Norman Ackroyd CBE RA — Engraving with Acid


On 13 December 2017 the seminal British etcher Norman Ackroyd joined us at Messums Wiltshire in our 13th century barn for a talk on his life and work, interviewed by curator Catherine Milner. The event was split into thirds: commencing with a short documentary by the BBC following a ‘day-in-the-life-of’ Ackroyd as part of their ‘What Do Artist’s Do All Day?’ series, with questions from Milner and the audience thereafter.

Ackroyd studied at Leeds College of Art until 1961 and then at the Royal College of Art until 1964. After his education he moved to New York during the 1970s for several months to work, following the migration of his artistic contemporaries from London and sincerely entertaining the possibility of a permanent relocation. He finally decided the cultural climate of New York was far too ‘hysterical’ for his mentality and, returning to the UK, rejected the modern art scene, choosing instead to follow his own path. Soon after his return he journeyed to the tip of the British Isles — the Orkney Islands — beginning an unofficial project which would see him chart over five-hundred viewpoints of the UK. He would sit on the cabins of fishing trawlers, sketch-book in hand, genuinely wanting to venture to those remote places, interested both in the artistic potential and geological rarity of these locations. Wanting to ‘squeeze out the essence of the place’, Ackroyd liked exploring as a pursuit in itself, enjoying the ‘bonus’ of subliminal subject matter and avidly sketching all that he saw in situ.

Now he lives and works in a restored industrial warehouse building in Bermondsey, where the BBC documentary team followed him from dusk till dawn over the course of a single day in 2013. When asked about his choice of profession he coyly replied, ‘It keeps me out of bother’ and further commented how fantastic it was to be able to engrave for a living — something which his family, historically all butchers in Leeds, thought most impossible. When asked about his central London base, at odds with the geography of his subject matter, Ackroyd explained he had lived in remote places throughout his life, taking ‘ages’ to get to one scene from the next. Milner suggested the call of the wild was part of an artistic journey rather than the main way of life. Agreeing, Ackroyd recalled the annual Christmas dinner at the Royal College which invites all of the academicians out of the mania of London and into its hallowed halls. Artists are, by demand of their profession monastic, and living in the capital gives Ackroyd access to social and artistic spheres, as well as the ability to draw back from them.

After the BBC film Milner drew the comparison between Ackroyd’s work and the cookery process. He agreed, stating that 90% of cooking is about having great ingredients and it is the same with etching. He professed to working in thousands of various black inks, ‘self-indulgently’ making his own out of burnt natural materials such as bone and peach stone; all offering slightly different colours and textures. Just like a kitchen his workshop is meticulously clean, with the risk of contamination otherwise too great — affording yet another comparison with the family tradition of butchery. Etching with a copperplate can take three to four days of solid work and requires bewitching precision and experience. Ackroyd begins with delineating the reverse of the design on the plate aided by the reflection of a mirror. He described treating the plate like a painting, though one which needs absolute concentration, due to the ‘high-wire’ of working with acid. His etching presses, which have been passed on to him, are ‘two of the best in all of Europe’. The first, a ‘beautiful piece of engineering’, made at the time when etching was an industrial rather than artistic process, cost £400 in 1900 — which today would be equivalent to £52,000. The second is a smaller standard press, the ‘Volvo’ of the pair.

Ackroyd observed that his work is greatly influenced by the British Romantic Samuel Palmer, as well as the prolific printmaker Anthony Gross. He adores the ‘stopping-and-stilling’ mechanism of Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer’s work saying that ‘time is like a butterfly when it is pinned down’ in his works. His greatest hero is Goya, naming the Los Caprichos series, as well as Picasso. Both were great draftsmen Ackroyd remarked, a quality seemingly lost within the teaching of the art schools today, which undervalue the importance and the necessity of skill and technique. An audience member questioned with Ackroyd thought his career would have been vastly different had he attended the Slade or Central St Martin’s, instead of the Royal College. ‘Life is a lottery’ he began his answer and concluded that he owed a great deal of his success to his Alma Mater. He would largely accredit this to Julian Trevelyan and the hands-off approach of members of staff, allowing him to ‘just get on with it’. This method fostered deeply different artists, his classmates as diverse as Peter Blake, David Hockney and Patrick Caulfield. A second attendee asked whether he was ever tempted to include the human figure. Ackroyd replied saying that he does, in fact, ‘do his scales’ of art making: drawing from life and well as still life drawing. But it is the traces — the resonance — of humanity that he prefers; the marks where we’ve been; the civilisations rather than the individuals.

