Inspired by the past. A new exhibition at The Bingley Gallery
Whilst the public might think of traditional archaeologists as nose to the soil, trowel in hand excavators, a new exhibition suggests that their training or their personalities makes them excellent observers of the world around us and encourages them to share their observations as art.
There is no doubt that visual images, like objects, bring the past to life in our imagination. The fading photo on the mantlepiece, the sleeve art of the first vinyl album of our youth, an old image of a town centre before the shopping arcade arrived, all serve to revitalise our own memories. For time periods before our own lives, art helps us see the through the eyes of the artist, whether it be Turner capturing the wonder of steam power, the Pompeian wall painter illustrating life in a provincial Roman town or, cave art vividly depicting the excitement of a bison hunt.
Contemporary artists also draw on the past in creating their work. A new exhibition at the Bingley Gallery demonstrates the remarkable range of motivation behind those who do this. Many of the artists featured came to the subject not through art school but following study and work in the field of archaeology. No less than six have links with the pioneering School of Archaeological Sciences at the University of Bradford, suggesting art and science can be fruitfully combined.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, ceramics have a central position in the exhibition. Most artists working in that media are well-aware of the legacy of pottery making that stretches back millennia into the past and are appreciative of the skills of their predecessors.
For potter, Mike Copper, a researcher at the University, firing ceramics provides a means of understanding the technology of a craft in its earliest, Neolithic, years. Ceramics at that time may have been relatively crude, but clearly much time and effort was spent, not only making functional vessels, but also decorating them with a symbolism that we can only guess at. Mike’s most recent firings investigate the use of different fuels to heat primitive pit furnaces, including sheep dung! The vessels present a very different aesthetic to contemporary pottery, much of their charm lies in their deceptive simplicity. Features such as the darker fire clouds from the smoky fuels and slight irregularities of form impart not only their own beauty but evoke an emotional link with our ancestors who pioneered such techniques up to six thousand years ago.
Lis Holt allows her ceramic vessels to diverge considerably from the early Aegean art that inspires them. Amongst her influences are the times spent exploring dusty museums during holidays abroad. She keeps to the older technique of coil building (wheel throwing was a much later development) and produces beautifully elegant forms, decorated with glazes that are resonant of the early civilizations of the eastern Mediterranean.
For Laura McNicholas of Nettleton Pottery, inspiration came from closer to home, in the form of textiles inherited from her great, great aunt, great grandmother and grandmother. Through her ceramics Laura tells their story and celebrates these strong and creative women’s lives. The delicate and strongly textured designs from the craftwork are used to impress patterns and create tactile surfaces which are enhanced by a mixture of oxides or underglazes. This contrasts with the smooth, shiny and deeply-glazed interiors of rock pool and shell-inspired forms, that come from her own childhood.
Wood is a material central to human culture in the past, though its survival from the distant past requires very unusual conditions. Gavin Edwards, previously a field archaeologist and archaeological curator, understands how people in the past made best use of its physical properties – but also appreciated its beauty. Working with wood is Gavin’s latest career choice, taking the opportunity to explore where his love of wood might take him. Much of the timber he uses has past histories, whether as furniture veneers or humble pallets, but also bears the marks of the growing environment of the tree. The intrinsic beauty of the structure of the wood is brought out by careful preparation and sanding and a coat of wax, with different elements combined and displayed in decorative panels.
Painting is a still older activity than pottery. Whilst new means of binding pigments to a surface have been developed, and art styles have come and gone, the process of producing an original artwork has changed little. Clarke Avery, a Bradford graduate, uses archaeological knowledge to recreate past landscapes in oils or acrylics including Bronze age villages, steam locomotives or seascapes with Viking ships battling the elements. Each work is an evocation of the age rather than simply a likeness of scenery. L. Amy Charlesworth, one of the exhibition’s few trained artists, works in oils in a hyperrealist style. Viking mythology is brought into focus with a dramatically painted raven, ‘Ode to Odin’, for which she expanded her skill range to craft a runically inscribed wooden frame.
The exhibition also includes work from archaeologists whose keen eyesight and analytical minds, normally employed in the interpretation of survey images, are allowed to run unconstrained in less traditional art.
Daniel Shiel is a geophysical surveyor who draws on his career in archaeology and his childhood love of ruins. The processes of decay and the marginalisation of once important structures are central to his imagery. His media is photography, with collections of images being re-modelled into new constructs with rich textures and patterns which appear to have histories of their own.
Alison Deegan is landscape archaeologist with a specialism in identifying archaeological features from aerial images, including traditional photo reconnaissance and its more recent development using lasers in LIDAR survey. Her understanding of the landscape as a sequence of layers formed over millennia is reflected in Alison's artistic practice. She uses lino cuts to express the structure of a landscape, either through bold, single-colour prints or building layers of colour and texture to create more complex and intricate images. For Alison, printmaking is a release from the accuracy and objectivity demanded for her archaeological work, and the physical process of lino cutting and printing is an escape from the digital workspace.
David Starley, is another Bradford archaeological sciences graduate who worked for many years as a field archaeologist and metalworking specialist, until his oil painting hobby increasingly took precedence. Both art and archaeology run deep within him and it is therefore no surprise that his oil paintings often incorporate features from the past, such as the Twelve Apostles Stone circle on Ilkley Moor. ‘We live in landscapes which, whether, urban or rural, show evidence of generations of our forebears. Reading the physical evidence of past human activity in our surroundings gives another dimension to our understanding of our environment and our place in it.’
The exhibition runs 2 May to 20 June 2021. The Gallery has a further 6 rooms of art by talented artists from this region