To look for enlightenment where you are, in the everyday rhythms of your life and in the commonplace objects that surround you, has to be harder than seeking it out by means of an epic trek to far-flung corners of the globe.

The premise that a journey around your own surroundings can be as important as any trip along the hippy trail is behind the latest exhibition by Peter Finnemore and John Anderson.

Whilst Anderson seeks to root the Buddha in the geology of Wales, Finnemore offers small glimpses of enlightenment noticed in his own house.

In photographs like Animal Forces, Finnemore offers a collection of kitsch animal ornaments lined up on an old sideboard surrounded by peeling wallpaper and crumbling plaster.

Perhaps he’s asking whether truth can be channelled through your own possessions, through small objects of insight.

Being awake to the subtle interplay of light, atmosphere and objects in your own surroundings, however mundane, is one true test of whether you’ve reached that higher state of being tuned in. But to get there via Finnemore’s photographs you have to get over the inherent problem of photographing the mundane.

Often taken in and around his ramshackle family home

, Gwendraeth House, the setting for much of his previous work, Finnemore’s images can appear to be nothing more than strange juxtaposition of ethno trinkets and terraced house chic.

So much photography relies on the inclusion of the extraordinary to make it popular, but there’s no whizz-bang factor in these pictures – rather they’re dark and intriguing.

Their strength is that they require contemplation and an open mind to understand.

Among these images is one where he has noticed the shape of the Buddha’s face appearing in the pattern of his wallpaper. You have to fight not to compare it with all those scones that turn up imprinted with the visage of Mother Theresa, laid out in currants.

When an eastern cat-shaped jug faces a rip in the wallpaper in his A Tear in the Universe I’m immediately thinking of Doctor Who rather than anything divine.

Anderson, on the other hand, covers statues of the Buddha in an intriguing layer of coal dust, subverting their usual bright gold colour giving them the feeling of jet-encrusted anti-jewels.

He does the same thing to small models of houses – a literal Coal House – and brilliantly to a light bulb.

Immediately reminiscent of the glue and glitter pictures we did as children, the black coal dust turns them into something darker and earthly organic. It hints at incredible found objects thrown up from the earth in the heat of geological upheaval.

His other pieces include a carriage clock and a watch rendered silent, useless and inert by filling them with concrete. His art is impressive simple, subtle and poetic.

(This review first appeared in The WesternMail, 09.09.10)


Cowboys and Indians - Paul Norton

Dancing on the Soul of Nature, the title of this show, sounds like it has come from an early science text book and in a way that fits. Much of Paul Norton’s work has the look of microscopy. There’s something pleasingly microbial about his images.

In many of his paintings and prints, you feel like you’re watching an experiment where fungus is growing in a lab. This may be partly down to the shape of the pieces – many are oval or circular. It’s easy to imagine you’re peering down a microscope or perhaps looking at a sample growing in a petri dish.

If you’ve ever studied bacteria growing – the fridge is a good place to start – you’ll be aware of the intricate patterns and delicate colours of some of nature’s most successful and overlooked work.

Norton is fascinated by naturally occurring patterns and found marks. If this makes his work sound whimsical, it’s because it’s driven by an almost innocent, childlike curiosity in discovering and revelling in the simple shapes and patterns of things.

Norton sees the world in a grain of sand, as Blake would put it.

His work is often painstaking, there’s almost an element of obsession in his repetitive surfaces. You can sense the endless hours spent making these small dots, slowly filling the canvas with tiny repeated marks. It’s almost a meditative process, and in some ways perhaps that’s the response it might generate within the viewer.

Norton moves between different techniques and mediums with consummate ease – whether paint or hand coloured aquatint, there’s a unity to his vision and his technique.

The patterns are abstract, or at least abstracted, from observation. You’re never quite sure if you’re looking at leopard skin or tree bark. His world of curious blobs and weird Biomorphic forms can seem both microscopic and simultaneously astronomical. The worlds of cell and celestial co-exist happily in the same image. The parallels with Australian Aboriginal art are striking, not just the dot strewn surfaces, but the attempt to connect with greater forces.

Among the most fascinating pieces are images like Mighty Oak, in which Norton introduces a twisting spiral-like form that dances out from the centre of the image, snaking and curling, growing larger as it moves towards the edges of the work. Maybe it’s a pattern of blood vessels, or perhaps we’re following the fractal course of the river of life. A bacteriological Mappa Mundi growing on blood agar.

