Thursday, 17 January 2019

INTENSITY at the HOUSE OF ST BARNABAS - incorporating material from talks


Garden Room, House of St Barnabas, London: 1 Oct 2018 (special opening evening Fri 26 Oct) - 31 March 2019 

Open by appointment from 1 October  via

Installation shots with Kristian Evju and Eric Butcher

Curated by Paul Carey-Kent

The Garden Room is characterised by a distinctive tree trunk wallpaper, in keeping with its giving out directly into the club’s courtyard garden. ‘Intensity’ starts from that point and from the growing view that plants - as is made evident by the threat of global warming - deserve more recognition, philosophically and environmentally, than they have historically received.

That is in line with Emanuele Coccia’s argument in his recent book La Vie des Plantes (2016, English version 2018). After all, plants are the agents which produce the atmospheric oxygen necessary to human and animal life. Moreover, it is only plants which can exploit the primary source of energy available on earth: it is their transformation of sunshine into stored biomass which provides the basis for animal development. Coccia also praises their lifelong growth; their ability to bridge the aerial and subterranean worlds, mediating agent between earth and sky; the variation and seduction of flowers; and even their communal sexual life - as ‘with animals, sex normally takes place between two individuals of the same species. Whereas with plants, sex is a cosmic event. It makes use of other animals, bees, meteorological agents, like rain and wind. It’s a beautiful thing that to have sex, plants need more than two individuals. They need a whole world'.

That may not sound directly relevant to art, but Coccia also says that 'plants have no hands with which to manipulate the world, and yet it would be difficult to find defter agents for the construction of forms'. He explains that the seed is traditionally a form of rationality, as it exemplifies a force able to draw forth incredible forms from matter. In his words ‘matter itself seeks, invents, produces its forms of life and rationality simultaneously. And the force that allows this was often called artistic force. In Greek, there is only one word for art, technique, and reason’.

The six artists here don’t illustrate Coccia’s text, but all have made works which refer – directly or indirectly – to the botanic. Three make works which look abstract, but which introduce organic forms, rhythms and references into apparently mechanic and geometric processes in which labour and repetition are prominent. The other three use figuration drawn from a broad spread of culturally significant sources to set up parallels between human and vegetal activity. All six bring a particular intensity of focus and labour to the small formats required by the space.

Marie Harnett

Flowers, 2018 - Pencil on paper, 9.5 x 17 cm

 Room 2, 2018  - Pencil on paper, 9 x 16 cm

Marie Harnett brings an intense focus to film stills, from which she makes intricate pencil drawings which imply the wider narrative arcs connected to fleeting moments of drama, beauty and suspense she selects. These drawings add a further twist by subjugating the human to the floral: Flowers extends the dried flowers hanging from the ceiling in the original still to replace part of the face of the person seen; Room 2 blurs the figure now merely suggested on the bed to shift the focus towards the flower pattern on the wallpaper. In cinematic terms there's just a hint of the vegetal menace of 'Day of the Triffids'.

Eric Butcher
P/R. 835, 2018 -  Graphite, Acrylic, Acrylic Gel on MDF, 30 x 30 cm

P/R. 838, 2018 -  Graphite, Acrylic, Acrylic Gel on MDF, 30 x 30 cm

To make these works, Eric Butcher employed a window cleaner’s squeegee to spread graphite suspended in an acrylic gel across an MDF support, and then used a variety of metal blades to scrape this off the surface. This procedure was repeated, slowly building up an accumulation of thin residues. Four factors are in play: the application (which stutters), the support (and any imperfections in it), the instrument of stripping (which builds up traces from previous use) and the action of the artist's hand (eg varying the pressure or angle of the blade). The quasi-mechanical results emphasise, paradoxically, the consequent imperfections in the monochrome surface - including in these examples (but unusually for Butcher) organic blobs and scumbles.

Kristian Evju
                              Bindings I, 2018 - Pencil on paper, 25x30 cm,

Bindings II, 2018 -  Pencil on paper, 25x30 cm 

London-based Norwegian Kristian Evju's drawings are collaged from a series of garden photos depicting the pre-Soviet Russian imperial Romanov family around 1909. He has incorporated hexagonal patterns into a wider series of such works after finding that the hexagon, as the most solid structure in nature, is at the centre of such compounds as glucose and fructose, as well as in beehives, snowflakes and the molecular representation of photosynthesis. Evju, then, is combining two power structures: the hidden natural machinations behind leaves as factories for oxygen, and the sociological construction of political power. The bad news for forests, perhaps, is that the Romanovs were executed in 1918.

Katherine Murphy

Labour + Repetition = Decay W23, 2018 - Paper, Labour, 
  30 x 39cm


Labour + Repetition = Decay B19, 2018 - Paper, Labour,
30 x 39cm
In her series 'Labour + Repetition = Decay', Katherine Murphy repeatedly folds paper along composed lines until it is close to breaking. She sees that as suggesting the damage caused to a worker by repeated work acts. B19 and W23 reference the management of a farm, on which land is rotated so as not to exhaust its minerals and thus usefulness. As Murphy puts it ‘repetition is present but in a managed and considered way. This is not always what we do with people in the workplace, where harmful repetitious acts are prevalent…The resulting work is formed of layers of decay created through repeated labour by different working methods, each its own composition, which when layered together builds a new composition only possible as a conglomerate of all the labour present’.

