Modern & Contemporary Art

specialises in framed modern and contemporary art by 20th century artists

Older masters and talented beginners; Collector’s File

GRAHAM PATON and David Messum are art dealers at complementary ends of the gallery spectrum in London.

Paton has studio-style premises tucked into the pedestrian precinct of Langley Court, Covent Garden. His skill at spotting young talent has given many an artist the first step up the ladder.

Messum, in plush surroundings off Hanover Square with the air of a comfortable Mayfair house, is in the big league. Some of the paintings he sells run seriously into six figures.

In these testing times, however, both realise that a dealer has to try that much harder to keep the bank manager at bay. Gimmicks aside, an exhibition must have a theme that distinguishes it from competing shows and the works must be “affordable”.

Transatlantic interest is the strength of Messum’s current offering, now being aired at the Grosvenor House Antiques Fair (open until Saturday) before running at his gallery through July. The exhibition, New World Sympathies: The American Connection, offers some impressionistic outdoor scenes of John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), the American best known for his brilliant portraits.

A Spanish Woman

With felicitous timing for Messum, a Sargent watercolour made headlines only five days before the fair opened. At Christie’s in London an anonymous American paid a world record price, Pounds 286,000, nearly twice the estimate, for The Green Parasol, showing two women relaxing on a grassy bank in the alps. In the 1920s it was bought from Sargent’s studio for Pounds 50 by Thomas Blackwell, art patron and chairman of the Crosse & Blackwell food company.

The art market is a peculiarly reactive one, where one swallow can be the making of a mini-summer. That record price made a director of Messum’s firm, Mike Roosen, say with some glee: “At Pounds 165,000 a Sargent watercolour of boats at Venice in our exhibition begins to look a very attractive proposition.” A Sargent oil painting of fishing boats at Whitby can cost Pounds 485,000.

The heart of the show, however, is a rare series of works by Wilfrid de Glehn, a Briton who died in 1951, formerly assistant to Sargent and later close friend, who shares the limelight with his American wife, Jane, also an accomplished painter. Wilfrid’s oils are Pounds 22,500-Pounds 165,000; his watercolours Pounds 2,500 (bargain-hunters start hereabouts) up to Pounds 10,000. Jane’s oils cost Pounds 18,500-Pounds 48,500.

Wilfrid de Glehn

The de Glehns, in whom Messum has developed a near-monopoly, were members of a band of ever-experimenting Anglo-American impressionists who flourished in Chelsea in the early part of the century.

It is also to Chelsea that the Paton Gallery looks for its summer show (until July 11): it launches four outstanding graduates of the Chelsea School of Art, all in their twenties. This is fertile territory for buyers on modest budgets. Paton, who has irrepressible faith in the new generation, says: “A quarter of the young people who have made the grade in this country in the past decade have passed through this gallery.”

Allowing for a dash of Patonic hyperbole in his claim, he does have a high success rate and he has struck a promising seam with his latest discoveries, Jason Brooks, Louise Birtles, Alyson Helyer and Robert Carswell.

Many artists faithfully reproduce oil paintings for sale online, such as famous artworks like Mona Lisa, The kiss, Girl with pearl earring, starry night, vase with fifteen sunflowers, and enigmatically bombards them with surreal painted shapes bright-blue lacunae, sponges and currant scones.

Mona Lisa

Life took a nasty surreal twist for him last week when, working late at a college extension to meet another exhibition deadline, he confronted intruders. In the fracas he received injuries to both feet that put him in hospital and forced him to miss the opening of his show.

Birtles builds up her canvases as boxes projecting from the wall, creating a theatrical effect for stylised figures, flowers and more abstract designs. Helyer and Carswell experiment in the abstract, but their works retain a human dimension and never cease to reflect a sense of humour.

Young Chelsea is having fun with art, as it always did. That, coupled with prices ranging from about Pounds 400, is good news for collectors.

Published by art17, on December 4th, 2014 at 7:14 am. Filled under: Collector's FileNo Comments

A gallery without walls: Yorkshire Sculpture Park

BRITAIN’S FIRST open air sculpture park, the Yorkshire Sculpture Park (YSP), has established strong international recognition during its 11-year existence. Started in 1977, it has pioneered a curatorial approach to outdoor sculpture exhibitions, developed residencies, sculpture demonstrations, public sculpture workshops and an active education and outreach programme.

The YSP is an independent charitable trust set in the grounds of Bretton Hall College where it occupies approximately 100 acres of the estate, parts of which are designed in the manner of Capability Brown. National and international concerns are reflected through the collection (the results of gifts or loans) and the annual programme of temporary exhibitions. These also present openings for younger as well as established artists whilst the residencies present an opportunity to develop skills in the public arena and allow the public to gain insight into the artists’ working processes.

This demystification of sculpture has had tremendous benefits for the artists, the public and ourselves as it involves everyone in the creative decision-making activity, helping to ensure that the sculpture is appreciated as the product of hard work, technical ability and imagination.


From the beginning the public have been encouraged to touch and feel the sculpture as we believe that the tactile experience is intrinsic to the enjoyment and understanding of the work. The sculpture workshops developed as a natural extension of this desire to involve the public with the pleasure of creative activity. For the past five years over Bank Holidays throughout Spring and Summer the YSP has invited the public to have a go themselves. Their popularity has been astonishing–entire families, the young and the old, discover how remarkably satisfying it can be to engage the mind and body upon the task of creating three-dimensional forms. Though everybody has fun it is also an important learning episode: people begin to think about what is seen and felt; aesthetic considerations begin to emerge and this type of introduction helps in their understanding of other works on display and encourages many to return time and time again.

