Monday, 29 May 2017



Bronwen Buckeridge - Susan Collis - Sara Haq - Kate MccGwire - Tom Lovelace - Sarah Roberts - Julie Verhoeven

Curated by Paul Carey-Kent
Laure Genillard Gallery, 2 Hanway Place- near Tottenham Court Road tube
Wednesday - Saturday, 1-6pm
 6 May - 24 June 2017 

Late opening with artists' talks: Thursday 25 May, 6pm - 8pm (see end for summaries)

The High Low Show is a site-responsive adventure in contrasts and connections. Each of seven artists have work upstairs and downstairs in Laure Genillard's distinctively divided space. Each artist's works will operate between registers of high and low, including altitude, viewpoint, mood, value and cultural register. Other relationships emerge across the 'total up' and 'total down', generating many routes around a multimedia how featuring Bronwen Buckeridge, Susan Collis, Sara Haq, Tom Lovelace, Kate MccGwire, Sarah Roberts and Julie Verhoeven.


Bronwen Buckeridge’s experience as a producer feeds into her binaural sound installations. Here she generates stimulating discrepancies between what we see and hear: upstairs, in Site Sampling, an optician tells us where to look, only to direct our gazes – in the absence of eye charts – to the street activity we might have overlooked. The other sounds, though, come from recordings of the scene by night. Downstairs, in Sounding Periscope (situation s), we hear bats – emerging from a cave, perhaps – but also the live sound outside, now captured from a point rendered confusingly high by the use of a weather balloon.

Susan Collis sets up confusions which undermine our conventional bases for ascribing value. Was that dust sheet left behind in error as the show was installed? No, the carelessly splashed paint on Any paradise can trudge here is actually scrupulously embroidered: what seemed accidental stemmed from slow, deliberate, skilled labour. Upstairs, the utility socket on the floor is raised up, this time physically and presentationally as well as through the attention paid to it: the frottaged form is placed on a plinth. That, moreover, hides the original of Understudy and invests it with the value and allure of an item worthy of secretion.

Sara Haq has known precarious times –  recently suffering periods of  ill health and homelessness – but, as the gentle self-mockery of the series title Quantum of Solace indicates, she maintains a spirited delicacy and wit.  Haq punctuates the show, building shifting perspectives of both high and low into each of her photograph, chipboard and object combinations: clouds, feathers and leaves share common space with fallen trees, roots and mud.  Being short, says Haq, it’s a nice change to have people looking up as well as down! There is, she implies, the potential to move through every problem.  Inner resourcefulness is connected to nature: there is a seed.


Kate MccGwire is known for the fantastical sculptures she makes from quantities of feathers which it’s already an achievement to source.   They come from the high place of flight, but the lichen-like growth of Host and the coiled, unsettling sensuality of Sentient are shot through with ambiguity and darkness – even though the latter affects the purity of white as it writhes inside its glass mausoleum. Perhaps it isn’t quite the descent it seems to the Vermiculus series of  life drawings created by graphite-loaded maggots crawling across a paper surface. 

Tom Lovelace, though a photographer, does not foreground the camera here. Upstairs, what could be mistaken for a painterly riff on Rothko is actually a photogram on fabric.  Lovelace found the three sheets layered here attached to a theatre in Italy, where the presence of posters had been recorded by the sun in a multi-year ‘exposure’.   Jim, named for a similarly long-serving steelworker, combines a utilitarian air vent (which could be part of the gallery’s architecture) with an illuminated image of a parhelion* so pointing up from the industrial towards, if not transcendence, then The last Sun from Spoleto.

Sarah RobertsO Buoy - From Buoy stands the surface of a swimming pool on its side, rendering its earnest division into lanes rather futile. Downstairs we are immersed in its boxed, rolled and stacked depths, complete with invented perfume. You can treat Partial Plastic Oasis as an image, or walk in: either way form is collapsed into an anthology of surfaces.  The 'original' casino pool and spa were in Reno: their plastic landscapes carry an artificiality suited to enforced 'relaxation'. Roberts is a writer-sculptor, and her accompanying poem (see 'talks' below) describes this half-screened off place as ‘flattened and formed into fifty shades of still true blues’.

Julie Verhoeven made her name in the world of fashion – sometimes looked down on by the guardians of what should count as art – and it has remained central to her ever-expanding and compellingly madcap practice.  Upstairs, Together We Are Beautiful was made for Marc Jacobs, but channels many an art trope into its stream of visual jokes.  Downstairs, one can read parodies of fashion – as well as of our attitudes to cleanliness, self-presentation, sex and consumerism - into the base humour of Now wash your hands. It was made for Verhoeven’s engagingly maximalist residency as a toilet attendant at the 2016 edition of Frieze.

