A Conversation of Different Geographies
Art Exhibition - review
Thursday 22nd June to Monday 26th June 2017
Wandering Meander by Julie-Brixey Williams (left)
A Divided Fabrication by Michelle Loa Kum Cheung (right)
Flaming June, a heatwave; then respite, rhododendrons, Royal Ascot and a trip to the A-side B-side gallery in Hackney. A happy time to attend a stunning exhibition of contemporary art, presented in an urban, Inner London venue, reaching out artistically to the Essex marshes and far beyond to the Orient. Hackney is one of the top ten up-and-coming places to live according to The London Economic. So, a happening place and a pleasing setting for the culmination of a collaborative project by artists Michelle Loa Kum Cheung (MLKC) and Julie Brixey-Williams (JBW). A conversation, rather than a project. Perceptions of landscape. Appreciations of the past. Offerings from the imagination. Interaction between the artists and the natural world, between each other. This was an event brimming with vibrancy and connectivity.
A buzzing A-side B-side Gallery, Hackney
An early title for the exhibition was ‘Disconnected Landscapes’ but that only told half the story. The full picture reveals both a joining and a dismantling of artistic styles, concepts, subjects and the inspiration behind them. An exploration of how art both ‘speaks’ to viewers and also communicates with other pieces of art, within the exhibition and further afield. First of all, though, what does ‘speak to each other’ mean in this context?
To me this means art portraying subjects or making statements that are also conveyed by other pieces, usually in close proximity to each other. Shared themes. Alternatively, themes that don’t match up at all, and have no perceivable connection. Friendly dialogue and debate, or conflict and disparity. If this idea of art ‘speaking’ is a step too far for some, then a conversation between artists, expressing themselves through their works, seems perfectly sound.
Michelle Loa Kum Cheung (left) with Julie Brixey-Williams (right)
In this exhibition, the headline subject of the artistic conversation is landscape, or geography. Mountains, trees, water courses, rocks all feature prominently in Asian settings or in scenes closer to home that have a surprising connection with the Far East.
The Ivory Gate by MLKC
Stylistically, both artists are interested in the importance that the Chinese assign to the circular form. Circles v squares and circles within squares. Another notable similarity was the effect of distressing materials to highlight texture and to create intricate patterns. Both artists uses gold leaf to create exquisite detail and emphasis. Experimentalism was also prominent in the exhibition. There was also a contrast between the organic and the controlled or manipulated. I'm not quite sure which terms applies best to JBW’s amorphous Chinese ink patterns (extracts from Stitched Time), which appeared to have explored their way over the calligraphy paper, almost with a mind of their own. They also seem to have a sense of belonging and orderliness in a slightly quirky way.
Heart of Darkness, Inlets, and Sweeps over the landscape by JBW
JBW is particularly keen on deconstructing landscape and the structural elements of her art. Manipulation plays a vital role here. The artist is also convinced that “landscape will have a heart”. I’m still exploring this idea, but I understand the desire to find the centre of a terrain, real or imaginary. A specific spot where the landscape is really thrumming.
So structure, texture and shape allow room for interplay between the various exhibits in this gallery and more widely in their respective bodies of work.
The role of performance was also noticeable in the exhibits. JBW likes to demonstrate the effect of artistic technique, and the bodily movements and expressions constituting the creative process. From simple brush strokes and swirls to more subtle movements and techniques, all conveying the impact of the body on the canvas. In this way, the exhibit presents not just a final image, but the energy and skill that went into creating it. A demonstration of human endeavour.
Creeks and Gullies by JWB
MLKC’s artistic performances are exemplified in her pyrographic pieces. Pyrography is the act of scorching on wood or burning into the canvas. This technique can be extremely precise, creating definitive images. Alternatively, it can leave burnt traces and rough edges. Either way, the effect is quite magical. The method involves an element of destruction, but the result is beautiful, evocative artistry.
