Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Edgelands, The Fitzwilliam Museum, 27 March - 30 September 2012

The Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge is currently displaying two portfolios of contemporary prints by George Shaw and Michael Landy that inspire ideas about 'edgelands'- the forgotten, overlooked places neither city nor countryside, on the urban edge.

'Edgelands are those areas that are like a threshold between the two worlds, carrying aspects of both, but representing neither – they are a third type of environment overlooked by most people. The exhibition features landscapes and weeds not usually considered beautiful or picturesque. Drawn by two of Britain’s leading contemporary artists, the portfolios Twelve Short Walks by George Shaw and Nourishment by Michael Landy throw light on these forgotten areas of our cities. The two artists capture different aspects of life on the edge, making us question our preconceptions – can mundane places and ordinary lives become extraordinary when we stop to look?
The idea of the lost urban wilderness of edgelands has become a popular topic in contemporary culture. From stories about their potential environmental importance as habitats, through city foraging walks for edible plants, to movie settings for novels such as J. G. Ballard’s ‘Crash’, edgelands have moved from counter-culture to mainstream. They have been explored in poetry, TV, film and literature, including the 2011 book Edgelands, Journeys into England’s True Wilderness by the poets Paul Farley and Michael Symmons, which discusses Shaw’s and Landy’s prints.
George Shaw was shortlisted for the 2011 Turner Prize. Like his paintings, Shaw’s prints have a strong autobiographical feeling and Twelve Short Walks revisits scenes of his childhood on the Tile Hill council estate in the suburbs of Coventry. Using drawing and painting to create the prints, many of the images create an uncanny, anxious mood through unusual use of viewpoints - the paths that lead into the prints promising an uncertain end to each walk. In this way Shaw explores the haunting sense of loss between his memory and the place revisited, conveying his anxiety at feeling ‘out of place’ in the landscape of his own past.
Michael Landy is best known for his 2001 piece of performance art called Break Down, where he systematically catalogued and destroyed all of his worldly possessions in a former C&A store on Oxford Street, London. Surprisingly, for his next project he chose to do a series of very carefully observed drawings of wild plants, which is the portfolio now displayed in Edgelands. Entitled Nourishment, the prints look at the overlooked vegetation found growing through the cracks of pavements, at the margins of car parks and on waste ground. Landy collected a selection of these ‘street flowers’, and drew meticulous and highly detailed life-sized images of them on etching plates. Weeds are the neglected flora of edgelands, often defined as flowers ‘out of place’, just as the patches of landscape at the edge of suburban estates provide unexpected encounters with ‘countryside’ in unexpected places.
As well as the edgelands theme, these portfolios both share a heightened focus on everyday subjects as well as remarkable attention to detail in draughtsmanship and the process and effects of printmaking.
The Director of the Fitzwilliam Museum, Timothy Potts commented: “All the prints featured in Edgelands were made using traditional printmaking techniques in a fresh way: in particular etching and lithography. Although this is a contemporary look at things, both artists were making very carefully observed drawings with long-established methods. It is an accessible exhibition that should appeal to those interested in the new and the traditional.”
The curator of the exhibition, Craig Hartley commented: “It should be stressed that when the prints were made, the artists would not have had any concept or agenda of ‘edgelands’ in mind. But there is a growing cultural interest in this unexplored zone and these prints have become part of that broader discussion. It touches us all personally. We all walk through similarly neglected landscapes in our own lives: ordinary places that become extraordinary when we stop to look and rethink the familiar things we take for granted, perhaps because an artist has shown us a different way of looking at them, or because we are revisiting them after time has changed our point of view.”, (Press Release from The Fitzwilliam Museum)

Examples of work from portfolio of prints by George Shaw: "12 Short Walks", 2005

Examples from a series of drawings by Michael Landy: "Nourishment", 2002

Michael Landy, ‘Shepherd's Purse’ 2002

The simplicity of overlooked urban landscapes featuring school buildings, brick walls, alleyways, semi-detached council houses, estates and wire fencing lends George Shaw's 'short walks' to be portrayed in a different light than when you would normally see these scenes in real life. I really liked the delicate quality of the ink used to create these series of moments that seem to be connected by memory. There were no people visible in any of the prints which gave them a ghostly sense of abandonment, and a strong sense of being on the edge of an unexplained narrative. An unusual deployment of viewpoints and perspective leant a feeling of secrecy to these prints as well as viewpoints which produced wonderment and intrigue.
As for Michael Landy's work in his latest series of drawings Nourishment, consisting of 12 hard ground etchings, this was produced over a period of nine months where Landy collected weeds and fed and watered them to keep them alive while he drew them life sized. 'Seeing the plants as really optimistic things, they'll find little patches of ground to germinate in and flourish, constantly moving on and adaptable to thier changing surroundings, like people have to be so, its an analogy of that...' Recent portraiture work by Landy show the same close scrutiny and meticulous line. From personal opinion, this work was very poignant and raised issues of what we view as beautiful and how ordinary occurances such as weeds can be viewed in a different light, which made this exhibition very enjoyable.

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