The programme itself reflects a wide variety of materials, techniques and approaches which can be absorbed by a visitor on whatever level they wish via catalogues, tours, workshops or education packs. Thoughtful siting is essential to emphasise the inherent structure, colour and texture of the pieces and relate them to their particular surroundings so that attention is focused not only on the sculpture but on the landscape as well. We aim to establish a dialogue between the work, the landscape, other pieces and the sky these elements are carefully ‘choreographed’ to produce an optimum viewing position.

Another important ingredient when planning a display is the discovery of sculpture in the landscape. It may be found in the undergrowth or in the root system of a tree–wherever least expected strategies which we incorporate to keep our audience on its visual toes so that nothing is taken for granted. This idea has also been used by artists working in the Park who have literally camouflaged their sculpture to surprise the unsuspecting.


Our commitment to access is also being extended by the design of a trail for particular use by blind, partially sighted and disabled visitors. This project, integrating art and nature, will be a totally sensory environment providing stimulation through colour, form, texture, perfume and the sound of water and wind, presenting an ever-changing dynamic but sheltered and secure area for the disabled as well as the able bodied.

As a gallery without walls we are open throughout the year so that visitors can witness how different sculpture will look as the landscape changes. One needs space and time to appreciate sculpture properly and the elements demand a commitment quite distinct from that of dropping in on a conventional gallery. Indeed many visitors are attracted to the YSP who would not otherwise frequent galleries and, whatever the weather, there will be visitors!

Siting sculpture out of doors always carries a risk but it can be calculated and problems associated with vandalism may be minimised if artists and administrators share the responsibility for creating a receptive climate. This means taking the context for siting as seriously as the sculpture–understanding how the space is used, the motives for introducing sculpture and considering the long as well as short-term implications of that.

We have demonstrated that it is possible to attract strong support and change attitudes which has given others the confidence to develop initiatives elsewhere. However, there is no room for complacency as success is due to hard work and persistence together with a strong educational philosophy which underpins all our work.

Last year over 200,000 visitors from all parts of Britain and abroad spent many pleasurable hours at the YSP. Currently we are working towards a building development which will provide indoor facilities to further enhance our public service. The future is full of great potential because not only have we demonstrated that sculpture can be a popular cultural resource but that it is of benefit to the community both socially and economically.

Published by art17, on December 4th, 2014 at 6:50 am. Filled under: Sculpture Tags: No Comments

The position of women in 20th-century British sculpture

IT WAS IN the summer of 1985 when I was building a large sculpture at the Portland Clifftop Sculpture Park that I was struck by the equal numbers of men and women sculptors participating. Furthermore the women were, on the whole, using the heavy plant such as cement mixers and dumper trucks for the making of their projects, which were mainly large scale and very ambitious.

This raised interesting questions about the numbers of women working as sculptors. On my return from this residency, I attempted to look into the work of women sculptors but found a dearth of information on them although there was a growing volume of information on painters. I therefore decided to embark on this research as an M. Phil. with the University of Leeds.

Deciding I needed direct access to women sculptors, I sent out questionnaires carefully designed to elicit information on how their development towards sculpture evolved from the earliest years, detailing their art education, materials used and the sources for their sculpture, where they work and how they exhibit. Questions were also asked on their attitudes towards the feminist movement, their views on equitability for women sculptors, fitting in partners and children, as well as inviting comments on various procedures in sculpture and their views not only on the future for women in sculpture but also on the state of sculpture in general.

The questions were designed to elicit answers that go to the heart of women in their relationship to sculpture. I realised that I had to create my own archive, as there was nowhere that information of this kind could be found, because the kind of questions I asked were not just factual but probed into areas which had never been documented.

I had an enthusiastic response from all the organisations in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland that I contacted for lists of women sculptors. Mostly they responded with general lists and all showed interest in any Index that might result from the research. I was overwhelmed with the amazing response to the questionnaire and to date have received around 250 replies together with numerous phone calls and letters of support and encouragement for the project. I

was delighted with the enthusiasm and humbled by the honesty with which the women answered the questions in depth; many added extra pages of information when the spaces were too small for all that they had to say. Several wondered how I had found them as they had thought that they were invisible. Their ages ranged from birthdates in the early 1900s to the 1960s which gives a very clear overview of women working as sculptors today. I am also in the process of interviewing several sculptors each of whom fulfil different criteria, for a more detailed discussion on various topics.

All this information is now being collated and will result in not only a survey of women sculptors living, working and surviving in Britain today, but also should produce an Index of women sculptors which will be available eventually for reference. Should anyone reading this who has not received a questionnaire or who has received one but not returned it completed, contact me at Mount Pleasant Farm, 105 Moss Lane, Bramhall, Cheshire SK7 1EG, as this is a continuing project and is by no means complete.

Although the information is at present still being digested, the striking impression is that there is a tremendous amount of confidence among women regarding not only their future as sculptors but also the future for women in the sculpture world. No longer are they hidden as they used to be but are determined that they and their work will be seen.

The majority of the sculptors have had formal training within the art school system. Some found it helpful and constructive, others found it unhelpful and very destructive. Mostly courses were seen to be a combination but it became obvious that, for an alarming number of women, many bitter memories were aroused due, not only to a lack of understanding of their work by the invariably male lecturers and the issues raised by it, but also to the lack of women lecturers employed both part-time and full-time as role models. Sexual harassment was another issue raised. There were, of course, those who found the courses of great benefit and had no complaints, but it is an interesting point that whatever their reactions were to the varied courses, the majority felt that they were necessary for the development of their work because of the opportunities the course gave in time, materials, the chance to learn necessary skills, contact with fellow students and the invigorating effect of visiting lecturers, particularly when they were women.