Summary of Artists’ Talks 25 May 2017

The talking artists: L to R Sarah Roberts, Kate McccGwire, Bronwen Buckeridge, Sara Haq, Tom Lovelace

Tom Lovelace: Lens Flare - Reflections on Looking Up 

Tom began with a definition: Lens flare refers to a phenomenon wherein light is scattered in a lens system, producing an undesirable effect on the image. Flare is particularly caused by very bright light sources, such as when the lens is pointed at the sun.  Being in this show, said Tom, had drawn his attention to the upward-looking and celestial aspect of much of his work. Ladders, stacks and staircases have been prevalent; and Stargazing, 2015, recreates a dud night sky out of glitter, black felt and cheap party lights. The work in ‘The High Low Show’ continues this theme: The Last Sun from Spoleto presents a canvas where the patination has literally been created by the rays of the sun beating down from above. Jim, which combines object and image, presents the wonders of a sun dog, recently photographed above the Yorkshire Hills. The image is illuminated and nestled within an air vent, the intention being to create an encounter and clash of materials which are caught between the functions of machinery and the everyday, and the act of being transfixed in transcendence, in what lies above. 

Bronwen Buckeridge: Do You See What I Hear?

Joining a group armed with bat detectors some years ago, Bronwen was fascinated by how the bats’ clicks could be heard yet the bats could not be seen. There was a confusion between looking and hearing, and that sent her back to the original experiments of Lazzaro Spallanzani in 1790: noticing that bats didn’t – as owls do – bump into objects when flying round a wholly darkened room, he set out to isolate each sense in turn. He covered the bats’ eyes, then plugged their noses, then oiled their bodies as they flew round a room with bells dangling down. The deprivations had no effect, but Spallanzani found that with their ears stuffed the bats could not fly. He deduced that they ‘saw with their ears’, but left his findings unpublished as they were ‘against the laws of creation’. Not until the 1930’s was echolocation fully understood, Yet the sight-sound confusion remains from a non-scientific perspective: when we’re on the ground listening to bats, we’re actually the observed first and observer second, as the clicks may be a result of the bats ‘watching’ us.


Kate MccGwire: Natural Born Dualism

Kate was born on the Norfolk Broads, and grew up with a sharp awareness of the violence behind the bucolic vision of nature: most of the ducklings she saw would be taken by pike, foxes or crows. Her own recent bat sighting was indicative: she had thought it odd to see one hanging from a post in broad daylight, and wondered if it was dead, only to see it move. Getting closer, she saw that the movement was caused by the maggots which filled its stomach. As a boat woman (Kate has a Dutch barge on the Thames) she often sees fishermen fishing with maggots, and wanted to capture that aspect of the cycle of life in her art. Putting maggots on paper with graphite, she can alter the lighting to influence their movement, as they seek out as much dark as possible. In the show, that made her ‘maggot drawings’, associated with death and decay, right for downstairs; while her feather works found their place above (it was important, Kate mentioned, that she collects feathers only from moulting, through a network of racing pigeon enthusiasts: no birds are killed for her art).

Julie Verhoeven: HIGH FASHION Low Humour

Julie was unable to attend, leaving Paul to read her words in an imaginary hyper-colourful wig and outlandish dress. She had encompassed the whole vibe, in a tongue in cheek play on ‘artists’ embarrassing cringe monologues’, and gone down ‘the Burroughs / Bowie route, with cut and paste pop songs’. Julie’s text claimed that ‘Words don’t come easy to me’ before getting on to such as: 

There are some things you can’t cover up with lipstick and powder

and I just want to hear girls talk…

Clean shirt, new shoes

Silk suit, black tie

I don’t need a reason why

Art for art’s sake

But it’s not very clear

It’s loud and it’s tasteless.

Why does it hurt when I pee?

Why does it hurt when I pee?

I got it from the toilet seat .It jumped right up

and grabbed my meat.

Art for art’s sake

Push it.

Push it real good

And it’s getting more and more absurd.

It’s sad, it’s a sad, sad situation.

I’m not at the bottom, I’m not at the top.

So this is the stair where I always stop. 

Boom boom!  