Bitham Lake

Norman Ackroyd has etchings of Old Wardour Castle as well as Bitham Lake at Fonthill in our exhibition, ‘A Wessex Scene’, which is on display in the Long Gallery until 31 December 2017. The editions of these works are also available to order at Messums Wiltshire. He has artwork in national and international collections including the Tate, British Museum and National Gallery of Art. Ackroyd became the Professor of Etching at the University of the Arts in 1994 and was elected a Royal Academician in 1991. In 2000 he was made Senior Fellow, Royal College of Art and was awarded a CBE for services to engraving and painting in 2007.

Introducing ceramic work by partnership John Julian and Makoto Kagoshima


Messums Wilshire is delighted to announce the inaugural set of porcelain works belonging to the partnership between prolific ceramicist John Julian (Julian Sainsbury) and the celebrated Japanese artist and ceramicist Makoto Kagoshima. These works are some of the first in an ongoing series that the pair hope to collaborate on going forward.

Makoto Kagoshima, based in Kyushu, the southern island of Japan, illustrates whimsical and heartwarming motifs on clay, making each ceramic object a unique, one-of-a-kind piece of art. His works are designed with a variety of plants and animals, remembered from his childhood.

John Julian with Makoto Kagoshima

Sculptor and designer Julian Sainsbury is recognised for his collection of exquisite kitchenware, serveware and tableware. His designs are known for their pared-back aesthetic, neutral palette and finely judged simplicity. Leading chefs, discerning cooks and foodies alike around the world appreciate the sculptural form and the excellent functionality of his enduring classic designs. In 2013, after becoming disenchanted with the restrictions of conventional mass manufacturing, he set up his own artisanal workshop in Wiltshire.

Sainsbury and Kagoshima were initially brought together to work on a collaboration for the Japanese retailer, Isetan. The pieces of this project were exhibited and sold within Isetan, Japan in March 2017.  This collaboration was formed of plates, bowls and mugs stamped with Kagoshima designs as well as beautifully hand painted jugs, decorated by the artist on his initial visit to the John Julian workshop in Burcombe. The hand-painted work, in much demand, sold out instantly, inspiring further collaboration.
Later in 2017, Kagoshima re-visited the John Julian Workshop and took the opportunity to visit Messums Wiltshire. After which, the pair decided again to cooperate, with Kagoshima painting three of Sainsbury’s large ceramic plates. To create his folkloric design, Kagoshima paints using black slip directly onto the clay, scratching through the layers to give the line detailing. The painted plates are typical of Kagoshima’s linear style, but with a quintessentially British-themed twist, signed on the back by the artist. Featured animals include horses, foxes and a pair of doves, all intertwined with roses and other flowers. These three plates are available to purchase in our 13th century Medieval barn.
They are not the first collaborative works that Messums Wiltshire has displayed. Back in the summer of 2017, we featured Buckmaster French’s evocative leaf etchings in the show Material: Wood, nodding to famous artistic duos throughout history; the likes of Gilbert & George and the brothers Jake and Dinos Chapman.

David Inshaw — as Interviewed by Catherine Milner


David Inshaw, ‘The Badminton Game’, 1972-3, Oil on Canvas, H152.4 x W183.5cm

David Inshaw quoted one of his favourite writers, Thomas Hardy, an author whose work is especially relevant to the theme of Messums Wiltshire’s latest exhibition ‘A Wessex Scene’. ‘Beauty of emotion is far greater than the beauty of aspect’ Inshaw recited, highlighting a theme which runs throughout his own paintings, as he uses landscape as a metaphor for human emotion, pathetic fallacy come to life. It is this very emotion which is so pertinent to art, creating an environment of empathy in these rather ‘troubled times’: connecting us on this little fair isle to the rest of the world.

The interview began, of course, with the image that Inshaw is best known for — ‘The Badminton Game’ — a painting which established his reputation as one of the most eminent landscape artists when it was bought by the Tate in 1981. The image contains recurring motifs of Inshaw’s, namely topiary and sex, imbuing innocent landscapes with a dark, sensual melancholy; an enchanting wickedness. It is because of this, Catherine Milner, interviewer and curator of the exhibition, suggested that Inshaw is able to ‘sail above categorisation’ yet be rooted in supposed quintessential Englishness and naivety.