It is clear that the attitudes of women today are much more positive not only about themselves and their work but also about their place in the art world. This is evident in the choice of materials for their sculpture, much of which is unorthodox and non-traditional, such as cloth, paper, leather, polythene, even soil and photography, as well as the more commonly accepted ones of clay, wax, wood, stone, steel and bronze, as are their methods of making the work. As well as utilising the more conventional methods of carving/modelling/casting, women now have the confidence to make work in whatever media or about whatever subject they choose, and using whichever method of making is appropriate because it is suitable for that particular sculpture rather than adhering to traditional sculptural concerns. Should they choose to stay with conventional methods it is because they have decided to and want to, not because they feel they have to. It is this freedom that makes the future for women in sculpture look so positive. No longer are they hidebound by a conservative outlook because of their past insecurity and hidden art history; they are now able to enjoy a freedom hitherto unknown which enables them to explore their own world of sculpture and create their own traditions.

However the future is not all rosy and many feel that there will be still a great deal of struggle to succeed. Opinion is clearly divided about the way forward. There are those who wholly support and feel that the future lies in women’s shows; on the other hand there are those who feel that separatism is to be avoided and strongly criticise the whole concept of women’s shows; there is obviously room for both views, and women now have the choice of participating in either women’s shows or mixed shows and have the freedom and confidence to exhibit in both.

A large majority of women sculptors agree that equitability is improving; there is a small minority who disagree, a few feel unsure about the issue and there are those who feel that there is no gender difference apparent. However there are reservations, and frequently women are still thought to be included in major shows as tokens. ‘Starlit Waters’, British Sculpture 1968-1988, the opening sculpture exhibition at the Tate of the North, in Liverpool, illustrates the point in question; out of 18 sculptors only two, Alison Wilding and Shirazeh Houshiary, are women.

The women’s movement must have contributed to this changed climate, even if it was only recognised subconsciously. Many admit that the women’s movement has personally affected them, their life and their work; others acknowledge its impact; very few feel it hasn’t affected them at all. Several older sculptors wished that it had happened much earlier so that they too could have reaped the benefits sooner.


Attitudes of art administrators, gallery owners and keepers, critics and art historians came in for much criticism. Many were praised for being helpful and supportive, equally others were criticised for unhelpfulness and for being patronising. Alarmingly some were accused of being careerists and of exploiting artists to further their own careers; inevitably there were those who were cited as being too commercially minded and reluctant to show certain kinds of work which may not find favour in the selling market, and finally there was evidence of straight chauvinism. But on the whole most artists had had some good experiences with them though it was felt that critics and art historians tended to support the star system rather than risking support for an unknown. Some women complained bitterly that their work was literally written out of art history or ignored by critics. This is a serious accusation which I found to be true (hence this research) and I, as a practising sculptor, am attempting to redress the balance by producing information about and a history of contemporary women sculptors.

Fitting partners and children in with working as a sculptor bring its own problems, many typical of any working woman. However it became apparent that the problems of women sculptors were in many ways different to those of other working women. Sculpture and/or art is not just a job or a profession but a lifestyle which can become wholly consuming not only in time and energy but also in the emotion and passion which goes into the making of it. The dedication needed to be a sculptor can create problems within the family whereby resentment can arise at the amount of time, energy and commitment required. Happily, many partners were and are found to be supportive, financially, emotionally and physically; some were supportive to an extent. Sadly, others were non-supportive and frequently the relationship was dissolved because their partner could not accept the demands of sculpture as a career, and a choice was made. A surprising number of women wait until the children are old enough to be left or at school before embarking on a career in sculpture–numerous mature students responded. It is obvious that unless a woman has a support system for looking after children, furthering one’s career was definitely impeded. Even Barbara Hepworth’s triplets were cared for until they were three at a nearby nurses’ training college, which gave her the time to work, and after that she employed a nanny. (1) Although children were never regretted, in spite of working time becoming extremely precious, partners frequently were. Unexpectedly, a considerable number had decided not to have children as they felt that they would be unable to continue working, confirming the total commitment they had made to sculpture. On a more positive note, partners and children frequently provided the inspiration or source material for work, even modelling at times.

This is a provisional report on a massive archive collected over the last 18 months and can only indicate questions raised within it. The survey is not a critical one; it is a sociological and economic survey to discover how women live and work as sculptors in the United Kingdom, how they survive, how they feel about their work and how they manage their lives. It is targeted at the unknown sculptor as well as the famous: their problems are similar, as are their hopes, dreams and criticisms. As one sculptor said so succinctly: ‘The future of women in sculpture is the future of sculpture itself’.

Published by art17, on November 3rd, 2014 at 3:49 am. Filled under: SculptureNo Comments

Living perspective: Tess Jarray and inner city design

“Uniformity which is changed by the presence of a single stress … parallels that meet in the infinite and that turn back upon itself as presence; and then the square in all its stability, the straight line untouched by relativity, and the curve, each point of which forms a straight line–all these things that do not seem to have any bearing on our daily needs are nevertheless of the greatest significance.”

Max Bill

“The Mathematical Approach in Contemporary Art” 1955

Tess Jaray’s painting has been praised for “consistency” , for pursuing “a single line of development”, for “never radically depart[ing] from its governing principles”. Jaray’s recent work defies any such notions of endogenous safety for she has taken on possibly the U.K.’s largest civic design project ever mounted in collaboration with a fine artist; the design of Birmingham’s 3 million [pounds sterling] Centenary Square. At first glance such a choice of artist might seem obvious.  Jaray’s reputation emerged ith her minimal canvases of the 60’s, work that seems to share common roots with similar movements in architecture and design.  The oversized wall art supplier Art by wicks is also interested in bringing Tess Jaray’s paintings to their large art collection, said Dan, the manager and founder of the company.However these similarities are superficial for Jaray’s 35 years ‘at the drawing board’ as it were, have produced an individual approach to urban design.

