Press

Picturesque, Tullie House Museum & Art Gallery
Related Exhibition

Writer: Louise Porter

 

PICTURESQUE

In 1993, two Russian-born artists, Vitaly Komar and Alex Melamid, polled 1001 American adults to discover what constituted the ‘most wanted’ and ‘least wanted’ painting. The results proved surprisingly – or perhaps unsurprisingly – similar. Most people, it was revealed, preferred traditional to modern paintings. People didn’t want paintings that aimed to teach any lessons but were just nice to look at. Outdoor scenes were preferred to indoor scenes – ideally including a lake, river or ocean – and wild animals were liked over and above domestic creatures.

‘The People’s Choice’ exhibition at New York’s Alternative Museum subsequently presented paintings created by Komar and Melamid in direct response to the poll. The ‘least wanted’ was an abstract composition consisting of yellow and red triangles. The ‘most wanted’ was a ‘dishwasher-sized’ lakeland scene with mountains in the distance. Two deer could be seen walking tentatively into the water and a group of three children traversed the foreground. Sky, mountains and water were a clear blue (the preferred colour) and George Washington (also dressed in blue) looked out from the centre of the composition. In its totality, the painting was a grotesque distortion of people’s received ideals of beauty – both of art and the natural world.

‘Picturesque’ brings together the work of eight artists living and working in Britain at the present time: Matthew Dalziel and Louise Scullion, Louisa Fairclough, John Goto, Nicky Hodge, Masakatsu Kondo, Jane Prophet and Gerhard Stromberg. Each of their work, in diverse ways, explores forms of mediation in our experiences of the world around us and examines how perceptions of natural beauty are formed and disseminated.

The term ‘Picturesque’ means literally ‘in the style of a picture’. It was adopted from the French term ‘pittoresque’ in the early 18th century, at a time when the paintings of Claude Lorrain were gaining popularity in the wealthy homes of Britain. In Jane Prophet’s work, ‘Decoy’, the artist presents three English gardens created in the Claudian pastoral ideal of that time: Blicking Hall in Norfolk, Petworth House in Sussex and Wallington Hall, Northumberland. Selecting a series of views from each of these properties, Prophet uses digital animation to reveal their constructed nature. An artificial lake is returned to its original cover of woodland and an avenue of trees takes shape. Prophet reveals how man has manufactured this perceived ‘natural’ environment and provides a tantalising glimpse into the future as the vistas continue to morph and develop.

John Goto is an artist whose work, since the 1980s, has largely explored European culture and history as a means of commenting upon contemporary society and politics. His highly acclaimed series of photo-digital works, ‘High Summer’ was completed by the artist in 2001. Like Prophet, Goto investigates, in this series, the constructed qualities of the English countryside. But these works share more, perhaps, with the ‘grotesques’ of Komar and Melamid than with ‘Decoy’. Grecian temples rise incongruously from English hills and exotic creatures abound, parodying simultaneously the Arcadian and Pastoral ideals. Peopled with modern tourists, these works go further in examining our complex relationship with the countryside around us. Each work presents a self-contained critique of issues including class and ownership, blood sports, genetically modified crops, the industrialisation of agriculture and the countryside’s thematisation by the heritage industry.

Whereas in the eighteenth century, Claude’s paintings provided the model for rustic beauty, in contemporary society, our models are found in a plurality of forms. The ideal of the English country garden is now primarily a nostalgic notion, perpetuated in the world of Sunday night television and costume dramas. Simultaneously, post-Christmas advertisements and holiday programmes tempt us away from these islands to warmer, more exotic climes. Brochures represent, for our delectation, images of azure seas, cloudless skies, deserted beaches. Too frequently, the realities do not live up to the promise. Yet, dutifully, we follow the tourist routes, buy the postcards, take photographs of views already familiar to us – but, in reality, less majestic, less colourful, flawed.

