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‘It may not always be so’ at the Henry Thomas gallery

November 10, 2013

‘It may not always be so’, an exhibition opening in the Henry Thomas gallery this week, presents a variety of works that illustrate a wide cultural diagnosis related to anxiety and doubt. It shows some quite difficult work in a coherent, accessible manner.

Jade Fisher was perhaps the most topical of the artists at this show. Given the current fascination with the first world war, it’s actually quite subversive too. She shows a series of what she calls ‘war plates’, showing first world war soldiers and landscapes in original ways.

First of all, when you see them, you think in terms of icons, like the Mexican miracle paintings that the artist references. The way that they are painted is reminiscent of that period, also calling people like Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera to mind. The figures float eerily on landscapes treated in an almost naïve manner. This only makes it more real. The stylisation makes these things believable in a way that naturalism wouldn’t. These paintings are also very efficient- the glance of the injured man towards the group of officers, or the simple conceit of adding puppet strings, make them exceedingly elegant. They talk about the first world war, but they do so in a way that also talks about power relationships between people in a very contemporary way. It’s good to see work that deals with this kind of imagery without the sort of maudlin triumphalism that has come to dominate the way we see it.

Jade Fisher deals with explicitly disturbing imagery. That’s not quite true of Sarah-Louise Wilkinson’s photographs. The sight of a young woman sleeping needn’t necessarily be worrying. But the framing and the technique of using a pinhole camera create a sense of claustrophobia and threat. Again, it’s work about the human condition. These photographs, and the black and white portraits on the other wall, manage to create a compelling visual presence that also suggests vulnerability. It’s very emotionally authentic work.

Then there are Nalini Thapen’s ceramic pieces. The vessels in the wind lay still have a certain classical, or at least antique, air to them, thanks to the way the bases are shaped. The show’s documentation talks about Anglo-Saxon cremation urns. But instead of ashes or empty vessels, Thapen gives us a blue glaze that makes the notion of loss seem almost attractive. As well as tying the work together visually. The piece wouldn’t be as powerful if it wasn’t for the fact that some of these urns are broken. That puts them into a certain relationship with time as well. There’s something tragic and unsettling about this detail.

Karl Bell’s paintings are unsettling as well, but in an unexpected way. Rather than focusing on the process of making the painting, the history of painting itself, or the condition of the artist, these nuanced paintings ask us to look at our own state of being. They’re troubling. They almost seem incomplete. For me, the smallest of his pieces is the most effective. The very lack of scale magnifies the sense of anxiety they generate.

The word ‘liminal’ is used a lot in the documentation that accompanies this show. The word refers to a state of transition. It’s appropriate because all of these pieces in their own way accomplish some kind of transition, and represent a state in between. Jade Fisher Transposes the first world war into contemporary dialogue. Sarah-Louise Wilkinson takes us into a very private world in a public gallery. Karl Bell turns around the convention of painting and puts us in the frame. Nalini Thapen looks at the effects of death on the living. You won’t exactly enjoy this exhibition- it’s not comforting, or reassuring. But it is marvellously poetic. It runs until the 6th of December in the Henry Thomas gallery inside the school of creative arts on Jobswell Road.

By the way, the excellent culture colony have now brought out a paper magazine. . You’re welcome


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