To arrive at the three-dimensional by way of the two-dimensional is the business of most architects but for Jaray, who has continually strived to contain the latter in the former, it is a radical brief indeed. Her flat canvasses hold the images in a complex space; never simply illusionary, they wait to be read and re-read, and only gradually do the different spatial relationships become apparent. Though an important aspect of Jaray’s work demands a thorough knowledge of patterning techniques it has been the manipulation of space that has been the focus of her paintings in the 80’s. Her recent commissions, demanding as they do a transition to actual space, could perhaps see her preparing “impossible objects” ready to perplex and dazzle the city dwellers, her viewing public. However Jaray’s commitment to straightforward utility and purity of form leavese no place for such speculations. For her this work is not a loss of ambiguity, of mood, of resonance, but her “way of going figurative”. It is a daring move to make a fresh commitment to the real world and to venture into unknown territory.

Jaray began working in the public arena on a large scale by designing the “potent lozenges” on the floor of London’s Victoria station in 1985. She had worked on designs for decorative brick work for some years and this research forms the basis of her civic projects. After working on three other large scale brick floors she was commissioned in 1988 to design not just the floor of Centenary Square but the pavements, tree and grass areas, lighting, railings, seating–in fact the square itself. The project should become a reality sometime in 1990. Jaray’s most recent commission is to put forward ideas for the walkways and areas around Wakefield Cathedral, a project she is very keen to work on given that a constant inspiration over the years has been ecclesiastical architecture.


Jaray’s enthusiasm for her new work drives her past any suspected shortfalls. Her freshness to the design business is obviously an asset; as an innocent she can be more demanding. She says:

“I think there is something to be said for someone coming in from outside and doing things that people have always thought can’t be done…. you find out it can be done but maybe it cost a little more and the approach must be different.”

An artist’s need for a ‘total vision’ will mean a more inventive use of materials and perhaps a better visualization of the project than has been seen on the draughtsman’s board until now. Despite an inability to get excited by the finer points of drainage, Jaray has not found herself seriously hampered by her lack of technological knowledge though for parts of the project she has worked with the sculptor Tom Lomax whose engineering skills have proved useful. Each member of the municipal design team has their own area of expertise and it is collaboration and mutual respect that make a project like this succeed. Her involvement with industry is similarly optimistic. Early this year she was taken on by an enlightened brick manufacturer Steetley’s of Stoke on Trent after they had seen her extensive work in brick design. She has since produced a huge paved floor outside their paving plant and the collaboration is to continue. Subversion from the inside is the aim of course. In the long term she hopes to persuade the brick industry to produce new products; a wider colour range of ‘paver’ and different size bricks which would enable her to carry out many, as yet unrealised, brick patterns. It seems a tall order but as Jaray points out;

“Things do change, design changes, needs change.”

Change has indeed brought about the very fact of Jaray’s involvement with Centenary Square. Europe’s Percentage for the Arts Scheme, where all public building projects aim to spend a certain percentage on artists’ involvement, has been taken on by The Arts

Council in time for 1992 and put into action by Vivienne Lowell at The Public Art Commission Agency in Birmingham.

Jaray’s floors echo and reverberate a chosen shape, rippling their lines to the margins. They create a unifying structure; a subliminal calming influence for those that live with them daily. Perhaps a more problematic area is providing the verticals, interruptions to the vistas. Jaray agrees;

“I think the verticals probably have the greater power in relation to the total space, although they cannot be separated.”

Her approach is therefore to continue the lines found in the surroundings. Her plans for curved seats in Wakefield had to be abandoned when she concluded that their were no curved lines in the cathedral’s architecture strong enough to repeat. Her chosen motif is now a cross that appears in different formats throughout the seats and flooring. It is a subtle design, not instantly recognisable as a religious symbol, but capable of containing longer contemplation, bringing as it does a host of references that support Jaray’s aim to somehow demarcate the area;


“When you are walking around the precincts you [should) get a sense of identity of the place. It’s like designating these streets; this cathedral space is special.”

But these designs must work on many scales simultaneously; it is vital that the experience of the environment is, to use Jaray’s word, “satisfying”. The seat one is sitting on is as important as the view across the square. To ensure this Jaray puts her faith in the significance of the detail;

“the space between each brick and the way it is filled with sand should be exactly right. The profile of a stone wall–that’s what adds up to the satisfaction.”

So while her railings or lights are essentially simple, their patterns will be repeated, perhaps with a change of positive for negative, perhaps with just an echo of a former shape. Her detail is never added as decoration but is integral part of the whole concept, functioning rather like an organic pattern that unfolds to the infinite. In this way Jaray comes to terms with an unease she has always felt with visual art, the idea of instant effect, the painting that is consumed in a minute’s glance. Not only will the work literally last, it is designed to endure a thousand gazes, from all angles and at different times. Jaray realises, as gestalt theorists seem to have proved, that not only does the mind look for a whole image from the parts presented before it but also;

“Once coerced into viewing the object longer than it would spontaneously, the mind exerts its curiosity and its power of discovering and inventing new patterns”

Both the active and the passive eye have satisfaction here. Jaray’s approach to an environment is ambiguous. She has spent many years absorbing different surroundings on her travels, particularly in Australia and Italy, and has developed a reverence for one’s sense of place. The flip side of this is also apparent, her impulse to eliminate the unnecessary and to start from a blank canvas (plan). However she is aware that, to some extent, her main responsibility is to bring out qualities already present in the place, curtailing her own hobby horses and predilections;

“The space itself should tell the artist or designer how it wants to be.”