‘I didn’t start off like this’ Inshaw hurried to add, making his way in the world as a graphic design and painter in Kent. He later attended the Royal Academy in London, when at the time the art world was only concerned with American Expressionism, as well as Pop Art, both from ‘across the pond’. Peter Blake and David Hockney were the British artists all the rage. Inshaw saw these trends as somewhat directionless, and questioned whether there could be another possibility for art. He began constructing ‘semi pop-art’, painting with words; focusing on construction; coming to the climax of an unknown ‘YES YES’ piece.

In 1964 Inshaw was awarded a scholarship to paint in Paris. He professed most of his Romanticism must have originated at this time, as it felt like Paris had gone unchanged since the 1900s. When he returned to England he was to take up a job at Bristol, choosing to live in between that city and London in the ‘backwater’ of Devizes, Wiltshire. At once he fell in love with the wonderful area and all of its ancient history, steeped in myth and legend.

He started to paint landscapes, in the hyper-defined, quasi-Surrealist style of ‘The Badminton Game’. This morning scene was not painted from real life but from Inshaw’s imagination, made up of composite parts. The very phallic trees were in fact viewed from a pair of binoculars; the house was an old girlfriend’s; he had had relationships which both of the women in the image. The woman on the far side is a student, with her friend on the other side, closest to the viewer. Inshaw painted in this slightly manufactured look, as though it has been made by a machine, for ‘himself only’, and was to do so over the next ten years.

Terrible stomach pains made him realise that he needed to stand and paint more freely. He had obsessions with certain Wiltshire motifs such as Silbury Hill, admired by Inshaw as it reminded him of the ever-changing passing of time. Another trope was the Cerne Abbas Man, once muddy and dirty, now white-lined by the National Trust, ‘almost glowing or neon’ Inshaw observed. He declared his appreciation for this work, on such a large scale, citing the anonymous artist(s) as a genius. All of Inshaw’s paintings are much larger than their slide-show reproductions, he pointed out, noting the importance of the original canvas’ surface and quality of paint used.

He met Peter Blake at a dinner party and founded the Brotherhood of Ruralists in 1975, wanting to be the antidote to American Colour Field and Pop Art painting. It was a venture which was to last five to six years, a not uncommon amount of time for a British artistic group. Inshaw has also painted for well-known collectors and personalities, including two works for the veteran broadcaster and naturalist David Attenborough. Inshaw has contributed two paintings to ‘A Wessex Scene’: ‘Banished’ and ‘Cloud Study, Rainbow’. ‘Banished’ or ‘F*** Off and Don’t Come Back’ as it is affectionately known, evidences Inshaw’s casting of Wiltshire as a kind of Eden — dwelling in eroticism and the source of creation — with Adam and Eve’s departure from which as inevitable as our departure from life itself. Both of Inshaw’s paintings can be viewed in the Long Gallery until 31 December 2017.

PERFORMANCE: Mad King Suibhne


Opera: Mad King Suibhne

30 November – 02 December 2017

“Verdi knew, as the great Broadway musical writers would come to know, that when it comes to socking it to an audience there is no more potentially powerful art form than opera, which combines music, drama, stagecraft, design, and vocal and physical athleticism in one intoxicating cocktail”.  Clemency Burton Hill, Evening Standard.

In recent years it has been suggested that opera, once the reserve of the rich, metropolitan elite, has been reclaimed as an art form for the people. The multidisciplinary genre, which mixes fine art, design, music and often dance, has been taken out of the nexus of London to different locations where audiences want to see performances reflecting their lives and circumstances. Messums Wiltshire is contributing to this only-growing trend by staging Mad King Suibhne, in collaboration with Bury Court Opera; a project which took eighteen months in the making, from the initial discussions through to the finished opera.

Mad King Suibhne is an new opera by composer and Music Director Noah Mosley, commissioned originally by Bury Court Opera in celebration of their tenth anniversary. Premiering in March 2017, Mad King Suibhne is based on an Irish poem which was likely to be compiled in the twelfth century. Accompanied by a ten-piece orchestra, the opera will suitably take place in our thirteenth-century monastic barn. Mad King Suibhne will make use of Messums Wiltshire’s previous exhibition ‘Roots Up’ — a remarkable one-hundred and forty foot long installation piece by the American artist Judy Pfaff. The cast will incorporate Pfaff’s ‘scaffolding’ at the far end of the barn into their set and her famous trees will act as a fantastical portal for the audience to enter and exist the space.

Mad King Suibhne balances the fast-paced and colourful world of animals and the supernatural with more serious themes and the potentially destructive effects of an aggressively competitive society. The allegorical conflict between wildness and civilization is permeated through literature and the arts, but this opera reflects on a more fundamental theme; our desire to make the world a better place and the impossibility of such a wish.