MLKC's showpiece, Anecdote to Buzhou, hanging in the gallery window, was quite magnificent. The scorching in this piece was selective and precise as far as it could be, but there was some singeing and straight lines are not easy to ‘draw’. But these features added to the overall effect; a stunningly naturalistic image forged out of an organic and almost experimental blast. On display in front of the Hackney town square with red buses passing behind, the vista was delightful and extraordinary.
Anecdote to Buzhou by MLKC
Disconnection and imagination
Anecdote to Buzhou, a dramatic paper hanging, and many of the pieces in MLKC’s portfolio, present areas of imagined landscape. Sometimes partially imagined, sometimes re-imagined. Some are semi-fictional, and partially inherited. They depict places she has never been to, that do not quite exist (other than in the mind), but are so evocative of actual Asian landscapes. This demonstrates a self-confessed hint of indulgence and experimentation. It also stems from a state of disconnection, of striving to engage with a geographical and cultural background to which the artist feels she doesn’t quite belong. MLKC does, however, include traces of reality and memories, both her own and those of her family.
Dragon Houses by MLKC
Amongst the expansive, imaginary plains we find Dragon Houses, the homes of the villagers in the land where her grandparents grew up. Here, the connectivity shines through. The artist is conversing with her cultural heritage, with those who have gone before her and lived in the scenes in her pictures. MLKC is fascinated by the idea of arriving, through art, at a place that’s “better than where we are now”. In this case, the place is a semi-fabricated setting from the past. An imagined recapturing of a landscape that formed the backdrop to the lives of those who helped to bring about her very existence. I find this touching and engaging.
In contrast, JBW’s art draws more upon first-hand experiences. The artist seems to be trying to re-establish links with her past and to make them somehow real again now. There is a similarity with MLKC here too, in terms of temporal connectivity, but the overriding feeling I have is one of reconnecting with actual, up-front or immediate experiences rather than imagined or borrowed memories.
This stands out for me most boldly in JBW’s wood, paper and fabric tiles, including Haze Along the Marsh Mud, which collectively depict her recollections of items on the Essex marshes. I put it to the artist that I was sensing the presence of Abel Magwitch, calling upon Pip for assistance. JWB kindly tolerated my literary rambling, admitting that it’s all the same marsh, but split by the Thames. And for JBW, this is not a fictional story. This composite exhibit is an attempt to show what she saw when she was growing up. The wooden pieces are somewhat rough, not too polished. They are recreations of items scattered across a landscape that was real, but are long since gone. The items also conjure up a feeling of temporal dislocation, as well as geographical shift. The veneer of wax on each of them represents the smoothing of the grittiness of time. In-keeping with the neighbouring exhibits, and contributing to the Asian theme of the conversation, there is a strong oriental look about these pieces. They made me think of the characters on Mah Jong tiles. So here, there is a link between Essex, the East of England, and the Far East. All quite charming.
Haze Along The Marsh Mud, Paglesham Moon Rising and more by JBW
Not everything may be as it seems. In conversation after I had viewed all the exhibits several times, MLKC drew my attention to SHAN SHUI. This translates as ‘mountain water’, yet Shan Shui has greater significance as an artistic style. This is a style that is more about response than realism. The acts of interpretation and expression override the ‘actual’ physical attributes of the subject. What matters is how the artist ‘felt’ about the object or scene, rather than how this object or scene conventionally appears. In this way, pictures might represent something completely different from what they might look like to the casual observer.
I was tempted to go round the gallery one more time, to re-imagine what I could see in front of me. But I was already enchanted by what I had seen, and thrilled to be part of the artistic conversation. I will explore the mysterious intricacies of Shan Shui more on another occasion.
© Eddie Hewitt 2017
Michelle Loa Kum Cheung www.michellelkc.com
Julie Brixey-Williams www.juliebrixey-williams.co.uk
A-side B-side Gallery www.asidebsidegallery.com