Thursday, 16 May 2013

Art: In Cloud Country - in conversation with Iwona Blazwick and Diane Howse

In recent years the reputation of art inspired by nature has taken something of a battering – especially if it has a tendency towards abstraction.

There is so much kitschy and inoffensive art littering the walls of hotel rooms and coffee shops that the idea of an exhibition focusing on the abstraction in nature is one that is easy to dismiss.

But the latest exhibition at Harewood House sees curators Iwona Blazwick OBE, Director of the Whitechapel Gallery, and Countess of Harewood, Diane Howse, take a daring approach to the genre.

Diane Howse (left) and Iwona Blazwick (right). Picture by Bethany Clark.
In Cloud Country is an exhibition that doesn’t just capture your imagination – it teases and prods it, pulls at it and contorts it beyond recognition.

At each turn you are met with seeming unrelated works coupled together. One can see an early 19th century sketch by J.W.M. Turner hanging next a piece by contemporary artist Chris Ofili, who is best known for his paintings featuring elephant dung.

Iwona explained: “We felt we had a licence to do this partly because we had both seen an exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery in the 1990s curated by Michael Craig-Martin called Drawing the Line where he just ran amuck with a whole collection of drawings. You could see Leonardo Da Vinci next to Sol LeWitt – it was really liberating.

“So we thought why not travel across space and time and seeing if the concerns are the same. And sure enough, we found that there were these parallels. So, for example, we could see that you could put together an oil pastel by Degas and find it next a contemporary work by Julian Opie – they’re both intimations of something sublime, but the Julian Opie has a motorway in it.

“It was looking at the similarities, but also the differences, and rather than telling this story as a chronology, it was actually to say there are themes within this topic. The word ‘abstraction’ is as big as the word ‘nature’, and we wanted to find all different manifestations of it - hence the grouping of different themes."

The very definition of the words ‘nature’ and ‘abstraction’ are called into question throughout the exhibition. Diane said: “There’s a notion that if you work with nature that it’s about trees and landscapes seen from a certain perspective, but that’s not necessarily always so. Nature is everything that is in our physical world – there’s gravity, radiation, the movement of the planets, and so on. A lot of artists are working with that notion in the broadest sense, even though they are not in any way, shape or form landscape artists – it’s how we experience that landscape, or our relationship to the physical world.

“A lot of artists now work in the studio, completely removed from natural stimulus, so there’s a notion there of memory, embedded memory, and perhaps of personal memory or even some sort ancient memory that we all have.”

Iwona added: “Throughout the whole thing you get this miraculous process, this alchemical process where an artist can reduce an entire environment - a huge 360 degree panorama – onto a piece of paper. How do they do that? That’s what we’re hoping to show. These are the many ways that artists have done this over the last three centuries and continue to do so.”

J.M.W.Turner, Rome from Monte Mario, (c.1819).
The term ‘abstraction’ is used metaphorically throughout the exhibition. Iwona said: ”We’re looking at abstraction where art becomes a symbol, where nature becomes a symbol. So we’ve got a grouping of work around nature and society where we start with William Morris. And even though the drawing that we have, which is a design for a wallpaper, is really a very precise picture of petals, flowers and tendrils, the concept is an abstract one because he reflected a society where people saw the growth of Satanic mills and the way that human beings were losing touch with their environment and destroying it at the same time. Belching smoke, mines, factories, so Morris’s project was to bring nature back to urban society, and bring nature back into the home.”

Alongside the works of Morris and Turner are pieces by contemporary artists such as Imran Qureshi. Iwona said: “He has an extraordinary skill for depicting chrysanthemums and turning those into quite a shocking image of political trauma. That image is really about partition, and it’s a bloody footprint. But when you look more closely, you see that it made of these beautifully, exquisitely rendered chrysanthemum petals embossed with gold.”

Imran Qureshi, This Leprous Brightness, 
The exhibition ventures into the terrain of conceptual art, as Iwona explained: “There’s a thread of post-war conceptual art where language becomes another form of representation. The idea of a proposal such as Paolo Bruschi’s idea that he could colour the clouds over New York, or indeed Lawrence Weiner – one of the greatest conceptual artists in the world – evoking a structure made out of bamboo purely with words on a wall.”

But it is the historical scope of the exhibition that make it such an engaging and surprising experience for the audience. Iwona said: “You have these great, acknowledged art historical giants like Turner, but seen at their most intimate – the sketch. The deftness with which they capture something with pen and ink, or with watercolour, juxtaposed with some of the most important developments in modern and contemporary art.

“It has a strong locus of the British art scene and within British collections. We’re sad not to have Van Gogh or Mondrian, or the Barbizon school, but we do have a Degas and a Matisse. We’ve tried to map the key moments right up to Richard Long, perhaps one of the greatest post-war British artists, who uses his body as a form of mapping. He describes his journey across the moorland to create a sort of conceptual sculpture.”

In Cloud Country breaks the trend for exhibitions to focus on oil paintings or sculptures, and instead relishes in the spontaneity and potential associated with works produced on paper. Iwona said: “What's thrilling about working with works on paper is that they are rarely seen except for in small galleries and storerooms. There’s this ‘what if?’ potential about them – they’re quite utopian. They’re about grabbing something fleeting – they’re about the possibility of something more. And that somehow gives them a tremendous energy which oil paintings lack.

“I hope people come away feeling excited and maybe even grab a pen themselves, and find themselves drawing and reacting to the natural environment around them.”

In Cloud Country is on display at Harewood House until June 30.

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