The easy-to-understand, English libretto of Mad King Suibhne, written by Ivo Mosley, means the opera is accessible to first-timers, whilst managing to retain its magic and subtlety for those who consider themselves more experienced ‘opera-goers’. Mad King Suibhne, set in Messums Wiltshire’s barn, deconstructs the more elitist rituals of the art form, making it a ‘gateway’ occasion, as it is not too intimidating for those wanting to try. Mad King Suibhne will be less excluding: there will not be black tie dress-code or hierarchical boxes, and all the tickets are identically priced. However, our champagne and canapés service means that we are able to retain the theatre and the festivity of opera as a historical tradition to those who wish to indulge.

The composer Noah has commented on the importance opera thematically and also in aid of contemporary art-making saying that ‘It is the art form which brings together all art forms! Mozart has composed scores, Auden has written libretti, Hockney has designed stages, Bausch has created movement, Zeffirelli has directed, Pavarroti has sung, great orchestras and bands have played…. for opera. What other art form can claim such a broad scope of wonderful artists and disciplines?’

Messums Wiltshire is following the footsteps of other institutional giants such as The Royal Opera House and English National Opera, with regards to their student-saving schemes and access programmes. Furthermore the V&A recently launched ‘Opera: Passion, Power and Politics’, an exhibition which tells the story of Europe through seven operas, from Monteverdi’s game-changing The Coronation of Poppea in 1642 to Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of the Mtsenk District in 1934, considered so powerful by Stalin it was banned for 30 years. All of this coincides with Messums Wiltshire’s dedication to our school programme, providing an opportunity for primary and secondary students to visit and organise activities and events on Tuesdays.

To book tickets: http://messumswiltshire.com/performance-mad-king-suibhne/

Doors open 6:30pm, performance at 7pm.

Thursday 30 November – Join us for an audience with the composer Noah Mosley and to watch the final dress rehearsal. SOLD OUT

Friday 1 December – Opening night performance. Doors open 6:30pm, performance at 7pm.

Saturday 2 December – Evening performance. Doors open 6:30pm, performance at 7pm.

Performance duration is 1 hour 25 minutes (plus interval).

SPECIAL ANNOUNCEMENT A SERIES OF TALKS TO COMPLEMENT ‘A WESSEX SCENE’


 

 

Messums Wiltshire is delighted to announce two talks which will complement our A Wessex Scene exhibition, showing in the Long Gallery from the 2nd until the 31st of December.

For time immemorial a plethora of artists have sat in front of and drawn the landscape of Wessex — an Anglo-Saxon kingdom in Great Britain whose borders stretched the entirety of the south of England. In the 19th century, Thomas Hardy resurrected the ancient name of ‘Wessex’, leading to a revival of its popular modern use. In an 1895 preface to the novel Far From the Madding Crowd, he summed up Wessex as ‘a merely realistic dream country’, capturing the wild and fantastic nature of this archaic place, mostly unchanged in spite of the passage of time.

Messums’ A Wessex Scene hopes to recapture the magic of Hardy’s wonderful description by presenting a remarkable collection of paintings, drawings and etchings which illustrate the rich history of the ancient south-western region: sites such as Salisbury Cathedral, Stonehenge and Durdle Door, scenes which have been painted by renowned artists Turner and Constable and now rest in national collections. A Wessex Landscape follows in the footsteps of Judy Pfaff’s ‘Roots Up’, 140 foot sculpture exhibition — again inspired by this area’s remarkable natural and artistic heritage.

David Inshaw Saturday 2 December 11.00am Free Admission

David Inshaw is one of the exhibiting artists in A Wessex Scene and is most famous for the painting ‘The Badminton Game’, (1973) now in the Tate collection. David now lives and works in Devizes and fell in love with the Wessex landscape by reading Thomas Hardy. ‘The way that Hardy used landscapes as a metaphor for human emotion struck a deep chord’, he has commented in conversation with Rachel Campbell-Johnston, echoing our own curatorial rational behind ‘A Wessex Scene’. David will be interviewed by our curator Catherine Milner about his relationship with the surrounding countryside and this inspiration for his revered paintings. This talk, opening the entire show, will provide a rare chance to listen to this artist, amazingly situated within the very views he has painted. David will be showing two paintings: ‘Cloud Study, Rainbow’ and ‘Banished’ — two very disparate takes drawing from the inspiration that the Wiltshire landscape provides.