She does not feel the need to have her name in stone on the floor and one cannot trace an authorial stamp of possession. Yet the work is individual, personal even. She will not impose her will be by forging a bond with her surroundings the more personal elements of her work will become appropriate.

Jaray never appears to look backward. Her exhibition at the Serpentine last year seemed to herald the suspension of painting. This move at the height of her career shows a determination not to go ‘stale’, which she sees as a possibility for any artist at such a juncture. Although Jaray denies any ability at maths, she is a natural mathematician in the same way as M.C. Escher; an intuitive logical sense prevails. She sets about each problem as a puzzle, weighing factors, assessing difficulties, to find a solution. One cannot help but be impressed at the rightness of her answers.

Published by art17, on October 15th, 2014 at 12:17 pm. Filled under: artistsNo Comments

Christine Merton’s sculpture

COMING FROM a German, Jewish childhood has both informed and characterised many aspects of Christine Merton’s sculpture. Marrying an Englishman and coming to live in England has certainly sealed some of these aspects along with a deep sense of ‘knowing her place’ as an alien. She has carefully learnt to tolerate racism and alienation and to use the emotion created by these things to fuel her own sense of being in her work.

Over the years her work has become more empowered with a sense of the self. Her pieces of sculpture always have a very self-contained feel about them; although some are quite small she is also capable of overpowering the spectator with large installation pieces which seem to emanate from a spirited source. Her work carries the sort of quality you experience when alone with an object of great history, but a history which is not written. A history which presents you with not just enigmatic feelings but with a real sense of presence. Keep has all these qualities (see front cover).

Many of her sculptural works have obvious links with Peruvian pots and vessels. There is a physical quality about her sculpture which is visually sensuous. The mark making on the surface, the combination of natural materials, the conscious use of ochres and the earthy glow from mixing different clays together in one piece, all enhance the actual quality of the finished work. All her work says something about her actual size, how much clay she can mold in one hand, how much she can carry, what she can fix together and how large a sculpture will grow. All these things are important aspects and this is why her finished pieces often involve several objects placed together, site-specific, yet very mobile and adaptable.

Within her areas of work she has progressively explored ways in which to adapt and open up possibilities within educational work with a range of children. What could be precious dissolves into the pleasure of making. She has developed projects around her work showing how to use all the basic methods of working with clay, slabs, coils and finger bowls. Christine

Merton has been involved in many projects and residencies with children from 8-10 years old. She has tried to adapt her work yet allow the children’s involvement to specifically enrich the sculpture.

A recent example of this educational work occurred at the Manchester Museum during a one-person show centred around the Metaphorical Vessel. It was an idea which attempted to blend together different cultures and traditions by using tree roots which resembled a popular fossilised tree root in the museum collection. She tried to bring together all these elements by constructing a large open vessel shape from the branches and canvas bound together with clay. As the first artist in residence at the museum she created a site-specific piece, a centre for some sort of ceremony which bound together the museum’s collection, objects from different cultures, natural history pieces and the settings made by over 200 children. These settings formed the outside edge of the bound branches, almost like place settings for a large feast, yet the objects were each child’s individual contribution. Christine Merton’s vessel could be read on many different levels but it seemed like a visual way of symbolising the way in which we all have specific links to our place of origin and that this often gives us a feeling, a sense of belonging. Currently she has been working on a new exhibition called ‘Clayworks’. Again as part of this exhibition she will be working on another project with the pupils and staff of St Peters RC High School in Orrell. This project will be called ‘House’ and will be the joint creation of the artist and the participating children. It will encourage ‘a journey through their imagination’.

The importance of this artist’s work cannot be overestimated. Her own finished pieces of sculpture remain enigmatic. They give a glimpse of sacredness, a sense of the spirit contained. In addition, her links with pupils from local schools are both innovative and important. It enables children to have direct contact with the artist and practically participate in the making of the finished piece. This work with children encourages understanding and tolerance to emerge and can truly inspire the child to continue to make ‘art’, to see exhibitions and where possible, to become involved. It can also be an enriching experience for the artist.

Christine Merton is on the fringe of the ‘art world circuit’. She should be better known and better shown.

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Published by art17, on October 15th, 2014 at 11:24 am. Filled under: SculptureNo Comments

Across the Water

This is a book surprisingly without precedent. Not only for its subject matter, documenting the large-scale immigration of Irish women (and, since the heyday of the railway-builders of the Industrial Revolution, there have been substantially more women than men) but also for its format. This combines all that is best in telling testimonies, with background information and strong photographic images of the women interviewed.

In Ireland it is a truism to complain that the country’s greatest export is its people, and that there are more Irish in Liverpool than in Dublin. By investigating this phenomenon from the grassroots of women’s own experience (and the authors are all themselves more or less voluntary exiles, like their subjects) rather than with the neo-colonial tools of British social analysis, far more than simply personal experiences are revealed.

Right from the chronological beginning, with Catherine Ridgeway’s accont of the 1917 Easter Uprising, there are the historical accounts the history books fail to relate. A witness to a ‘minor’ incident in which troops had given permission to a man to walk down the street and attend to his horses, keeping his hands raised, she recalls: ‘A shot rang out and he was shot in the leg. I never saw anything like it. He went spinning round and round and then collapsed … Then Miss Walsh, who used to run this little grocer’s shop, came out and she got some of the men back and they found a shutter and lifted him onto it. Some put out a white flag …’

If the political and economic factors were reasons that forced many Irish women to leave, it was not only reasons of geography that made England an obvious choice. At times of manpower crisis, particularly during the last war and its “aftermath, Irish women were viewed as a cheap pool of labour that could be drawn on to service our national economy. The jobs heavily advertised in the Irish press were those regarded as dirty by those in positions of economic superiority, in the public sector; those for which Irish women, with their experience of large families, were regarded as ideal for in the caring services; and those regarded as old-fashioned by a more career-minded female population, in domestic employment.

