Recently I had the good fortune to find myself in an exhibition space in Milton Keynes. I had just bought two graphic novels, one, on the life of Louise Michel, the feminist revolutionary and anarchist who earned the sobriquet ‘The Red Virgin of Montmartre’ during the Paris Commune uprising of 1871. The other was a life of Edvard Munch by Steffen Kverneland, a seven year labour of love, which illustrates the power of graphic storytelling, to inform and transform one’s knowledge and awareness of a subject with a rapidity unknown to other arts. The pictures in front of me echoed some of this storytelling power and were by two artists from Milton Keynes, Shelly Wyn-De-Bank and Christine Gallagher (and whilst I enjoyed the work of the latter it’s the former I want to concentrate on here).
Artists grow with time, the breadth of their vision, if they are industrious and serious, literally expands and the panorama they paint stretches like canvas in the frame.
Shelly is an artist.
Although this is to a degree a retrospective, her most recent work, seems to me, to have moved into new territory. I’ve known Shelly for many years and she’s always had talent. But that’s not enough to become an artist. She has worked hard, graduated from a top art school and put steel into her work. This learnt know-how or what the ancients Greeks would call ‘techne’, is necessary and fundamental but true, living, breathing, bona fide art, ignites the interest of the viewer because the artist has developed quite literally a vision, a weltanschuuang, a philosophy, a creative and unique(-ish) perspective.
Artists can be ideologically naive, politically ill informed or savage but they are rarely theoretically ignorant or without an embedded sense of the purpose of picture making. There are, very rarely, artist savants who barely have to think, who’s genius sits upon their shoulders whispering, unbidden, in their ears (and unrecognised by the savant as the source of their creativity). But the fruit, borne from the sweat of the brow, of most artists comes from a tree of, if not knowledge, then inspired thought, contemplative action and consciousness, filtered through theory. Said simply, great art is full of ideas. Whether it’s Magritte, where the ideas are to the fore or Poussin , who’ s ideas arrive in your mind, like the light of the dawn or a sudden afternoon blaze on a patch of wall, it is the sub-pictorial that brings the picture to life.
Material, medium, manner, form, this is the genesis. Form, motif, style, theme, idea, this is the Art. The medium and material are the Ur-genesis of the idea. Together they generate and allow the literal shaping of manner, character, genre, type, form and style. They allow the motif, the tic, the obsession to flourish. The materials display and embrace the theme. On the theme rests the idea.
Shelly’s irregular narrative has taken time, years, to maturate but now the people of Milton Keynes are privileged and lucky to see the real beginnings of that narrative play out in their city. Imagine, very approximately, Munch’s ‘The Scream’, just the head, isolated and with a dark background. Now think of a dozen or so, medium sized portraits (mono-prints) and a lesser number, in the same style, of small square portraits. This then is the rogue’s gallery of half-ghost like, half dumbstruck villains that people her creation called the Archive of Irregular and this is the primary work of the exhibition.
Previously, I would have described a major theme of Shelly’s work, as a depiction of a dystopic Alice through the looking glass realm. A horrorscope of, as just one example, animal parts transplanted onto sweet (and not so sweet) little girls, in party dresses. Often the paintings being given darkly humorous titles that were puns and plays on words. This was still here, with pictures such as, the sinister ‘Nursery Crimes’ where a man, with a viciously cocked head, stands behind a young girl whilst a young woman in front strokes her face or ‘Deer Sweet Girl’ a hand coloured mono-print depicting the body of a deer (wearing a see-through dress) with the head of young girl (hair tied with a bow). Alternatively, using ink and line, Shelly has the skill of an Aubrey Beardsley, the illustrator who decorated Wilde’s work so brilliantly and so mischievously. The best example here, being ‘Familial Ties’ from last year. A young woman, with a Venetian mask of hair over her face, striped leggings and DM boots, is bent over, dragging, by puppet strings, eight soft toys, faceless dolls, teddy-bears etc. The drag of the family, the puppet (or child) on the string, displaced fur or hair and so on, are the kind of gritty, disturbed motif that hints at a hidden personal painterly pain.
This is skilful, engaging, personal, humorous; the disturbed fantastical. The new narrative, is less immediately perceived, it is hidden in the scuffed black backdrop. Our archivist has remained in the vault, these are talking pictures, animated in such a way that we can ignore the biography of the artist long enough to enjoy the images sitting in the armchair of our own consciousness.
I was going to talk, in terms of technique, of the oddly thick brush strokes on canvas, until a friend told me what a mono-print actually was and how they are created. To begin with, the prefix, ‘Mono’ refers to the medium’s uniqueness. You only get one ‘Mono-print’, one original picture (clue’s in the name) though you can, apparently, use the inked plate more than once. An appropriate surface is ‘inked’, (plate-glass, in this case, I believe) the paper is then placed on that surface and an image created by drawing, impressing or etching (?) onto the paper. Something approximating this anyway (my ignorance on this subject is quite as dark as any of Shelly’s pictures). The point being, that the pictures here, had a wide grainy ‘brushstroke’ that was dynamic and alive but produced a ghostly trace or impression in the ink/paint.
The faces in these images where like the inner soul of the human being. Or, they could be our outer shells, but the dishevelled, shambling, pallid, scumbled skin felt less like a depiction of our literal selves and more a picture of how deformed we are, or can be, inside. Many of the eyes of these characters were made up from the black void behind them, as if they were blind or saw only blackness. The eyes weren’t windows into the soul, what you had in front of you was the oxymoronic, ‘embodied spirit’. This gave then a ghoulish outlook, an aspect of the phantom. And yet these were not evil figures, more malformed; a meaty fragility still hung about their corpse coloured skin. They were like the empty husk of a politician that Britain boasts a hoard of, some with slicked-down Hitler-like crossovers, others with teeth like the crumbling stone of the houses of parliament.
None were blemish free but one or two, those with eyeballs and not just empty sockets, had aqua bright irises that reminded me of our blue planet seen from outer space. These eyes were bright with life and spoke of dreams still wished for, sight still to be used. One had a chunk of white smoke coming out of his smiling mouth, another smeared red lips like the Joker from Batman but each had its own distinctive being, whilst still being part of the uniform cabinet of curiosities.
This is the work of an artist that has freed herself from her past and is moving out to sea. She is floating in the ocean of ideas.
This Archive or collective of regular Irregulars are images you can paint your own ideas on: ghosts, gangsters, ugly, soulless, soul-filled, ethereal, earthy, Dorian Gray depictions of the inner self it doesn’t matter, whatever the label you hang upon them, they provoke a reaction. They have the breath of the earth and the taste of the sea about them. If you take your time with them, the sand shifts between your toes.