Norman Ackroyd CBE RA 13 December 6.30-7.30pm £10 Early Bird £15 On the Door

Norman Ackroyd is one of Britain’s foremost etchers, known primarily for his aquatint work which hangs in the Tate and New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Norman is passionate and knowledgeable about the local landscape, having visited and created works of art inspired by the melancholic lakes belonging to Fonthill Abbey, home to one of the greatest collectors of the 17th century; William Beckford. In fact, one of these poignant pieces ‘Bitham Lake’ will be featured in ‘A Wessex Scene’ and will be one of the many artworks contextualised in a seminal career discussed by Ackroyd, again in conversation with our curator Catherine Milner. Norman studied at Leeds College of Art and subsequently at the Royal College of Art in London. Norman was elected a Royal Academician and was made Senior Fellow, Royal College of Art. He now lives and works in London. Join us for an artist’s talk which mustn’t be missed.

Tickets for David Inshaw: [Free] https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/artists-talk-a-wessex-scene-with-david-inshaw-tickets-38533334240

Tickets for Norman Ackroyd: [£10 Early Bird £15 On the Door] https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/talk-artist-printmaker-norman-ackroyd-cbe-ra-tickets-39653848729

Messums Wiltshire Makers Market


17 November 2017 is the start of our winter Makers’ Market in the barn, which runs until 26 November 2017, (closed Monday and Tuesday). The everyday crafting that Christmas demands — writing, wrapping, making, buying — denotes all of the aesthetic decisions which often go unappreciated at this busy time of year. The simplest, and yet most effective gift that the season of Christmas can encourage, is that of love and friendship, communicated often through the joy of words. Our market will reflect this theme by including books, binding, printing, card-making, stationary and beautiful pens and inks.

Esme Winter, a design partnership established in 2011 between Richard Sanderson and Esme Winter stocks a distinctive style of pattern-designing, which can be seen throughout their high-quality paper collection. All Esme Winter patterns are designed in-house and each product is proudly made by trusted makers in the UK and Europe, using traditional materials and processes. We are offering the chance to purchase Esme Winter’s striking multi-purpose papers, inspired by the work of early 20th century decorative arts movements such as Art Nouveau and Deco. These sheets have many uses, including gift-wrapping, bookbinding, origami and more. Cards and gift tags, as well as other wrapping paraphernalia will also be available as part of the Makers’ Market.

Pens and ink, to write out your cards as well as your ever growing wish-lists, will be available from the stockist Herbin — the ‘oldest name in ink production in the world’. Ink-pots, pens and wax will all be displayed, helping you to add a touch of grandeur to your festive correspondence.

To complement our Christmas market, we will be offering card-printing courses (to pre-book) in the Long Gallery next door on the 18 or 19 November with maker Finn Bush. The sending of printed Christmas cards originated in London during 1843, with printmakers believing the ritual was merely a soon-to-pass trend. Fast-forward a century and a half, taking the time today to make a card or present for a loved one is one of the most meaningful gifts one can offer. Take up the rare chance to learn about four of the most popular printing methods: wood-cut, engraving, dry-point and monotype. Coming up with a design, choosing a method and settling down to the artistry of this occasion will symbolise the personal industry of this joyful season.

The Christmas Makers’ Market will be in Messums Wiltshire’s 13th century tithe barn from Friday 17 November – Sunday 26 November (closed Mondays and Tuesdays). Take a break and enjoy coffee, mulled wine and mince pies looking onto Judy Pfaff’s extraordinary installation ‘Roots Up’.

To read about the upcoming market: http://messumswiltshire.com/christmas-makers-market/

 

TALK: ‘The Thoughtful Gardener’ with Jinny Blom


Jinny Blom Artist’s Talk — 1st November 2017

‘That night I had a vivid dream. I was in a crowded football stadium filled with screaming fans. Beside me a small child I didn’t know was trying to get my attention. He was insistent and inaudible. Eventually I bellowed out into the stadium: ‘Will you all please be quiet — the child wants to say something’. Silence. I bent down and he whispered: ‘Please may I be a gardener?’ It might sound daft but that was that’.

— Jinny Blom, ‘The Thoughtful Gardener’, 2017.

Jinny Blom began her career as a landscaper in 2002. She had previously worked as a Jungian psychologist for twenty years, a role centred around the care and treatment of mentally ill patients. The two professions of psychologist and designer, although seemingly disparate at first, arguably stem from the same source of conscientiousness: with the pastime of gardening concerned with deriving pleasure — and ultimately health — from our surrounding environment. Nature is, of course, the greatest nurturer.