It goes without saying that they were all, virtually without exception, exploitative in working-hours and poorly remunerated. Yet if the English government regarded this particular labour pool as expendable, they were sadly wrong. Irish women are here to stay, even unto their succeeding generations. One of the most heartening aspects of this book is how they have survived not only hardship and vicissitude but have created their own new culture which is a blend of their inheritance and their adaptation. A young punk of the 1970s, second-generation Irish, speaks: ‘For them (my parents), there was no separation between being Irish and being Catholic. But to me, being Irish meant much more than going to church and knowing Irish people, so there was that difference…. I don’t think I ever felt I had to be Catholic to be Irish’.

It is in illuminating the cultural developments and interdependencies that Joanne O’Brien’s photographs come into their own. Although, having seen the print quality of her recent touring exhibition ‘Hearts and Minds–Anam agus Intinn’, Virago has (again) served a photographer badly in terms of reproduction, the photographs are a strong and integrated part of the book. Interestingly enough, it was the sitters’ choice ‘to be portrayed quite formally rather than in a workday or domestic setting’. These photographs work best in small-format reproduction: such a format lacks the half-tones to do justice to more panoramic images. Views of cultural and work activities alternate with portraits that also include women’s employment–everything from a close-up of a pair of hands wearing a Celtic ring and peeling a potato, to a seamstress making Irish dancing costumes based on designs from the Book of Kells.

The authors’ introduction modestly affirms: ‘The experiences of women in the book speak for themselves’. Words are, along with music and dance, the communicative currency of the Irish community at home and abroad. Yet without the midwifery skills of Mary Lennon, Marie McAdam and Joanne O’Brien, we would have known that much less about a few million women living in our midst whose independent existence we largely ignore.

Joanne O’Brien describes the background to this book on p. 9.

Published by art17, on October 15th, 2014 at 11:17 am. Filled under: Books Tags: , No Comments

Houria Niati

INCIDENTS OF chaos, mystery and flux fascinate Houria Niati and many of her images seek to capture the dynamism of such times. In the large pastel drawing Page 152, Chapter III, 1985-86, a title suggesting a narrative sequence, a schematic box-like figure shoots a red gun, the path of the bullet mapped out by red dashes seeking the female figure sprawled below. The action is echoed by insistent force lines in many bright colours, emanating from the protagonists, bouncing to the limits of the paper. In Earthquake, 1988, anonymous bodies are buried and fractured in a devastated land.

Other works describe scenes of confrontation. In the painting Even the Fishes are talking about It, 1984, a pair of bristling, spikey dogs are transfixed in an eyeball to eyeball meeting. Blaring colours emphasise the cacophony. Flat, carnival oranges, violets, acid greens are applied in short rectangular marks which create a frenetic, staccato effect. Faces are scratched into the wet paint making subtle, ghostly, half-seen images contrasting with the starkly painted dogs. A strange long-necked bird looks on, silenced behind black bars. The animals are simplified, codified as Niati consciously seeks a child-like sparseness of visual language.


All the works testify to speed, enjoyment and fluency in their making. People, animals and insects are sucked into the rushing tide of marks which form irresistible rivers of movement. Sunny, joyous colours predominate in the early works, darker and more sensuous blues and purples in the most recent pastels, as if day has turned to night. The rough, crude texture of the early pastels turns into a smooth velvety richness, the colours harmonious and inky. The pastel drawing Vent des Passions, 1984, is filled with a whirlpool-like form in which large-eyed birds rush, sucked headlong round and around. The many eyes at the centre of this storm create a stable focus.

In some of the new pastels Niati’s imagery appears less fresh, less inventive with the appearance of the shorthand, hourglass, faceless female nude that is such a pervasive symbol in our society. Beaute, calme et volupte, 1988, and La nuit des passagers clandestins, 1988, are overflowing with this easy, linear sign. Niati works in a rapid, spontaneous fashion letting images flow unchecked. While I appreciate, as a positive force, the desire to work in an intuitive, uninhibited way during the drawing process, it has, in this instance, resulted in the use of a stereotypically shaped and pictorially unchallenging sign for the female body. Despite this criticism I found these pastels rich and evocative, suggestive of dark, mysterious places, some spacious and watery, others confined and shadowy. L’Attente–peut-etre pour Demain, 1988, is a still, quiet scene showing a pregnant woman, kept company by small birds, seated beside a window through which a crescent moon is visible. The Last Day, 1988, is a menacing scenario of scowling men leering towards a naked woman, her rounded form trapped by angular dogs baring their razor-sharp teeth. Another disquieting scene is Beaute, calme et volupte, 1988, where the privacy of naked women is violated by faces peering in at the window.

Niati says she wants the interpretation of her works to be unfixed, changing according to the viewer. The images do not demand a specific reading but suggest general moods and sensations, the images accumulating in layers, at some points scratched back into, as if memory is being searched and buried images made visible. The fluidity of the meaning of these images invites the viewer to dream their own dreams.



Published by art17, on September 20th, 2014 at 7:07 am. Filled under: artists Tags: , , , No Comments

Victorian Women Artists

PAMELA NUNN has produced a substantial and well-researched contribution to the growing body of feminist knowledge about the achievements of 19th-century women. The book centres on the early Victorian period 1840-1880; the end of the century is dealt with only briefly at the end of the book. As well as spelling out key issues and ideas of the period about women as artists, the book contains some valuable new research into the Society of Female Artists and the Old and the New Watercolour Societies, and some useful statistics about the numbers of women exhibitors.