D J Roberts


Travel to Tucson, 2018 - graphite on paper, 10.5 x 16cm


Las Vegas, 2018 - graphite on paper, 8.5 x 15cm

D J Roberts, picking up on the necessity for plants to display themselves in order to attract and reproduce, sends two fictitious postcards to the show. The Vegas fruit machine and 30ft neon cactus that greets visitors to Tucson, Arizona both  illustrate similar strategies in the commercial world.  The plants and fruits depicted here are designed not to be beautiful but to lure in tourists and generate business. Moreover, as Roberts says, 'plants also need to travel to reproduce - seeds and pollen can cover huge distances - and American images seemed right because for me America is the country of travel - road movies, the excitement of driving into a new town. And of course when you've arrived you send a postcard!'

Giulia Ricci

Parallel/Bend no.5, 2013 - Light-fast Indian ink on paper, 29 × 29 cm

Order/Disruption No. 3  2012 - Laser engraved laminated board hand-painted in acrylic (Ed. 2/5 - each in different colours), 25 × 25 cm

Giulia Ricci grew up on a farm in northern Italy, and the rural landscape and the cycle of seasons remain important for her, as may be reflected in the cyclical nature of her exactingly detailed geometric works, which typically pivot on the triangle. Both the diamond-shaped ink drawing Parallel/Bend no.4 and the hand-painted engraving Order/Disruption No. 3 come from series energised by slight variations which take on a cellular quality. The latter does indeed disrupt the black and white order of 'Intensity' as well as its own putative regularity, but only to the extent of a leafy blue-green.

Installation shot from the opening event on 26 October: after 8.30 the Garden Room was the site of a lively disco...

Talks on 17 Jan 2019

Five of the artists were able to attend to talk for a few minutes each about their work in the show. I gave them topics at a slight tangent from a simple description of their practice.

Marie Harnett: The Film Still


Film stills normally focus on people – Marie wanted to go beyond that, downplaying the figures and achieving some confusion between people and plants. She sees both using a pencil and working on a small scale as increasing the intimacy of engagement with the viewer. She described her set up to achieve this: closed curtains, angle poise lamp, and jeweller’s glasses with three fold magnification to achieve her detailed finishes.

DJ Roberts: Las Vegas 

Though Las Vegas is the subject of one of his drawings, and although he is a great fan of America, Americana and road movies, it turned out that DJ has never been to Vegas. But he did speak warmly of the Las Vegas gaming arcade in Soho, one of many apparently ordinary places which appeal to him, the lure of which he he attributes to his boarding school classroom overlooked an alluringly ordinary highway junction with a McDonalds, a view which stimulated in him the feeling that the everyday world could be a place of excitement and adventure.

Katherine Murphy: Labour

Katherine spoke about the nature of Labour and how systems are set up to wear out manual workers by 50 - rather than protect them to work for longer – on the basis that 20-year-old labourers are ready to come through and take over. She contrasted that with the agricultural system of crop rotation with fallow periods for long term advantage, which lies behind her folded work in the show. She also emphasised that, though she undertook what some might consider insane repetitive tasks to make her artworks, 'some people punch holes in leather for their whole career'.

Eric Butcher: The Skill in Accidents 

Eric said he had been following specific rules for 20 years - and using the same aluminium strips to scrape the paint. He likes how the build-up of material deposits and patterns of wear is reflected in accidental effects, and how that means the results incorporate that 20 year history. He used a squeegee in his process in order to respond to the plant theme, leading to more organic effects. He makes many scrapes for each work, and he likes how an accident can make a change – many are just a discarded as errors, but some accidents are retained: the skill is to know which accidents to discard, which to keep.

Kristian Evju
: The Life of the Hexagon

Kristian said he responded to the Garden Room by sourcing historic images of garden parties. Only then did he find that the two garden party images which appealed to him most as the basis for drawings were of the Romanovs, just before the Soviet revolution. He also noticed that his trainers had a hexagonal pattern on the soles, and found this was part of a wider move towards incorporating the natural in consumer products. The hexagon is a strong form: it lies behind the structure of plants, and also features in political symbols. Adding hexagons to his images of Romanov garden parties suggested both the underlying nature of the garden and the power structures which lie behind political change.

Responding to questions, differences in technique emerged among the three realistic graphite artists. All said that simply putting the hours into the technique was the key to their skill, and that most people could achieve similar results if they spent the time. DJ described his layered approach, starting with 6H and ending up with 6B pencils, which proved quite different from Kristian and Marie’s methods. All three described their studios as comfortable places to be, and said they enjoyed the rhythm and concentration of such detailed work. On the other hand, Eric Butcher described his studio as notably Spartan - there is, for example, no chair - but said he was fine with that. When asked if he enjoyed his work, he explained after 20 years he couldn't imagine doing anything else. Katherine, on the other hand, disliked the physical – rather than conceptual - aspect of her work, which she sees as analogous to the repetitive tasks she had undertaken in 16 years of minimum wage employment before she became an artist ten years ago. The work is  no better now, she thought - but comes with no pay, rather than low pay!

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About Me

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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.