Jinny’s first job started six months into her ‘overnight’ career change, with a commission for the Manor at Temple Guiting. Here the inspiration for her garden design came from a profound appreciation of history and geography. Jinny used plants, trees and flowers to filter and construct the land around the views her clients did and didn’t want to see, resulting in a remarkable manipulation of spaces. Combing ‘simple planning’ and an elegant colour scheme, Jinny was able to achieve a kind of botanical equilibrium, creating a garden which proves easy to maintain and almost looks after itself. Jinny’s adage ‘to develop or not to develop’ denotes the play between the natural world and her taming of it; pitting crumbling, ruinous outhouses against the kitsch topiary of box-plants, styled into pigs.

She went on to describe other exhibitions and commissions, all of which are elaborated on in her wonderful book ‘The Thoughtful Gardener’, available from our bookshop. A particularly humorous narrative was concerned with an exhibition in the Jardins des Tuileries, Paris. Used to the military precision and organisation demanded of the Chelsea Flower Show, Jinny was surprised at the relaxed atmosphere of the French, one that almost reached a level of nonchalance, as they were happy to sit around smoking and chatting, before commencing with the installation.

Another career-defining project was commissioned by the Spring restaurant at Somerset House. Reverse-casting huge gunnera leaves into liquified marble dust, Jinny’s finished ‘interior-garden’ was reminiscent of many of the plant exhibits at the Natural History Museum. ‘The tactile quality of the walls I made for Skye Gyngell’s restaurant was the product of my desire to make things with originality and Skye’s love of truthful ingredients. We won a prestigious landscaping award for the atrium’ she said of the project.

We were then treated to a ‘tour of Kenya’, with Jinny speaking about the vulnerable earth of Laikipia, the ground of a landscape unsuited to human vulnerability. This terribly fragile and eroded area is the location for a rhino conversation project, one which encourages landowners to join their estates into migration corridors, as well as developing lodge-schemes for the protection of this endangered animal. It is obvious Jinny is passionate about this cause: ‘If you get to a point where we’re cutting the tusks of rhinos and elephants to protect them you know we’ve gone wrong somewhere as a species…I’m not too fond of the human race’.

Jinny has participated in two Chelsea Flower Shows — experiences she says, slightly tongue-in-cheek, that she could have done without. Her second show at this prestigious occasion was in collaboration with Prince Harry in honour of the AIDs charity he supports. This project was given the green light three days before the deadline for submissions closed. Her high-tech evocation of the landscape of Lesotho, a country where the charity Sentebale works. Jinny described her awkward exchange with a rather bored Queen, an anecdote that everyone laughed at. With every new slide there came an ‘ooh’ or an ‘ahh’ from the audience, proving Johnathan Messum’s introductory analogy accurate: Jinny’s dream of a ‘stadium filled with screaming fans’ had materialised in the form of a sold-out talk, here in Messums’ Long Gallery.

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Judy Pfaff – A Pioneer of Installation Art


Judy Pfaff’s ‘Roots Up’ installation opened at Messums Wiltshire on 23 September and continues for another month until 26 November. Pfaff was one of the first contemporary ‘installation’ artists – one of a stable of artists working in New York in 1970s who experimented with this medium and ‘Roots Up’ is a continuation of the anti-white wall, ‘maximalist’ narrative common to other artists of her generation, instigated perhaps by the French artist Marcel Duchamp with his Mile of String earlier in 1942. Pfaff’s conversation with material commenced in the 1970s, counter to conceptual and minimalist trends; being ‘one-of-a-kind, room-filling and immersive’. She commented that ‘many, many artists now do similar work. But when I began…not so much’. ‘Roots Up’ is her first solo exhibition in the United Kingdom.

After completing her Master of Fine Art at Yale in 1973, Pfaff created her first large-scale installation which showed at the nonprofit Artists’ Space. Installation artworks often exist as a unified, immersive experience, rather than being comprised of smaller, separate entities, often occupying an entire room or space. The eminent art-historian Linda Nochlin observed of Pfaff’s works that ‘I, the spectator, hardly spectated at all: I was drawn through, around, into the piece’. The installation genre emerged out of environmental art, which was prevalent throughout the late 1950s, and in the next decade asserted itself as the new major strand in international contemporary art.