Sara Haq: Up and Down

Sara explained that her works’ generic title, ‘Quantum of Solace’, wryly referred to a period of homelessness: she had been fighting the system ‘James Bond style’, but finding some respite in  London’s parks, which have the advantage of being free and providing elemental connections with nature and animals. She noticed how often what might have been up is often down (feathers on the ground, clouds reflected in water, fallen trees), reminding us how we are bound to go through some shit as humans, and yet finding those reminders in a context of uplifting natural beauty. Happily, she has been allocated housing since the show opened, and had felt the place right when she found the previous tenant had pinned a quote by Black Elk to the wall, which muses on how ‘everything the Power of the World does is done in a circle’, citing sky, earth, wind, birds’ nest and the moon. Just so, ‘when a vision comes from the thunder beings of the West, it comes with terror like a thunder storm; but when the storm of vision has passed, the world is greener and happier’.


Sarah Roberts: What to Look for in an Installation

Standing in front of her installation, Sarah advised us to ‘look for nothing’, as for her the key was how the work took her own intensely felt experiences of place, but then remade and rethought them to the point at which you start to look simply at what it is, rather than looking for what lies behind it. Her High Low work is a pool and spa which have become trapped in a casino in Reno, and Sarah shared the ‘love note to herself from Reno’ which was one of the means – photographs, sketches, text – through which she captured those feelings for herself before that process of recombination began. For example:

Walking into the lobby of a Reno-Casino-Spa-Hotel, air conditioning hits her chops from the left with a cool rasp,
she saw her legs dangling over the porcelain and under skirts. Props. 
A potted palm flicked its hair as she leant an armful of sweat on the marble(d) reception desk.  Through the window to the courtyard she glimpsed the swimming pool blue, universal refreshment, globally provided.


Poolside, A fat man belched out his belly before a breast stroke,
cutting through the water like a wet panna cotta on the glide.
Low rollers off the clock were smoothed over sun loungers like pallid custard skins.
Later, she sipped a cocktail called a last word that tastes of the swill at the dentist
with her mouth full of teeth, an overhanging plastic turtle gave her a sense of the beady eye. 

Popping a prawn she felt pink as it slipped uneasily down her gullet, throttled through.
She washed it down with mountain SPAwater in a slippery glass.
The  pool was (in) the middle still, wrapped,
clad  in  the casino, like a center spread in a glossy brag signed by the `Times.
Sealed in, made 3D, Flattened and formed into fifty shades of still true blues.

* Otherwise known as a sundog, an atmospheric phenomenon that consists of a bright spot to the side of the sun due to its reflection off clouds

Thursday, 25 May 2017


D-Contemporary, 23 Grafton St - Mayfair
I've written the essay for this impressive show:
From 'All Icons Are False', 2016


If I were called in
To construct a religion
I should make use of water.

Philip Larkin [i]

What sort of artist is Alexander James? It would be easy to align him with the YBA generation – James was born in 1967. Here are big, brash, self-consciously flashy images obsessed with death, exploiting the distortion of the world under water with a slickness akin to advertising – the better to modernise and expose the classic tropes of art history as being stuck in a different time and place. In fact, James is more an abrasive outsider than fashionable insider, more in the mould of van Gogh or Ensor, an artist of passionate intensity who has pursued his particular vision for thirty years irrespective of trends, and regardless of what others might think. ‘Artists must be sacrificed to their art’, he has said, ‘like bees, they must put their life into the sting they give’. James’ approach is spiritual without being religious as such – Larkin, after all, is mocking religion in suggesting that it would make sense to construct one. Indeed, James declares that those objects which are set up to inspire devotion – say gods, money, possessions, brands, celebrities – should not be treated as icons. It’s no surprise, though, to find that his practice has been compared to that of a monk.

'Grace' from 'Vanitas', 2009-13

James doesn’t see himself as a photographer, more as a sculptor whose setting is water, but who for practical reasons must record rather than retain the tableaux he constructs. By way of demonstration, a skull floats permanently in an eerily lit vitrine of water on the roof of his East London studio. What the photographs lose in immediacy of encounter, though, they gain in aesthetic modulation, and in the further category confusion of looking very like paintings. I don’t find myself wishing that the photographs were sculptures or paintings, but relishing the ways all three means feed into the images.

Spelling out his purpose early, James titled his studio, formed in 1990, ‘Distil Ennui, to extract the essence and beauty of life to appease world weariness’. He started out with the classic Vanitas – arrangements of fruit, flowers and dead animals emphasising that this world is fleeting, and so striving for the things of this world is an empty pursuit – but with the difference that his photographs are of objects submerged into black, velvet-lined tanks filled with highly purified water – which he doesn’t light these directly: it’s only the movement of water which causes the reflections which bring them into visual being.  James was a natural for the vanitas theme. ‘Loss is a terrible thing’, he says, ‘unless you know how to celebrate it. All negative things for me must be converted into a positive act of creation’. James has completed many bodies of work since 1990, but has remained consistent in both underlying subject and tone: the metaphysics and mechanics of water inspire serious explorations of the world and its meaning.