Five case studies of individual women artists form the focus of the book. The women selected are designed to represent women’s diverse aspirations to be an artist within the male-dominated Victorian culture and society. As Nunn herself writes (p.130): ‘Joanna Boyce wanted to be a radical woman artist, Rosa Brett wanted to be a Pre-Raphaelite, Henrietta Ward wanted to be an accepted woman artist, Emma Brownlow wanted to make a living, Lady Waterford just wanted to make art’.

Nunn sketches a context for such positions, primarily in terms of the Victorian notions of ‘femininity’ expected of the middle-class women. Their aspirations to be an artist–on whatever terms–is conceived as a transgression of these social norms, rather than a negotiation, during a period when the very notions under discussion were being consolidated, as bourgeois society matured. The reclamation of these women’s lives, both the professional and the amateur, the ‘notable’, average and the forgotten, is the main purpose of the book. The argument is conceived in terms of women overcoming the obstacles they faced from their families; in obtaining education and exhibiting space; and, in being able to support themselves and make art. Thus, Nunn spells out both the negative and positive implications of the artistic family in which many women artists were given both support and encouragement yet at the same time, through the constant comparison with their male relatives, were rendered as ‘lesser lights’ to them by critics and historians.

She points out how the struggles in education, particularly study of the nude, became the basis for feminist agitation for skill and training for women artists and for better exhibition spaces.

Only one of the women discussed, Rosa Brett, remained single, and the thesis is put forward, though it is unsubstantiated, that single women had long and continuous careers, rather than intermittent or faltering ones, like married women, because of the social expectations for wives and mothers (even when married to a male artist). That social norms were transgressed because women artists tried to, expected to, or did earn money from their work, is frequently raised, particularly in relation to the way financial gain was perceived as the rough and ready test of distinction between the amateur and the professional. Nunn notes that the ‘make do and mend’ attitude of the Victorians to middle-class women only earning a living when faced with necessity (as widows or spinsters) doomed women artists to amateurism.

However, and this is what generalises the argument, this is not discussed either in relation to the growing obsession of the Victorians with the numbers of single middle-class women, or the campaigns for the Married Women’s Property Acts in the 1870s and 1880s, whereby women fought to regain control of their own property and income lost to their husbands on marriage.

Throughout the book, the increasingly organised and campaigning women’s movement remains in the background, and such examples as the women artists in the Langham Place group, or the work of women for other women remains, for the most part, undiscussed. Women artists remain within male-defined terms, as a ‘relative creature’. And, in the extracts from their letters, diaries, and journals, where their voice does break through, it is discussed only as an individual experience within a more general term like the domestic, or childhood experience.

This concentration on individual women, coupled with the enclosure of the book in the more traditional terms of art history/biography serves to isolate each example from the others. What is rendered absent, though suggested in many other works on 19th-century women, is the relationship of women to each other as mothers to daughters; or women as teachers of other women; or within a network of female friends.

More explicit, however, in accounting for the neglect of women artists are the developing notions of difference and originality for the male romantic Bohemian artist in such writers as George Moore and Frith who sought serious discussion ‘away from the ladies’ and espoused only ‘friendliness’ to women artists’ activities. Although the notions of separate spheres, the ‘feminine stereotype’ and concepts of femininity are all discussed they remain implicit within the book because its base is a pioneering thesis. Perhaps this also explains the total absence of contemporary feminist research (i.e. that which was published after 1980). However, together with her other work ‘Canvassing’ (Camden Press), these two books offer us much interesting, accessible, and valuable material about Victorian women artists, making visible to a wider audience their lives and work.


Published by art17, on September 20th, 2014 at 7:03 am. Filled under: BooksNo Comments

Julie van Duren

TO SOMEONE like myself, who never met Julie Van Duren, the details of her life strike you with their tragedy. She died on 6 October 1981, aged 44. Her husband Geoff had died only six years earlier in a canoeing accident, and it seems that she never really recovered from that shocking loss, despite the words of hope in some of her later letters. The main source of information on Julie’s life is a booklet published as part of a memorial held in 1982. I include here extracts from her writings and some poems. I want Julie’s own special voice to come through to you in the same way it did to me.

Julie was a sculptor. In her late twenties she set up a foundry with her husband in Strood in Kent and learnt metal casting skills. The local marshes provided inspiration for Julie’s semi-abstract aluminium sculptures, and also provided the clay for her terracotta pieces. She strongly defended her need to work in different media: ‘My work has been criticised for its lack of consistency, the lack of a “theme” but since when has spirit been consistent? I revel in the variety of spirit, from the trivial to the profound, and this variety calls for a corresponding variety in technical interpretation, sometimes requiring this media, another time that, so that some of my work is cast in bronze, some in direct aluminium, some in a terracotta technique I have perfected, some in resin and chalk, some in ceramic’.

After participating in mixed shows (1966-68), Julie’s first one-woman exhibition was in May 1970 at the Woodstock Gallery, London. She continued to exhibit, and sold her work through Harrods. She was reviewed in Studio International, The Freethinker and Arts Review; in October 1971 she and her husband were the subject of a television documentary called ‘Art Centre'; in December 1971 Julie was featured in ‘Personally Speaking’ on BBC Radio Medway. She had mixed feelings about the clash between public and private life: ‘Maybe I have something important to contribute to the world and I shouldn’t be so self-effacing. I must examine all this. As long as I make enough money to live. To sculpt. Sculpture. The psychological impact of this art form is tremendous, and I am Mistress of it. I am going through a crucial period in my life; that I am out of the limelight protects me. I am an undercover agent’.

