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Sunday 10 April 2011

Examining and Unravelling: Yellow Wallpaper, Bo.Lee, Bath

Review by Regina Papachlimitzou

Yellow Wallpaper, inspired by Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s story of the same name, examines and unravels themes of spatial confinement, escape and the dissolution of identity that can occur in the struggle between the two.

Philippa Lawrence’s Last Flight, a sizeable light bulb inside which several moths have found a final resting place, takes an inherent trait (the moths’ use of the moon as a navigational tool) and follows it to its prescribed conclusion. The moths’ instinctive use of the moon as a point of reference can only be implemented successfully due to the great distance between them and the celestial body, which makes the latter impossible to reach; the proximity of a light bulb is fatal. The fatality is all the more poignant due to its inescapable nature, for the moth will keep trying to angle itself to a source of light that it is doomed to collide against, ad infinitum. The potential serenity deriving from the inevitable is present but tempered in Last Flight, as the focus alarmingly moves from the moths’ misguided instincts to the fact that the light is actually physically impossible to escape from. A hole in the glass means that the last infinitesimal chance to break away is cancelled out, not because of an ingrained behaviour but because of spatial restriction.

Two works by Patrick Haines, Blackthorn House and A Caged Bird offer an intriguing approach to the question of identity as a function of the space inhabited and dwelled in. The works reveal the precariousness of this construct by challenging the established notions of freedom versus captivity, symbolically represented in the cage/home. Blackthorn House is, at least at first glance, simple and terrible: a three-dimensional outline of a house, constructed out of savage-looking spiked twigs. As a home it appears neither welcoming to visitors nor accommodating to its dwellers; the dread experienced at the possibility of having to enter such a house could only be surpassed by that felt at the thought of needing to escape it. And yet, there are birds that would choose just such a thorny place for their abode: from shrikes and butcherbirds, to firewood-gatherers (also known as thorn birds), to Oscar Wilde’s nightingale that selflessly – and pointlessly – impaled itself on a thorn for the sake of a clichéd love-affair that fails to materialise. Thus, Blackthorn House subverts the immediate equation of a cage with an absence of choice.

In a touching depiction of the potentially paralyzing oppression of freedom, A Caged Bird presents the viewer with a remarkable sight: a bird locked out of a cage, wistfully peering down at its empty nest through the bars. The incongruity of the image is a simple but effective way of posing the question left unuttered at the end of myriads of Hollywood movies, TV advertisements and sugary pop songs: escape to what? Defining one’s identity against something one is desperately trying to break away from is easy enough –but once you’ve managed to shake off your chains and ride into the sunset, then what? Freedom as an ideal to strive towards is a lot less scary and a great deal more romantic than freedom obtained. Still, there is no reductionism in the work: on the contrary, the image of an animal passing up freedom in favour of a caged life has deeper and more complex ramifications, embodying as it does the tension between an individual brand of freedom and the idea of freedom as constructed and imposed by societal expectations. The latter of which can, of course, be a prison in itself.

Rose Sanderson’s paintings repeatedly make use of reclaimed wallpaper as background, the different patterns of which accentuate the overall atmosphere created in each work. Paintings such as Anticipation, Holding On and Waiting, present a skilful composition in which painstakingly detailed birds perch precariously on heavy brushstrokes, against the ever present background of wallpaper. The dynamic layering of wallpaper, colour and detailed depiction seem to suggest that the birds just don’t belong in the confines of the frame, as if they just happened to perch there for a moment and will soon fly off again. In Tranquillity however, the wallpaper pattern is a lot more floral, so much so that at it could easily be mistaken for a tropical forest; the brushstrokes are less intense, the colour allowed to drip down to form a protective curtain. And behind it, with its back to the viewer in a stance no longer denoting tense anticipation but blissful abandon, a bird is perched, its plumage almost mixing in with the background –almost.

The exhibition also showcases works such as Patrick Haines’s heartrending Soul Object; Beth Carter’s Minotaur, a slouching, smaller-than-life creature, less mythical monster than weary prisoner; and selected works from Chris Anthony’s Victims and Avengers series.

Yellow Wallpaper continues at b-lee Gallery, Bath until 16 April. For further information visit www.bo-lee.co.uk

Rose Sanderson Fire Crest acrylic on book cover
Courtesy the artist and Bo.Lee, Bath

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