Pfaff’s pioneering work synthesises sculpture, painting and architecture into dynamic ‘atmospheres’, into which the fabric of space itself seems to expand and collapse. Her work is a complex ordering of visual information, composed of steel, fibreglass and plaster, as well as natural elements such as tree roots; the central focus of Messums’ exhibition. Her wild prodigious creativity combines a delicate filigree of organic roots and steel branches with towering fantail pillars inspired by ecclesiastical architecture. Drops of glass spinning to the floor like gargantuan raindrops fall onto what looks like a neolithic earthworth. Pfaff’s work verge on the edge of chaos but is underpinned by a rigorous order of motifs made up of spheres, helixes and other geometrical shapes.

Perhaps it is obvious to state that Pfaff was one of the very first women artists to work in installation. She was written about in this context by Nochlin, a writer of course known for her revolutionary article ‘Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?’ and was characterised in 1971 as the ‘most articulate feminist art-historian’. In ‘Judy Pfaff, or the Persistence of Chaos’ (1989), Nochlin identifies a key discourse found in Pfaff’s work, that of ordered chaos; a subject arguably inherited from the Impressionists which was seen in its time as wild. Nochlin realised the relevance of chaos to Pfaff’s achievements and demonstrated how it has often been dismissed as a female trait. ‘The good art-work’, Nochlin wrote, ‘in other words, is cast in the image of masculinity — aggressive, wounding, hard-edged, well defended — as opposed to the “bad” or trivial one, which is feminine by definition — a hodge-podge of unelevated objects thrown helter-skelter, without defence, into a shapeless, feminine receptacle’.

Pfaff found Nochlin’s difference between ‘male’ and ‘female’ chaos particularly insightful, commenting in 2007, ‘the same kind of impulse [chaos] could be recognised as being very powerful and also very flaky. I really liked that conversation. Because when I work, I think most people think it’s just fun. There is so little fun going on that it actually p***** me off. I’m really involved. To have things feel loose takes a sort of thoughtfulness. There’s a rigour in that’. Pfaff’s words live up to her bold and strident work, demanding that ‘Roots Up’, a piece that took two years in the making and two months to install, be placed in the context of chaos’s academic legacy and be used to further the term’s deconstruction. ‘Roots Up’ has arguably met Nochlin’s binary pairs of adjectives somewhere in the middle: it is an installation that is neither ‘aggressive’ or ‘wounding’ nor ‘defensive’ or ‘shapeless’, but is, instead, a balance between chaos’s manifold interpretations.
Pfaff’s work cannot be construed as feminist, radical or otherwise, but it is relevant to the international art world’s much needed catch-up with feminist artists from the 1970s and 1980s, with numerous exhibitions of their artwork showing and selling at Frieze London 2017 for example.

Pfaff has received many awards including the MacArthur Foundation Award; a Bessie; and fellowships from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. She has had major exhibitions at Elvehjem Museum of Art, University of Wisconsin, Madison; Denver Art Museum; St. Louis Art Museum; and Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo. Pfaff represented the United States in the 1998 Bienal de São Paulo. She now lives and works in Tivoli.

Judy Pfaff’s ‘Roots Up’ is on show at Messums Wiltshire until Sunday 26 November.

Photo credit: Iain Kemp Photography

A One Year Milestone


Long Gallery - Photo credit Iain Kemp

23 September 2017 — A One Year Milestone

The 23rd of September 2017 marked a historical milestone in Messums Wiltshire’s history, a year ago to the day we opened for the first time, welcoming over 2500 people over the weekend. This year our anniversary was marked with the opening of a large-scale exhibition by American installation artist Judy Pfaff and an audience who packed into our new space to hear her introductory talk.  The Long Gallery is perpendicular to the main tithe barn. This new permanent exhibition gallery focuses on two-dimensional works of art including paintings, drawings, etchings and photographs to complement programming in the Barn.  This gallery has a long panoramic sweep of a glass window, viewing straight onto the rolling hills of the Fonthill Estate, once owned by the greatest collector of the 19th century, William Beckford. Its enormous north-facing windows let in ample light for viewing works of art such as the current display of Judy Pfaff’s complementary two-dimensional and smaller installation pieces.

As well as The Long Gallery, a new reception space provides context to the wider sense of Place Farm and in the opening months displays smaller works of art by artists from our stable, and newer artists such as Ying Sheung Wong whose delicate porcelain plates fly up the right-hand wall. Ying graduated the MA Ceramics programme from Bath’s School of Art and Design this year and we are happy to welcome her to our growing collection of artists.

The white cube Pod in the main barn, continues to serve coffee in a remarkable location and offers an extensive collection of handmade and hand chosen artefacts by leading makers and designers from Fred Baier to Tracey Boyd, as well as Art materials and specialist art books.

