Margaret Watkins, a Scottish-Canadian artist known primarily for her work in American advertising in the 1920s and 1930s. Watkins was much influenced by Dutch still-life painting and made a highly original series of works using domestic objects, including a length of rubber shower hose, which in turn influenced Watt. Yet Watt’s paintings do not merely reference Watkins’ work, but use it as a springboard from which to create something entirely new.
While Watt and Wilson’s revisiting and revisions of the past have very different purposes, there are some remarkable formal echoes in the group of works assembled here. Spheres, sinuous lines and curves, and the interplay of negative and positive space appear in both artist's works.
The sixth chapter of Parafin’s summer programme brings together lunar artworks by Nancy Holt and Hiraki Sawa.
Nancy Holt is best known for her works which use sunlight to make her audience conscious of the cyclical nature of the universe, the daily axial rotation of the Earth and its annual orbit around the sun. Holt’s primary aesthetic and social interests converge in her public observatories, in particular Sun Tunnels (1973-76), Annual Ring (1980-81), Dark Star Park (1979-84) and Solar Rotary (1995), which reflect her determination to ‘connect people with the planet earth’, and to bring ‘the sky down to earth’. However, the moon appears in only a single work in her oeuvre, O Moon (1990), one of only three print editions she made. Here O Moon is shown alongside an early drawing, Untitled (Waning Sphere) (1973), made the year Holt began planning the Sun Tunnels and which may relate to the cosmic cycles that work invokes.
Hiraki Sawa is known internationally for videos and installations that create powerful psychological situations by interweaving the domestic and the fantastic. Characterised by quietness and introspection, Sawa’s works create compelling interior worlds and meditate upon themes of memory and displacement.
While Sawa is known primarily as an filmmaker, drawing has always occupied a central part in his practice, in both the animations that feature in his films and as an independent medium. Here Sawa shows a pair of delicate pencil drawings, Wax (Full Moon) (2014) and Wax (New Moon) (2014) which are from a series illustrating the phases of the moon. Each drawing starts out as a meticulous rendering of the lunar surface which Sawa then erases, in some cases nearly completely, to show how the moon appears to us as it waxes and wanes.
The seventh chapter of Parafin's summer programme brings together abstract works that explore landscape.
Fernando Casasempere is known primarily as a sculptor working with ceramics. Formally and technically innovative, Casasempere’s work explores ideas of landscape, architecture and history but also proposes a profound sense of impending environmental collapse. In recent years he has developed a series of hybrid objects that are neither painting nor sculpture but share the characteristics of both. Titled Salares, after the salt flats found in the Chilean Atacama, a high desert and one of the driest places on the planet, these works are made of clay layered onto felt panels to create abstract images that recall both microscopic images of minerals and aerial photographs of alluvial landscapes.
Fred Sorrell’s paintings have their basis in the act of looking. His work is predicated on a rigorous and extended study of light, colour, space and form in nature. Beginning with colour studies and notes made in the landscape, Sorrell then works in the studio to distill his perceptions into abstract compositions. He develops pictorial structures that maximise the dynamic interplay of colour and which dramatise the relationship of motif and ground. His paintings are not representations but rather, using subtle shifts and transitions of tone and colour, Sorrell seeks to create a viewing experience analogous to that experienced before nature.
Casasempere’s series of small format Salares are here exhibited for the first time and Sorrell’s painting, Lemon Haze, has been made especially for this presentation.
The final chapter of Parafin’s summer programme includes the UK premiere of a new film work by Melanie Manchot. Entitled Dancing Is The Best Revenge (2020), the work was filmed in Biel, Switzerland in 2019 and depicts dancing in the streets of the city. Like many of Manchot’s works which explore and celebrate ideas of community and communal action, in the present context of lockdowns and restrictions the work is powerfully resonant.
Dancing Is The Best Revenge activates and occupies public space through an activity that is inherent to all cultures across history and geography and that connects us to our inherent sociality. Composed almost entirely of drone shots, interrupted by brief sequences of close up portraits, the work combines the aesthetics of Busby Berkeley choreographies with those of painterly tableaux and flashmob freeze frames. Here the geometric abstraction of dance seen in bird’s-eye perspective subverts an engagement with individual talent and expression and instead presents the dancers moving as a social body, creating collective shapes and patterns. It offers a view of dance rarely available to spectators, a shift of perspective that articulates new views of the city and our presence within it.
The work is shown alongside two photographic works, The Animals (Group of 5) and The Animals (Group of 4) (2017). They depict groups of white figures in animal masks in snowy landscapes, and are at once sinister and absurd. They are in fact inspired by the tradition of masked parades in the Alps, which celebrate the coming of spring.
In a time when the wearing of face masks has become a part of daily life, and our sense of community is challenged, Manchot’s works perhaps return us to a sense of both connection and celebration.
As in all previous ‘encounters’ in the series, Nathan Coley’s text work, The Same For Everyone (2017) is a point of reference. Richly ambiguous, open to interpretation, it perhaps suggests that our experience of the ‘social body’ and our surroundings is something shared, as in Manchot’s work. But at the same time the work can be read as a question or provocation. During the pandemic, as in any time, our experiences may be radically divergent depending on where we live and our personal circumstances.