From 'Swarm', 2010-11

James’ best known works in the direct Vanitas mode may be those which, as if flying could be swimming, put the short-lived butterfly under water (‘Swarm’, 2010-11 and ‘Transparency of a Dream’, 2013-14). I guess most people would try to work out how to Photoshop that unlikely scenario, but not James. He breeds butterflies in the studio, which is dotted with chrysalises, specifically the South American Morpho genus, which is naturally capable of entering a comatose state. He can then photograph them underwater, alive and unharmed, with no need of post-production. The results are unsettlingly beautiful.
'The Great Leveller' from 'Vanitas' 2009-14

The watery setting, then, affects the spectacle, but how does it alter the message of the Vanitas?  It might remind us that oceans cover 71% of the planet’s surface, to which we tend to pay disproportionately little attention. And, of course, global warming threatens to increase the proportion of water to calamitous effect. We won’t be fishes out of water, we’ll be butterflies in it. That constitutes a move from micro to macro warning and, potentially, from acceptance to activism:  from Memento mori - ‘remember you will die’, whatever you do, get used to it – to ‘remember the whole planet will die – unless we act fast’. 
‘Arcana II’ from‘Rastvoyrennaya Pechal’ , 2014

James first placed people under water in images inspired by John Everett Millais’ 1851-2 canvas ‘Ophelia’ and ‘La Jeune Martyr’, 1855, by Paul Delaroche . He made those in London but, never one to make things easy for himself, in 2013 he decamped with seven tons of kit to set up in a derelict building in Moscow. There he photographed Russians suspended in water for the first body of work featured here, ‘Rastvoyrennaya Pechal’, as inspired by various classical century paintings.

Putting people in water might sound macabre in this deathly context. Will they read as drowning or drowned? Surprisingly, perhaps, they don’t: as James has said ‘the subjects appear to be floating in a black space’ and ‘the collaboration within this void offers a serene and dreamlike sensation’. All have their eyes closed, increasing their distance from us, enhancing the sense of reverie. The occasional appearance of bubbles – though Vanitas paintings use them separately to stand in for life’s brevity – suggests breath recent enough not to be the subjects’ last. Yet if the images prove undisturbing as images of people, they do disturb as environmental warnings. That micro to macros move occurs again, as hair and clothes act to confirm the eddying currents, and underwater shadows play a spectral role.

 ‘Mycenaean II’ from ‘Rastvoyrennaya Pechal’, 2014
 ‘Rastvoyrennaya Pechal’, like all James’ series, was heavy on pre-planning – from sketches, to handmade props, to cutting and sewing all the garments worn, to training the models in yoga exercises. It was equally sparing in post-production: all images are exposed on 10 x 8 film plates, then either chosen or rejected prior to the framing decision – which James takes as seriously as the rest of the process. The most impressive technical feat is how clear and light the figures appear to be against blackness, generating a saintly aura. That dramatic and moral use of light is characteristic of Caravaggio, and the titles reference classical Greek mythology, adding more time periods into the mix.  Moving to the present, there’s also an interesting comparison possible with the leading Canadian photographer Ed Burtynsky. His ‘Water’ series takes an aerial view which rends the spectacular grandeur of torrents and deltas painterly, removing us from the experience of being under or even close to the water, while emphasising its scale and importance. Burtynsky’s is a system builder’s top-down vision in counterpoint to James’ bottom up phenomenology.

Going to church
Would entail a fording
To dry, different clothes;

'Chanel' from 'Rosae', 2010

The second component of the All Icons Are False show is the ‘Rosae’ series (2010), in which underwater blooms are arranged to form various signs. The red rose as a ‘symbol of unrelenting love’, says James, ‘is juxtaposed against a deep dark void’. The void stands in for the vacuity imputed to what is formed by the 20-60 roses which make up each representation. This particular way of showing the symbols makes them look like the most modern form of icon: the summary pictogram on a computer screen which links to a programme. The ‘Rosae’ series is suitably shallow, both in its straightforward presentation, and in the flatness which sees the flowers appear to float on the surface rather than swim in the depths. Three major religions are invoked in small format via the crucifix, the Star of David, and the Khalifar star and crescent. The one commercial symbol, ‘Chanel', gets the biggest billing at 120 x 90cm.  That may imply the greater emptiness of the realm, the proposition then being that religious idols are false, that brands and the celebrities who advertise them have become religious equivalents in our culture, and that they are even less  worthy.