It’s been an incredible twelve months: from Turner prize winning ceramic artists to modern dance and classic cars, our programme has been varied and diverse. Highlights of last year’s exhibitions include Material: Earth with Grayson Perry and Edmund de Waal and Art in Motion: Design & Inspiration including a McLaren F1 and a P1. This ‘series of firsts’ culminates a spectacular programme of events and we look forward to hosting many more this year and the years to come. Thank you all for your continuing support and enthusiasm. If you hve not already done so, please sign up for our to our mailing list at: http://messumswiltshire.com/sign-up/

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Talk by Judy Pfaff on Her Installation ‘Roots Up’


 Judy_Pfaff_Roots_Up Photo credit iain Kemp

Judy Pfaff is an American artist known primarily for her immersive and expressive installation art, who currently teaches at the Bard College of Art, New York State. In 2015, she and Johnny Messum were introduced at a gallery in New York, an occurrence that somewhat incidentally led to an invitation to create a large-scale installation in the Messums magnificent 13th century tithe barn.

Judy introduced the opening of her first solo show in the United Kingdom with an artist’s talk. One of her most insightful remarks on ‘Roots Up’ revealed that she must choose where she travels to very carefully, as her location and surroundings always appear in her work. Her art, she admits, is entirely responsive to the events which happen to herself as well as others, citing 9/11, recent devastating flooding in the United States and familial deaths as examples.

Her being so attuned to the environment is perfectly evidenced in Messums Wiltshire’s latest exhibition, a literal reflection and reconsideration of the surrounding ancient landscape. When first visiting this corner of the country, Judy was shown around Old Wardour Castle, Salisbury Cathedral and Stonehenge. She was particularly interested in the architecture of the central vault in the Cathedral’s Chapter House, an element which can be found (now abstracted in form) in the finished show. ‘Roots Up’ is an exhibit which incites wonder, awe and the desire to explore our exceptional surroundings. Her 140ft installation piece combines the psychedelia of the local summer solstices, the magic of dark winter nights and the folklore of times gone by. Judy’s two-dimensional and smaller sculptural works displayed on her specially crafted ‘photowalls’ can be viewed in The Long Gallery next door.

Her fantastical, gravity-defying show is evocative of the buildings designed by her favourite architect, the Spaniard Antoni Gaudí. Architectural flourishes of his are echoed in Judy’s colourful floral bowls, fluted medieval vaulting and overflowing trees; oozing their sparkling multicoloured sap. Judy is resolutely interested in colour, not necessarily concerned with its technical features but instead its artistic, atmospheric qualities — a Kandinsky-like appreciation perhaps. Such excess, ostentation and vivacity is reflected in her approach to two-dimensional work. She describes how creating one image will end with ‘a hundred’ being produced.

DSC_2911 (web)Judy’s talk prioritised her processes and highlighted the scale of preparation which goes into such a monumental work of art. She demonstrated just how many people played an intrinsic role and humanised the entire operation by naming those involved. ‘Roots Up’ was a huge undertaking, one typified by the large sycamore ‘root bowl’ framing an elevation of the installation. This tree’s previous owners had done everything they could to get rid of it: attempting to cut it down and even burning it, to no avail. ‘Please take it!’ was the reply when Judy expressed an interest in using the tree for the show. She is able to notice the magic in objects that others are desperate to part with and amazingly, through her unique artistic production, she is able to allow everyone a window into the way she experiences the world.

And her world, as the art critic Dennis Kardon observed in Art in America, ‘has never been cowed by refined minimalist sensibilities’ instead is ‘wild’, ‘prodigious’ and ‘creative’. When she first started working in New York during the 1970s, she chose to ignore the climate of conceptual art as it simply ‘was never my thing’. This, she claims, provides a reason for her rather ‘funny’ or ‘interesting’ reputation. As she gained artistic prominence, she describes being including in a West Kunst exhibition and furiously discovering that the historical section included no women, an unfortunate phenomenon not unlike the treatment of contemporary female artists. The passionate and explosive character of Judy’s stories seem almost at odds listening to her measured slide-show presentation. Her commentary on her work and life was brief and light, allowing the photos and artwork to speak for themselves. Judy manages to be humble without becoming falsely modest and wryly quoted a previous agent’s opinion on her installations: ‘If I could sell this s***  then I would be a great dealer’.

‘Roots Up’ is a work which arguably exceeds comprehension: we don’t need to understand it even, we can just be amazed. Judy succeeds in taking us beyond the everyday and into the realm of the fantastical, childlike ‘opposite land’, an adventurous place where up is down and down is up and anything seems possible.

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