Crack speaks to the curators and participants in Bristol’s most important art show of the summer
From whichever direction you approach it, the Royal West of England Academy cuts a striking figure. Erected in 1858, its grandiose Victorian exterior, complete with elaborate carvings and ornamental coat of arms, exudes promises of pure, classical quality.
Unnatural-Natural History is without doubt the most important exhibition to grace Bristol this summer. Its curators leapt at the opportunity to interact with the celebrated setting, as Richard Scarry, the US limb of this uniquely transatlantic partnership, tells us. “We’d noticed a lot of artists were leaning towards nature. My partner Chippy had this idea that, since it’s such a big Victorian building, and it really feels like a Natural History museum, why not do a show of Unnatural-Natural History; take the idea of Natural History and base it on contemporary art. A lot of the work is based on remnants of the artist’s childhood and their memories of natural history museums.”
Indeed, the open-eyed wonder evoked by this absorbing range of pieces harks strongly at the tentative and awe-struck childhood innocence of being overwhelmed by the vast models, unplaceable skeletons and sheer breadth of information of a museum. One’s eyes are drawn helplessly back and forth to each corner of the space, busily populated yet with the immaculately-presented accessibility of the modern exhibition.
From the world-renowned likes of David LaChapelle and his sublime chromographic print Concerning the Soul, to Kate MccGwire’s unique and involving creations constructed from feathers, forming something at once natural and organic yet unknowable and otherwordly. Yet Fulvio Di Piazza’s epic and immersive cloudscapes, Mexico-born, LA-based Luis Sanchez’s technically stunning and textured large-scale scenes where humans and animals interact to surreal, irresistible effect and Marco Mazzoni’s dreamy, mystical pieces created with the humble pencil are all utterly, equally revelatory.
These are deeply personal variations on a broad but collectively embraced, theme, from an enviable range of artists from a melange of backgrounds and approaches too numerous to list.
“Everything you see here was created especially for this show”, states Scarry with a hint of pride. “Which is kind of phenomenal, when you think of the amount of work we have here. We asked all of these artists a year ago. That’s why we really champion what they do, they put all their sweat and blood and tears and creativity into these pieces, which have been created for Bristol and for this show. Now it’s our job to get it seen by as many people as possible.”
This willingness to produce work expressly for this show is reflective of an unanimous personal reaction to the brief. The artists who participate here all have their own, specific relationship with nature, and hence to the concept of Unnatural-Natural History.
Lindsey Carr, the Scottish artist whose The Mythical Ape greets you as soon as you enter the space, grabbing the attention with its furious glare and historical contextualisation, based as it is on Tibetan animal masks, tells us, “the animal world appeals to me because it presents us with a problem. We can’t communicate with them easily, if at all, so we understand them primarily through our own social and cultural contexts. In effect our understanding of them says more about us than it does about them.”
This deep-rooted preoccupation with the natural world is also reflected in the stunningly original work of LA resident Deedee Cheriel, where blocks of vibrant, neon colour and patterns spew from the mouths of animals, an illustration of her joyous clash of influences, from punk to a range of historical and cultural reference points. “I grew up in the State of Oregon, my mom would take us camping for weeks at a time in the summers when I was a child,” she tells us. “A lot of the imagery is from there. Birds, bears, deer, trees … even to this day, I’m happiest when I’m hiking or at the beach.”
And of course, it was a passion for such things which inspired the curators to single out this theme as one with the depth of potential to support an entire show. “We both love nature and we’re both science geeks”, says Scarry. “I think what’s around us in this world is so extraordinary, and I think that isn’t noticed a lot of the time.”
In the context of these relationships, which extend beyond the representation of nature in art to a powerful personal and emotional connection, it seems pertinent to question whether the curators felt any moral quandaries in the use of taxidermy within the show. From Geza Szollusi’s cows’ heads, expanded into remarkable spherical objects, at once shocking, engrossing and almost hard to believe, to Angela Singer’s beautifully bejewelled and dolled-up mammals and birds, these are intriguing and tastefully-handled examples of the art.
“No, none whatsoever,” he replies firmly. “I’m vegetarian! We’re strong believers in things being responsibly sourced, and all of the taxidermy art we feature is rescued. Geza’s cow heads come from a slaughterhouse where they’d just have been put in a fire. In Angela’s work, most of those pieces are over a hundred years old and weren’t considered good enough for display or couldn’t be sold. These things have to be treated sensitively and respectfully, and I think each of the taxidermy pieces in our show are there to celebrate, to almost give a life to the animal after their life has been lived.”
While these items are, indeed, handled sensitively, there’s no doubt Coates and Scarry seek to evoke strong reactions in their curations. From their work on Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery’s Art From The New World exhibition in 2010 and 2011’s Modern Fabulists show at View Gallery, the duo, who originally gained a reputation from running an extremely successful art blog, have certainly got Bristol talking.
“When you’re curating a show, indifference is the greatest insult”, Scarry tells us, becoming animated. “I would rather people hate it or love it, but have an opinion. And one of the things this show has done is create a lot of dialogue and conversation.”
