Black Country at Lion and Lamb Gallery
Traveling this weekend from the Black Country, that beloved place in the Midlands, famous for its industrial heritage and the regional dialect, where I really did hear someone say “how am ya?” and see a children’s colouring book on sale for £2.99 entitled Colouring the Black Country (Lets See How Colourful We Can Make It), to the Lion and Lamb Gallery exhibition Black Country, curated by Nancy Cogswell, seems an odd enough co-incidence to mention it. In the exhibition the term has a more psychological meaning to do with memory, uncertainty, the dark unconscious, the buried and the hidden.
Two paintings by Gillian Lawler seem to reference dystopian science-fiction terrains where one might imagine that mining has resulted in not just subsidence but actual fissures in the earth’s surface. It’s just conceivable that they could depict real landscapes, the naturalistic style suggests as much, rather in the manner of certain Surrealist painters. And something approaching an updated Surrealism is the effect that the paintings have. They elicit a sense of unease, they disconcert, but only slightly, which somehow makes them doubly disconcerting. In relation to anxiety I have the impression that “less is more” especially seems to apply. There is something unsettling in attempting to work out whether the scene portrayed is “real” or fictional, whether to relate to the image as something abstract or representational and then the difference between the two becomes conflated.
Then I discover that the title of one of these paintings Centralia is named after a mining town in the USA that the artist plans to visit in November. The town has been burning underground since the 70s, built over coal mining deposits, sinkholes have appeared, creating fissures with thick dark smoke. All the inhabitants were urged to leave and only a few people still live there.
Nancy Cogswell’s wonderful painting Dopellganger II is similarly “both abstract and figurative”. I know that’s true of any painting (the famous Maurice Denis quote immediately springs to mind: “It should be remembered that a picture—before being a warhorse, a nude, or an anecdote of some sort—is essentially a flat surface covered with colours assembled in a certain order”) but I have a heightened sense of it here. The horizontal bands of bright colour makes it highly reminiscent of an abstract painting somewhere between colour field painting and hard edge abstraction, and the precision of the representational drawing is close to being undermined by the paint drips and runs that become visible on close inspection. This uncertainty at the formal level is mirrored in the content. Is it just me, or is there something eerie about a partially opened drawer, especially when you can’t see into it? C S Lewis seemed to be onto this in the children’s classic story The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, where Narnia could be accessed only if the wardrobe door was left ajar. As a child I remember finding this truly frightening. But what to make of two drawers open in mirror opposition? Some form of communication seems to be taking place, but thwarted if ever it had been possible in the first place. I get the sense of hidden content that remains hidden even in the attempt to communicate it to another.
Julia Hamilton’s paintings here also have an eerie quality. Both are black and white pictures of objects, one is a jar with a lid, a ginger jar perhaps, and the other is a jug or a chamber pot that has the blurred look a photographed object would have if it was shaken on exposure. And there is an analogue-photographic feel to them, one showing more evidence of paintwork, drips etc than the other. I am particular impressed by the way the image seems to form out of nothing or nowhere, as if it had been latent, in the canvas, and somehow ‘developed’ using paint.
And that development could be seen as almost magical, a revealing of whats beneath, much as the surrealists attempted with automatic writing, painting as communication with the unconscious.
Chris Hanlon’s paintings are enigmatic, engendering a sense of something lost or forgotten, or covered over. Untitled, a picture of a curtain drawn around an object, looks funereal, like it might be hiding a coffin, or maybe only a theatre stage. It is familiar enough to be recognised as a curtain, yet unfamiliar, mysterious because we cannot access what might be covered. But then that’s what curtains do, they obscure. Here we have painting as a window on an obscured reality. We wait for it to draw back to enlighten, but it remains closed.
Cave, is a beautifully precise rendering of a fragment of cloth or paper, a crumpled surface that may once have ‘housed’ something else, a gift perhaps, but the thing it covered has now gone, so peering beneath it reveals nothing.
Richard Hoey’s Rent covers and reveals at the same time. Behind a slit in glitter encrusted fabric, is a photo of a crucifix, a combination of sexual and religious symbolism, opposing the sacred to the profane as well as questioning that opposition, whereas Reece Jones’ process driven, dark drawings of places reminiscent of cinematic locations carry an intense and absorbing psychological charge.
Rob Brown examines the way virtual reality penetrates the ‘real’. In Aldeburgh Arch and Chrome Limbo high colour abstract forms are combined with the hyper-real to create places that look plausible as illusionistic spaces, but that could only exist in painting, imagination or in digital media. They are artificial environments built on a sub structure of the natural, that for me act like metaphors for what in Chomsky’s terminology we might call “surface structure” and “deep structure”, abstractions in the sense of (continuing with the Chomskian language) generalisations, deletions and distortions, that serve to conceal the “deep structure” of directly sensed information. For Brown this is “akin to our relationship with dreams and the slippage that occurs when rationalising the unattainable and uninhabitable”.
What’s beneath the surface might be unpalatable “truth”, what’s on the surface is glossy and artificial. Painting here reveals its own propensity to decorate, to gloss over, to construct falsehoods. Indeed the children’s colouring book title may be apposite after all: in colouring the black country, let’s see how colourful we can make it!
Black Country, is showing at The Lion and Lamb Gallery, Fanshaw Street, London until 5 October 2013.