This is the strength of his work, it can hint at so many layers of meaning without being slave to some conceptual framework that simply needs to be “got”, in the way you “get” a punch line or the answer to a riddle. It’s much more open ended than that. Norton’s work follows a more organic route. There’s a real sense of life, birth, growth, rust and decay all at the same time.

(This review first appeared in The Western Mail 27.08.10)

Eugene Smith - Three Generations of Welsh Miners (1950)

Two different views of the Valleys, separated by 60 years are represented by new acquisitions on display at the National Museum in Cardiff.

Eugene Smith’s iconic “Three Miners” photo is displayed alongside the colour photographs of the modern Valleys by Anthony Stokes and it’s an interesting contrast.

Standing in the physical presence of a widely reproduced, well known image is a mixed experience. Perhaps it’s just that we’ve become so used to seeing colour profiled digital perfection in gallery prints but Smith’s image somehow looks cleaner and sharper in reproduction. The print just didn’t have the warmth you’d expect from a silver gelatin “proper photograph”, then again it’s an image that was designed for publication. Newsprint has limitations, the excessive contrast would have given the image enough punch to stand up to the various processes as it went from negative to printed page.

From today’s perspective the image feels oddly staged. We’ve grown used to the more candid journalistic stance of ’60s and ’70s photographers but this picture – taken during the 1950 election campaign – feels like a film still from some Hollywood movie about the Valleys.

The three miners have obviously been directed: They look away, out of frame into the middle distance as if they‘ve just heard a train whistle, slightly concerned and tired like they‘d just come off a shift.

They’re placed low in the frame allowing a glimpse behind at a clutch of terraced streets, just enough to place it generically in the Valleys but not quite enough to root it in a specific village or town. It relies on our knowledge of archetypes, much of it learned from films.

The houses, the hillside, the miners’ clothes and faces all feel caked in grime. The picture feels as if it’s been drawn using a lump of coal and has the tonal range of a charcoal sketch. It’s all carefully designed to lead us to one conclusion, the heroism of the honest, working man.

In complete contrast Anthony Stokes’ pictures are invariably devoid of people and almost take care to avoid leading us to any emotional settlement. His subject is the architecture and landscape of the area. Whereas Smith’s image had helped to set our mental image of the Valleys as monotone and grey, Stokes reveals a bright, almost gaudy, world of clashing and complimentary colours.

Stokes is great at colour coincidences: The gold of a sunlit hillside balances the gold of painted bricks around a house doorway. The bright red of a car matches the washing on the line behind it.

Both Smith’s and Stokes’ images are a product of their time. Whether either present a true image of the region is neither here or there, they both use the Valleys as raw material, and that’s the tricky, unavoidable and exploitative nature of the medium without the filter of the human touch that painting or drawing adds.

Strip the colour way from Stokes’ pictures and you’d still know they were modern as the dispassionate, slightly deadpan approach couldn’t have existed when Smith was working. Then again, to self-consciously pose three workers in such a setting today would feel awkward, stilted and ironic.

The Merthyr Riots - Penry Williams

History is cruel. The passage of time weeds out the also-rans.

We all know about JMW Turner, his huge output bequeathed to the nation forms the basis of the Tate Britain collection. Penry Williams, however, is less well known, certainly away from his native Merthyr.

But at some point in the past he gained the unfortunate epithet “The Welsh Turner”. Unfortunate because it’s a hell of a title to live up to. This small exhibition pulls together works by both these great men and puts him on dangerous ground.

What we have is a potted history of the two painters, whose work was roughly contemporary. It’s a fascinating insight into how careers, painting styles and artistic ambitions develop.

Both men depicted the early ironworks that once stood just across the valley. Turner, in one of his many trips to Wales, drew the factory, which was a technological marvel of its age. Sadly the pencil sketch on display here is faded but you can still make out the relaxed ease and confidence of Turner’s lines.

Williams, on the other hand, painted the ironworks set among a curiously bucolic landscape of trees and contented, munching cattle, the factory pushed into the background like a folly in a polite landscape garden.

Like much of Williams’ early work – including the curiously folksy Merthyr Riots paintings – these images feel awkward, their compositions, with a couple of exceptions, are a bit forced. They don’t compare well to a couple of early Turner landscapes, done around the same time, one of Wales and one of Italy. The two views are almost interchangeable – Turner had yet to visit Italy so he paints the country in the same sombre light as his generic Welsh Mountain Scene with Village and Castle.