Scarry, and by extension his partner Coates, exude pure passion. Their desire to gain exposure for the artists they champion and to get people talking is genuinely palpable, describing this as “the gift of the curator.”
It’s an attitude which spreads from the core to reach every element of their shows. “They are very enthusiastic about their work, which makes working with them very fun”, explains Deedee Cheriel. “The enthusiasm is contagious, that’s why their shows feel so fresh and alive and why people get so excited about seeing such cutting edge art.”
Cheriel is a prime example of another focus of this particular exhibition; to actively involve a younger audience. The immediacy of her work, its bold patterns and neon bursts; this is gallery art at its most fashionable and hip. “I think people register with my work for many reasons”, she tells us. “I think because it draws from different cultural and historical references, and also because the iconic nature of the imagery lends itself to a pop or punk aesthetic. I started making art when I was in a band, just for our albums and t-shirt covers, but I really enjoyed the process and kept doing it long after my band days.” This movement to bring a youthful crowd to a location more readily associated with a traditional art-going crowd was of importance to the curators. “I think anything that engages young people to be creative is smart”, says Scarry. “A lot of the artists we use are influenced by illustration, animation, gaming, video, pop culture; and that’s a young demographic.”
This is further exemplified by the exhibition’s aforementioned inability to remain within the confines of the gallery. Pouring onto the RWA’s front, the work of internationally acclaimed street artists James REKA and ROA provides a truly arresting welcome. With an active interest in rewriting definitions between street art and fine art. These artists also make vital contributions to the gallery space. ROA’s lovingly-prepared installation allows his exceptional anatomical sketches and preoccupation with skulls and animal forms to merge into a semblance of a taxidermist’s studio or vet’s surgery. Even in the context of the brightly-lit, high-ceilinged exhibition space, there is something eerie and cold in this involving little world of ROA’s creation. On an opposing wall, two neon creations from Pure Evil draw the eye. And most surprising of all is to be shown into an adjoining room where James REKA himself can be found working on The Final Flight, a piece which would soon find its face on the gallery wall.
“I’ve been part of a few small residencies in the past, but never in a royal institution such as this,” REKA tells us of his experience. “It’s exciting but also nerve-racking to see the other work in the show. The standard is extremely high, which was a great push for me for me to make the best work possible. I’m honoured to show my work next to artists I have looked up to over the years.” REKA, whose work has appeared all over the globe, from Tokyo to San Francisco, was also quick to praise Bristol as a creative environment. “Bristol has a long creative history. I’m from Melbourne, which also is enriched with culture and is a creative hub. I knew when I arrived I would love this place. It’s small but condensed, with great music, street art, galleries and a great vibe. An hour after getting off the train, I was already painting the balcony of the RWA. I felt my creative juices flowing and even without a sketch I knew exactly what to do.”
REKA’s seamless translation from street to gallery is based around a constant vision paired with the ability to adapt technique and mentality. “For me, street art is total freedom”, he explains. “I can have fun and enjoy the art of painting large scale murals. I would often approach a wall without any preliminary drawings. Apart from the chance to use different mediums like brush, oil pastels and charcoal that I could not use on my murals, my artwork gives me an opportunity to portray a different narrative my walls could never show.”
But perhaps most enthusiastically of all, REKA is quick to shower praise on his kindred spirit, ROA. “He’s a painting machine”, he gushes. “I was lucky enough to work with him in Sydney last year, but his installation here is like nothing I’ve seen from any of his exhibitions in the past.”
This intrusion of the street into the gallery owes largely to Scarry himself. “Well, my dirty secret is that I’m a huge street art fan”, he smiles. “I’ve worked with a lot of these graf boys over the years. Artists such as REKA and ROA are really putting fine art on the street, getting it seen by everyone and making it accessible. It’s not graffiti in its original nature, it’s not writing, it’s not tagging, but it is street art; this is what they do on the street. We blur that line between street art and fine art. It’s interesting to see it alongside something like See No Evil, where ROA had a piece. We’re the fine art end of that.”
That the RWA and the incredible range of work on offer just a walk down the hill at See No Evil, the street art event which has just celebrated its second happening at the time of our conversation, can be mentioned in the same breath is testament to Coates and Scarry’s ability to bring a vital new era to a fine old institution. “I think it’s interesting for Bristol, because Bristol is a really important hub for art. We could have done this show anywhere”, says Scarry with a clear tone of determination. “We could have done it in London, in New York or LA. But the truth is we live in Bristol and we believe in Bristol, and we need Bristol to show up and support projects like this.”
And has that been the case? “It is happening”, comes the reply. “A little bit of it is reeducation, letting people know we’re here. I think a lot of the big art collectors in Bristol are used to going to London to buy, and you’ll also find that a lot of the most important artists in Bristol show in London. We’re trying to show that you can do this in your own back yard, that Bristol matters.”
And as we stand outside the RWA and glance back at those sudden flashes of vivid, dynamic activity hinting at the powerful shift in ideologies occurring inside, we’re left in no doubt he means it.
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Unnatural-Natural History runs until September 23rd
Words: Geraint Davies