Catalogue Essay for the Florence Trust Summer Show. Written for the Florence Trust, a studio complex in north London Highgate May 2008. Gill Hedley is an independent curator, writer and consultant on contemporary visual arts.
Work by: Elisabetta Alazraki, Luke Brennan, Owen Johnson, Miranda Lopatkin, Rebecca Mears, Samantha Mogelonsky, Suzanne Moxhay, Cate Schindler, Matthew Swift, Masaki Yada, Kalim Yoon.
The Florence Trust is housed in St. Saviour's, Aberdeen Park, in sylvan Highbury, a church of 1865-6, described as the masterpiece of its architect William White. John Betjeman, in a poem named for the church, describes Aberdeen Park's “tall Italianate houses” and at its centre, “a great red church” in which he worshipped as child.
The founder of the Florence Trust was Patrick Hamilton who died earlier this year. His passion for the Italian city of Florence and for the time he spent painting in her churches led him to create a trust by which artists could enjoy time and space to work in a beautiful setting. I asked each artist how St. Saviour's had affected them.
Elisabetta Alazraki weaves belief systems with aspects of communication technology.
A continuing series uses a Polaroid camera whose software records magnetic fields and translates them into a colour range or “aura”. Only artists are recorded and each image will fade away. Meanwhile, they are displayed as reliquaries.
A similar memorial impulse has led to the New Moon Project which invites visitors to choose an area of grievance: love, money, work, family, health and school. A piece of paper, bearing name and grievance, is burned in a candle flame by the artist at each new moon. A photograph of the ceremony is posted on the website and also sent to the individuals whose names are engraved on marble.
She is distributing 4000 flyers which appear to promote the slogans of a multinational industry but instead refer to love, truth, happiness and death. The work pays homage to the 26% of the population in the UK who declared that they believe in something without knowing exactly what that is.
Alazakri studied for a Diploma in Photography, at the Istituto Europeo di Design, Milan, Italy, and is currently on the MA Fine Art course at Central Saint Martin’s.
Luke Brennan has always wanted to work within a church and often starts works with a doctrinal text. His studio is under the octagonal lantern and he plans “to turn the world upside down” by reflecting the ceiling.
An artist who did not go to art school, he usually works in partnership and while the residency has created an independent line of thought he draws attention to the constant presence of the feminine.
Brennan has made a cast in salt which changes with speed and strangeness, taking as his text the story of Lot's wife who, with one last forbidden glance at Sodom and Gomorrah, is turned to salt. He uses other redolent, literally visceral, materials such as the stomach linings of cows, emphasising their honeycomb hexagonal structures. In a recent show, he created an Ark of the Covenant using stag beetles, rhinoceros beetles, scarab beetles, Tefilin, sheep skull, silk, glass, Jesmonite, wood, gloss paint, Kudu horn, horse hair and gold velvet. His use of materials (and listing them) is both theatrical and transubstantive.
Owen Johnson specialised in glass at Monash University, Melbourne, Australia. Later at the Australian National University, he began to incorporate sound into his work and now combines elements to create a “visualisation of sound to develop new concepts of space”.
Deaf until the age of four, gradually his hearing returned. With no habit of hearing, he does not store sound memory. Mapping sound spaces, cataloguing sounds and individual responses is central to his work.
A church setting has given Johnson one of the stages that he requires for his commitment to interactive and one-off events. A strong memory is of sitting as a small child feeling the vibration of his parents' speakers booming out Beatles' music. He is planning an interactive drum installation which recalls a studio group visit to Jonathan Monk's recent exhibition at the Tramway, Glasgow. There will also be one in a series of jigsaws, based on drawings of imaginary marine life and allowing visitors themselves to invent images of new life forms.
A choral work will be staged at in the church later in the summer and a research project aims to build a library of sound which will demonstrate how people with different hearing process and comprehend sounds.
Miranda Lopatkin was, at first, distracted by the beauty of the church. Later, she noticed its darkness and began to be very aware of the changes of seasons.