Williams, meanwhile, was attempting some landscapes of his own, but a series of waterfall studies from the Neath Valley are just grim and ham-fisted.

Eventually Williams quit Wales and moved to Rome where he enjoyed some success painting pastiches of whatever was popular with English gents on the grand tour. And why not? He had to make a living. But it all adds to the sense that Williams was a moderately competent jobbing artist whereas Turner is in a different league.

After the dusty and dark early works, not helped by the lighting arrangements in the room, you finally get to the star of the show. Painted around the mid 1840s when Turner was at the height of his powers, A River Seen From a Hill has all the hallmarks of the artist at his best; shimmering golden light, the sense of capturing fleeting moments of atmospherics. It is a painting of staggering brilliance that eclipses everything else in the room.

There’s always a danger when comparing two painters of such hugely differing skills and motivations that one of them will simply end up coming off worst. No prizes for guessing who takes the bullet here.

A River Seen From a Hill - JMW Turner

(This review first appeared in The Western Mail 13.08.10)

Carolyn Drake, an American living in Turkey, has put together a quietly stunning body of work from her travels in the former Soviet Republics of central Asia.

Drake has travelled the region extensively and brought back a set of images that combine the epic and the personal, giving an insight into a part of the world that many Westerners couldn’t even place on the map.

What stops Drake’s stunning pictures becoming merely a National Geographic travelogue is her engaged approach. This isn’t some dry, anthropological study. You really get the sense that she has connected with the people and the land.

The Paradise of her title is ironic. It’s a land of peeling, crumbling infrastructure.

Everything seems old, as if time stopped at the point the Soviet Union disbanded, everything feels stuck in the ’70s, or even earlier. There’s hardly anything shiny and brand new in these pictures – except the curious sight of an old woman chatting on a mobile phone as she crosses a makeshift wooden bridge.

The population have resignation etched on their faces – they know their chances of escaping to something better are probably minimal. This is a region at the edge of economic viability.

If it sounds bleak, it is, but Drake manages that rare trick of giving you the facts while also bringing out the stark beauty of the place. Everywhere there are overcast skies and the land seems forever wrapped in a grey mist like a permanent drab February Sunday but somehow Drake’s colours are soft, warm and rich.

Everything here feels flood damaged, with crumbling, flaking paint and tiles. And, most of all, everyone has a resigned, slightly depressed expression, as if waiting for the deluge.

But there won’t be a flood, if anything the opposite – the Aral Sea is shrinking as the waters of the two rivers, the Amu and Syr Darya, are drained to irrigate the vast cotton fields. If this mono culture is making a profit little of it seems to be filtering back down to the people. This is a region of ecological as well as economic collapse.

Drake captures it perfectly – there’s one extraordinary image of a fiery gas crater, created when a Soviet drilling rig fell into an underground cavern, creating a giant hole in the surface of the bleak steppe that has been on fire every since.

She has an incredible eye for composition. A horse grazing in the snow in the Swsamyr valley is almost a complete white out, the tension between the horse and the distant people off to the right is brilliantly handled, (it really needs to be seen in the flesh, no on-screen reproduction can do justice to the subtlety of her print).

Drake captures the epic feel of the landscape, it almost feels cinematic in scale but she’s equally at home showing us the intimate details of a family meal or a someone relaxing amongst the crumbling ruins of a grimy bathhouse.

It’s this precise combination of the huge vista counter-pointed against intimate personal space that make this such a great description of the area and its people.

(This review first appeared in The Western Mail 06.08.10)

Interference - Martyn Webb

Newport-based printmaker Martyn Webb employs a huge variety of processes, some of which are part of a long standing tradition while others embrace digital technology.

It’s a wide-ranging collection, from the serious to the playful.

In a large work, Fossil, we see the outlines of hand tools. Stark impressions of the objects themselves, honest workman’s tools, arranged in pairs except for an errant electric drill that snakes across the surface. I was immediately taken back to my grandfather’s workshop. He had the shapes of tools drawn on the wall so he would know where to hang them.

In Interference it looks as if a car has run into the picture repeatedly, each time its front grille inked up in a different colour. It’s typical of the way Webb builds up rich multi-layered compositions.

Mind The Gap, the title piece for the exhibition, is both large and ambitious. In six panels it depicts characters from the tumultuous last years of coal mining; Heath, Macgregor, Thatcher – I didn’t spot Scargill in the layers but he could have been there – all overlaid with symbols of commerce, money, and maps of mines with familiar names.