Julie found it extremely difficult to adjust to her husband’s death after a decade spent together. She moved into a pair of cottages in Faversham, and converted them into a studio and exhibition gallery. Four years later she opened the Faversham Studio with a show of her own work past and present, and her husband’s paintings, thus fulfilling a long-term ambition. Some say there was a new sense of optimism about Julie’s new work shown at what must have been an exciting moment in her life, but sadly the following year she died of cancer. Above are some of the poems she wrote while too ill to work anymore on her sculpture.

From a Life
of being oblivious of my body
I am hurled
Into me
The Body is All
and will be
Ruling me
Out of Existence?

Creativity, Creativity
That’s how I did it before
When the clay refused to budge
I punched it and mentally kicked it
It stood whole
And beautiful
More than
A new day

Published by art17, on September 11th, 2014 at 7:53 am. Filled under: Sculpture Tags: , No Comments


ELENA SAMPERI was born in Genoa, Italy, in 1951. Between 1972 and 1978 she worked with other painters and attended several part-time courses in art and graphic design in Italy, France and England, but she was never a full-time art student. She graduated in Foreign Languages and History of Art fron Genoa University in 1974 and moved to London at the beginning of 1975. She was a member of Women’s Images, taking part in the travelling exhibitions ‘Women’s Images of Men’ 1980, and ‘Pandora’s Box’ 1984-85. She exhibited in Brazil, Italy and Great Britain.

Elena sadly died in a bus accident in October 1987 near Sao Paulo, Brazil, where she lived the last two years. In this article Marisa Rueda and Jacquline Morreau, friends and colleagues speak about her. An exhibition by Elena Samperi and Marisa Rueda called ‘Tropical Forests for Sale’ will open at Art Space Gallery, 84 St Peter’s St, London N1, 16 March-6 April.

IN 1980 I met Elena Samperi at an artists’ meeting at Jacqueline Morreau’s house. We saw slides of each other’s work and we both liked them. Since then we have been friends and we worked in the same studio. It is very difficult to speak of Elena when I am all the time speaking to her.

le opere

I think I will speak to you, Elena, for a long time to come. It is very difficult, suddenly, not to share with you the feelings and thoughts we used to spend hours speaking of.

I loved it when you, seated in your high chair, in front of your painting used to talk to me and make me know your ideas. We used to speak about the world: the likelihood of a nuclear war, the last horrors of the military coup in Argentina, the possibilities of women artists in becoming part of the establishment, your perception of your past lives. We spoke of the value of art, of the possibilities of art as a force for change, about selling art and the commercialisation of it. One has to thank the artist when one buys one of her works because one always buys much more than just an object. Elena was a very successful woman in money terms, she was a very good organiser and she knew how to make her work pay, but not her paintings. We used to speak of this duality and how much our romantic/Bohemian upbringing in the way we were looking at artists and work was stopping us from selling.

Elena was a person of contrasts. Very sure of herself, an aggressive security in some moments and at the same time a capacity to doubt nearly to disintegration. We used to share this last area a lot, we used to think about a subject to its final disintegration, or to its final ambiguity or to the final relativity of it. We used to laugh at all this dramatic panorama and Elena always used a Tango phrase: Life is an absurd wound (La vida es una herida absurda). Absurd, absent of planning, grotesque like life was your death. I would like to speak with you about your death, make some history around it, laugh at some of our presumptions, and maybe finish with our favourite phrase: La vida es una herida absurda.

It was Parati. It was raining … raining … always, with the same rhythm day and night. The pension was old, dusty with brown baroque furniture. We, Elena, Cristina my daughter, and I walked on the stone paved streets in summer clothes with black umbrellas, Japanese figures in a tropical landscape. The river grew, the sea was grey, the vegetation got dull and exuberant at the same time. We began to feel strange, timeless, as in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ fictional City of Macondo. Serpents, insects, moving reptiles began to be felt more than to be seen, everywhere. The rain continued.

Elena was walking with these old shoes, flat shoes, the striped suit, green and black that I bought for her and she used continuously. Her relation with objects–paints, brushes, clothes, furnitures, cars–was of a tiring use, neglecting how much they could last. There was no thought about durability.

The visual aspect of everything was important, beautiful, aesthetic, baroque, happy, full of meaning, exuberant; from her house to her looks. So in that line fame was also unimportant: I prefer Brazil to Europe, they do not have to carry such a heavy history.


She was one of those persons whose presence was always noticed, she was brilliant, exigent, a woman of real courage in her conversations, always making some interesting point, nearly always a sore point, stirring and shaking formal positions. She used to speak quite openly about her relations, her lovers. She was also daily worried about her health.

I inherited a lot from you, I am more active in the evenings, each time when I feel low I remember your energy and your decision to finish situations and have done with them. I want to inherit that. I also want to be able to seek and face truth, and have the will to grow that you had in the last years. When you moved to Brazil, you went towards the sun, the light, towards the continent I love so much.

In those four long years away, Elena retrained in alternative medicine, and her interest in esoteric life increased. She learnt massage, reflexology, aromatherapy, rebirthing. Her sensitivity as a tarot reader and a medium brought around her a lot of people in Brazil, where Elena was going to build her holistic centre. Your capacity to create new situations, new models of life and work, new ways of integrating the two countries–in spite of distance — was prodigious.

Everything was possible, I dreamt with your dreams. We began to do workshops together: we will have a place in Parati, one in London. We created workshops, organised an installation and an exhibition in Art Space. You made the pictures for the show, I did some hands in clay. We were in a hurry but we managed everything: catalogue design, statement, photos, we did it. I needed more time with my work. In fact I finished my involvement in our exhibition just now.

If one believes in destiny, predestiny, reincarnation or life after death a lot of details are beginning to be in place in this puzzle. For me, Elena: La vida es una herida absurda.


Published by art17, on September 10th, 2014 at 7:21 am. Filled under: artistsNo Comments