Masakatsu Kondo presents landscapes drawn – not from life – but from our idealised notions of how it might or should exist. These are the sanitised visions propagated by the tourism industry. Mountains are stretched to assume a ‘perfect’ mountain shape; skies are supposed to be blue, so the artist paints them blue. Nevertheless, we perceive something awry in these idealised vistas. In Kondo’s tree-landscapes, foliage is rendered in lush greens and yellows and sunlight dapples the forest floor. Yet, glimpsed through the trees, the sky is dull and grey, inconsistent with the heightened colours below. In two of Kondo’s most recent works, these ideas are extended: a pool of water is portrayed as a turgid, non-reflective mass amidst the sun-lit vegetation that surrounds it; a council estate rises from behind an area of idyllic leafy woodland. Kondo’s work plays upon our desires to believe in the ideals presented us. Whilst the artist exposes the artificiality of the illusion, we remain its willing dupe.

Louisa Fairclough’s video work, ‘Looking for the Ideal Place to Pitch a Tent’, is based on her ongoing journey around the British coastline. Cycling in a clockwise direction and striving always to remain in sight of the sea, Fairclough pitches her tent each night at a site perceived to be ideal and video-records it in the landscape. In the morning, the ideal place is found to be lacking and the artist moves on. Her search continues. At the conclusion of each stage of Fairclough’s journey, the images are collated, layered and coloured. Mountainous terrain morphs into flat lands; forests into sea. Actual places become composites of places, existing somewhere between the real and the imaginary, closer to the place pictured in the artist’s mind’s eye. As in Kondo’s work, ‘Looking for the Ideal Place to Pitch a Tent’ reveals the impossibility of finding a reality to equate with our idealised notions of the world around us. It is also an indictment of the power of imagination, the ability to project our ideals onto the reality of our environment.

How we perceive the world in which we live is, inevitably, influenced by the weight of individual experience. Places familiar to us since childhood – the scene of a first kiss, the home in which we were raised, early holiday destinations – elicit from us complex, emotive responses that colour the physical realities.

Nicky Hodge’s paintings appear blurred, like photographs taken randomly through the window of a speeding car or train, fleeting impressions of passing landscapes. In themselves, the landscapes are unremarkable, lacking either conventional compositional beauty or focal point. And yet, in their fluid colours, we discern the unmistakable form of a municipal flowerbed, a copse of trees, a gravestone. The subjects of Hodge’s work are parks, pathways, cemeteries … manmade spaces of universal familiarity. Denied details that would render these scenes specific, the viewer is obliged the augment them with his or her own memories of these shared spaces.

Gerhard Stromberg documents areas that would be perceived by most as industrial wastelands – ‘working landscapes’ where man has left his indelible mark on the land – or flat, expansive views which, like Hodge’s paintings, eschew the traditional conventions of landscape art. In Stromberg’s photographs, the sky is more frequently grey than blue. Foreground does not fade into background but both are captured in crystal focus. The objectifying comfort of a focal point is refused us. As viewers, we become instead absorbed into Stromberg’s vast photographic planes and are compelled to form our own associations with the given view. Stromberg’s images are the very antithesis of Komar and Melamid’s ‘most wanted’ painting. They extol the beauty of the familiar rather than the exotic. They encourage us to re-evaluate our relationship with the physical world, and understanding of its beauty.

The final work of the exhibition is a short film by the collaborative artists, Dalziel + Scullion. ‘In the Open Sea’ pursues one of the persistent themes of the artists’ work, that of the relationship between modern man and nature. The title is a direct translation of the Norwegian phrase ‘I DET APNE HAV’ which appears in the film’s opening image. As the illuminated title above an aquarium, the words seem to mock the confinement of a shoal of herring circling below. ‘In the Open Sea’ continues with an array of views that explore how we access, and by implication control, the world around us. A man cuts steps into the side of a glacier, in preparation for the tread of summer visitors; a pack or wolves pace back and forth behind a zoo’s perimeter fence. In the final scene, a walker stands alone at the foot of an imposing rocky precipice. As the camera pans back, the figure appears increasingly dwarfed by the vast expanse of geological time. However commonly our experiences of the natural world are mediated and controlled – nature in its raw state is seen to be a formidable force.

 

Fiona Venables

Visual Arts Officer

Tullie House Museum & Art Gallery