Webb combines a whole truck load of imagery and has visual fun with it. I’m not sure it articulates the full story of what went on – we are presented with signifiers of one side of the conflict or the other, but we bring our own knowledge of history to the image.

Perhaps here is the gap Webb wants us to look out for; the chasm between decisions made miles away and the effects that those decisions have on the lives of ordinary people. It’s a valuable lesson for today’s economic climate.

In a series of images developed around Blaenavon he combines old and new, creating etchings – an ancient technique – that begin as digital photographs. Pieces like Above The Garw focus on redundant coal winding towers. These are both an icon and cliché of industrial Wales, a totem for hardship, dirt and economic loss.

In King Coal it’s developed further – he adds a list of names and places turning it into a liturgy of the dead killed in pit disasters before going on to remake the national flag; green and red with a dragon faded almost into invisibility and littered with bones of the dead.

It’s a striking image but, before it gets too mawkish, you’re distracted by a collection of polished steel and copper plates used to print the images. Fascinating objects, they shine like trophies in a glass cabinet. We’re all suckers for a glimpse behind the scenes and showing the by-products of image making like this is a nice touch.

The approach is echoed by a decadently colourful set of images based around lolly sticks. The sticks look like they’d been used for stirring paint or for scraping thick ink off a plate – they probably had. Webb arranges them in grids with blocks of colours grouped together – reminiscent of sculptor Tony Cragg who did similar things with found, junk plastic.

You can’t fault him for recycling his own materials.

Fossil - Martyn Webb

(This review first appeared in The Western Mail, 30.07.10)

Rain, Pipeline by the Usk - Alan Young

This exhibition by the Watercolour Society of Wales is a chance to look again at the kind of work being created using this most traditional of mediums.

There’s a world of difference between time-honoured and plain old-fashioned.

While a few of the works in this wide-ranging show will just confirm many people’s suspicions that watercolour is a slightly pickled tradition that a long time ago started feeding on its own conventions, there are some pieces here that will surprise the jaded and completely transcend expectations.

Of course there are landscapes, ranging from the very delicate and detailed, such as Christine Meadowcroft’s views of Carreg Cennen through to Christopher Griffin’s heavy, almost Van Gogh inspired surfaces depicting the searing heat of southern France.

Alan Young simplifies his offbeat views into near abstraction – in pictures such as Pipeline by the Usk, his choice of subject sidesteps the usual pictorial niceties and his dark sombre tones seem to owe more to printmaking than painting.

Andrea Kelland chooses her subjects carefully – the almost semi-abstract corner of a bathing pool demonstrates great eye for detail and texture, and in her impressive January Storm you can almost hear the sound of a huge, crashing wave rolling through the frame.

Similarly, Pat Clarke’s depiction of Wild Water, Nantgwynant, captures the force of a river in a robust style you would more normally associate with oils.

Ivor Davies’ highly textured and rubbish-strewn surfaces are an extreme example of what you wouldn’t anticipate from this usually demure art form. Actually, it doesn’t matter that these are watercolours, it could be any kind of paint. Thicker and rougher than you’d expect, his pieces often include collaged photographs and printed elements.

Robert MacDonald’s images of Penpont church are similarly full of diverse imagery – the church is surrounded by human and animal characters, vibrant, colourful images of its surroundings and community.

Wendy Yeo stretches the tradition of classic British watercolour painting by fusing it with Japanese techniques. She tackles the theme of the exhibition – seasons – head on with images like Sea in March and Sunset in September. Her calligraphic marks suit the paint, her mash-up of East and West work particularly well.

As always with watercolour, there are botanical studies, from the traditional and pictorial – Audrey Meadowcroft comes to mind – through to Rhian Symes’ decorative waterlilies in which a pair of almost photographically rendered frogs sit in a stylised swirl of decorative leaves.

But for sheer technical brilliance you can’t ignore Richard Wills’ three portraits of Archbishop Rowan Williams. They’re not just a great likeness but they’re full of life and energy, revealing both the character of the sitter but also a breathtaking confidence with technique. They’re worth the trip on their own.

Perhaps watercolour has an image problem.  Unfortunately, for many, it will always fall into the love it or loathe category.  But to lump all watercolourist together as perpetrators of polite and prissy landscapes, would be like blaming eggs for all the bad omelettes you ever had whilst forgetting about all those great cakes.

Sunset in September - Wendy Yeo

(This review first appeared in The Western Mail 23.07.10)