'Vitreous Love' from 'Glass', 2013

The show also includes two quite different, and spectacular, images of roses in water. In the large prints from the  'Glass' series of transparent roses (2012), James uses a process which naturally removes the pigment from the petals, leaving behind a fragile, skeletal structure which appears - as if a rose would ever be clothed – somehow naked. The capillaries are on view like flesh stripped of skin, making the flowers look very vulnerable and redoubling the air of mortality evoked. Can a rose drown - in the very water which also sustains a plant in life?

The Vanitas series, then, takes us back to still life of the Dutch golden age, and the Russian figures to the Pre-Raphaelites, but with an Impressionist infection.  The images of the series ‘All Icons are False’ itself bear some resemblance to paintings of flowers in water – most obviously Monet's waterlilies – but look more like abstract paintings. The scraped canvases of Gerhard Richter and the syncopated striations or Jean-Paul Riopelle come most readily to mind. The slight variations in focus and blurs from movement resemble by turns the effect of brushstrokes or smeared paint.

My liturgy would employ
Images of sousing,
A furious devout drench,

The most literal and immediate effect is of looking through a textured glass door, such as is most typically found – appropriately enough – screening the watery goings-on of a bathroom.  Second, the images look rather like a view of a river from above, one which has perhaps been put through some sort of digital distortion but retained its ripples. That is both correct and incorrect in a satisfyingly teasing manner. Or maybe we’re looking more at a more magnified zone: could it be the detail a butterfly’s wing or lizard’s skin? All those impressions, though, are soon displaced by the references to stained-glass, as that covers both form and content.  Light streams through from beyond, and the complex overlays generate the sense of an intricate framework imposed separately from the composition, rather as the leading operates in stained glass. The flowers could be those which appear in stained glass imagery, and James has, in fact, been careful to research what those would have been. He uses old varieties, returning us to how they looked at the time when their own symbolism was most vivid. Nineteenth century church goers would automatically have associated the rose with the Virgin Mary, the white lily with purity, the tulip with grace. James also features the red Lilium Chalcedomicum, which he sees as a link, through its prevalence in Galilee, back to the Sermon on the Mount.

To make the new series, James has taken 850 plate film photographs of 50 petal-heavy arrangements of flowers densely combined underwater, then variously layered these ‘core plates’ on a scanner – up to four at a time – using both positive and negative images. The rhythms which result are complicated, as not only are several plates scanned, but both the natural forms of the flowers and the wave effects of the water make their separate contributions. Various unpredictable, semi-accidental effects arise from the process: topographically complex overlapping; unexpected greyscales where colours combine; evidence of movement in the water; strips where the edges of slides don’t quite align; slides not yet fully dry stick together slightly; dark zones with a dominance of negative images; the odd hair stuck between slides; gaps between slides causing apparently differential focus. The result is an acceptance of the contingent in sequence of semi-controlled accidents much as occurs in process based abstract painting like Richter’s, and with the characteristic attraction of allowing us to trace, or at least speculate on, what events have caused the particular outcome.

From 'All Icons Are False', 2016

These are much more intricate images than the ‘Rosae’. The combination of science and nature is not reduced to ciphers as are commerce and religion. Where the roses suggest straightforward surface effects, ‘All Icons Are False’ enacts a complex deconstruction and rebirthing which resonates with the need James sees for ‘a spiritual renaissance with nature’.  And if art is the other potential area of activity which – however bad much of it may be - can be venerated when ‘all icons are false’, then its abstract qualities must convey that here. No wonder James has spent many hours examining the images closely to see which should be selected – those with the right balance of rhythm and irregularity; with a Gothic undertone to the organic; with a complex, unanticipatable-yet-harmonious interaction of hues.

It's pretty clear, then, that if James were asked to construct a religion he would make use of water. There’s a logic to that, for it sustains life and, insofar as it is threatened, so are we. Like Larkin, James would have little time for international commerce or the literalities of a creed, yet the aesthetic emerging from his theological approach to making art chimes very well with the poet’s conclusion to ‘Water’, in which Larkin seems to move beyond irony to a genuine epiphany:

And I should raise in the east
A glass of water
Where any-angled light
Would congregate endlessly.

Philp Larkin: ‘Water’, 1954 (all four quotes)

Friday, 19 May 2017


About Me

My photo
Southampton, Hampshire, United Kingdom
I was in my leisure time Editor at Large of Art World magazine (which ran 2007-09) and now write freelance for such as Art Monthly, Frieze, Photomonitor, Elephant and Border Crossings. I have curated 20 shows during 2013-17 with more on the way. Going back a bit my main writing background is poetry. My day job is public sector financial management.