Earlier work adhered to the convention of the re-appropriated photo but a subtle difference lay in her use of family photos that immediately pre-date her birth. She is interested in how we “remember” from photos and the “little memories that we lose when we die”. Images emphasise the fragility of home and its unsettling opposite, the unheimlich, and her own sense of balancing between Englishness and Jewishness.
Recent work is often layered and shadowy – an effect from cross-frames in film – and deals with metamorphosis so a young girl appears to be melding into a tree as Daphne did to escape Apollo's advances. An image of cardboard house which began as a plaything built with a niece inevitably makes reference to homelessness.
Lopatkin studied theatre and performance as well as photojournalism before gaining an MA from Central St. Martin's. She has long specialist experience in the educational department of museums where she works with the homeless and finds that people tell her their family stories. There is a clear and powerful link between her two modes of work as an artist.
Rebecca Mears talks of shadows spilling their colour and the light effects of the church as well as the impact of its structure and scale.
Trained as a painter at Brighton University she is aware of changes in her work through the influence of being surrounded by sculptors at the Florence Trust but refers to the white walls of her studio space as “in a sense, a larger canvas” and the possibilities of that emptiness and potential.
She builds up accumulations of photographs and used materials such as masking tape, fishing wire, spools, plastic farm animals and clothes pegs. This search is characterised by a persistent scrutiny and repeated observation that leads to a process of collecting followed by sorting, re-arranging then transforming. She recalls a delight in the structures of iron filings as they cling together in response to the pull of a magnet. Her titles convey something of her approach such as “arrangement of quietness” and “line expansion”. She looks for a subtle humour in the detail of her environment using it to transform the mundane into the beautiful or arresting.
Mears has been awarded the first Florence Trust 08 Fenton Arts Bursary.
Samantha Mogelonsky left after her MA from Central St Martin's to undertake residencies in a church and then castle. The Florence Trust residency coincided with another at La Napoule in the South of France.
She had arrived in London with the gift of a 1971 London A-Z, romantic rather than useful. She created a work in which it became half of chimera, the other half a typewriter. La Napoule added to her vocabulary of fantasy: flower festivals, terraces overlooking the sea, huge salons. The work she made there was a response to the sense of “having fun again”. But a commitment to repetition prevailed. She made at least 100 small castles in unfired clay with a scattering of clay roses. The fate of these sculptures was filmed on the sea shore at the end of the residency.
For the summer show she is building little connected utopias where a castle links to a forest and a cable car reaches on to a city and so on.
Hands and making and craft and writing re-occur as references. There is also a gothick note to much of the new work influenced by her re-reading of familiar tales, like Bram Stoker's Dracula, which she feels now resonate differently as she reads them in the country in which they were written.
Suzanne Moxhay studied painting at Chelsea School of Art then went to the Royal Academy Schools. She is considering uncovering a corner of the church in which to show a film, a new departure for her, in which the main image will remain still and a small element – swarming aeroplanes - will move.
She builds miniature “flats”, similar to early film sets, which are then incorporated as layers through various processes of digital manipulation. The resulting photos blend illusory and real space, leaving the viewer uncertain about scale or depth which she says “appear to hover between the miniature and the epic”.
Moxhay has a vast archive of images collected from travel brochures and adverts as well as the National Geographic magazine and photographic journals. Often from the 1950s to 1970s, their colour adds artificiality while the quality of the printing, without contemporary sharpness, gives a sense of temporal distance. They also retain a strong painterly quality.
The visionary writing of J. G. Ballard and film genres, like the western or horror movie, are a hinterland to these constructed landscapes which are ambivalent and very knowing versions of the apocalyptic.
Cate Schindler is a sound and installation artist who was immediately attracted by the acoustics of the main body of the church and its colour and decoration. Her studio has a hidden, almost cell-like, quality which, as one listens to the sound pieces, emphasises details like the encaustic floor and stained glass windows. Sensitivity to her setting means that speakers are installed so that no technology exposed.
Schindler’s first degree was in Computer Science/Multimedia Art at Boston followed by a BA in Sound Art & Design, at the London College of Communication.
The church and its acoustics create an emotional experience which is both dwarfing and engulfing for the visitor. The abstracted sounds of her installations create their own settings and evoke imagined places. In one work what first seemed to be echoes of water and clocks are in fact the replay of electric currents, in rhythm to lull the listener.
In another, a repeated note creates a sense of slowness – threads to lead us or crumbs to follow. Each sound emanates from its own speaker and we do not feel constricted as the sense of listening remains natural and calmness pervades. Elsewhere, voices recall dreams.
Matthew Swift’s new work is a re-engagement with installation. He has an MFA in Studio Art from New York University and a BA in Theatre Design at Central St Martin's.
His immediate reaction to the church was to find the building intimidating but a large and beautiful stained glass window in his studio allows coloured morning light to filter through. Consciously or not, this window is beginning to reveal its influence in the use of a soft amber colour and of areas of sticky backed plastic that contain patches of colour within a grid-like structure.
The architectural forms of these installations support areas of paint, small collages of photographs and doodles. Increasingly found photos and objects are incorporated into his re-appraisals of the urban journey. Each installation begins with a photograph taken at the edge of things, like a coast line or the top of Blackpool Tower, usually incorporating architectural details and structures. Mental snapshots of the “city dwellers making their trajectory over patched landscapes” overlay the visual evidence.
A new element is developing in which cables and power lines are conduits and organic links to mood. Swift talks of discovering the “personality of the line” in these shadows, pipes and branches.
Masaki Yada has found the building makes him very conscious of the change from winter to summer, especially when reading Freud on the uncanny, alone.
His work has a similar unnerving quality and humour within it. There are two opposed styles: the gestural and the tightly controlled. Recent work has become more internal. After studying painting and colour co-ordination at private schools in Tokyo, he studied for Foundation Diploma at Chelsea School of Art where he returned to take a Post Graduate Diploma after a BA at Central St Martin's.
Yada’s is aware of his technical dexterity and repeated references in his work to Old Master paintings (such as the vanitas skull or the device of a shelf to create depth) so he is very determined to be define himself as an artist not “just a painter”. Other strands of work involve photography and sculptures of small wax dolls.
A pivotal work has the same format and range of colour as one of the Old Master series but the image has been obliterated under a layer of paint laid with a confident gesture which he describes as “losing control in a controlled way”. It is a comparatively small work, and time at the Florence Trust has resulted in smaller, but more intense works.
Kalim Yoon was immediately impressed by the English habit of collecting vintage clothes and objects, in contrast to the tiger economy of Korea. Taking part in this became her way of understanding a different culture and a quick way to understand other eras but found that she could only go so far. Secondhand goods are now simply one of her materials. She also works, quite disturbingly though always wittily, with toys as a vehicle for an adult's fear.
A new series consists of stitching scintillating threads on to natural history engravings, often of animals never seen by the 19th century artist and thus fantastical. Out of their context – without text - these “mutilated” images are desirable in contrast to the reformed toys that have lost their charm. Her appropriation of elements of western culture has bittersweet but sophisticated qualities.
Yoon studied at Seoul National University in Fine Art/Sculpture & Visual Communication Design then at the Slade School of Fine Art for an MFA.
She has a love/hate of the architecture of the church, as it does not lend itself easily to her to installations, but she is also able to work at the Slade where she is part of their Research Development Programme.
A year-long residency with companionship and professional support in terms of career development is a privilege that all these artists have earned and value. How do they now negotiate the art world with which they wish to engage?
Several of the artists have plans for group shows together and others for their own public projects. The Florence Trust helps to build up their network of critics, curators, dealers and collectors so that the artists can use the opportunity of the cloistered year to make themselves visible through these essential routes. For some, being represented by a dealer is the ultimate goal; for others, public projects are the aim. While it is a viciously competitive time for an artist to begin a professional career, there is plurality of chances: to work in published, real and virtual settings; with independent or museum or corporate curators; within further studio groups.
Each artist – whether from America, Australia, Canada, Japan, Korea, or the UK – has the body of work, association with the Florence Trust and conviction to take them where they wish to be.