Local Imagination
Garry Barker

In some ways all our imaginary landscapes are local. Artists create worlds that others can inhabit in their minds and in these worlds float the infinite possibilities of communication. The fact that the artists in this exhibition are English is the localized premise, however what is particular to each artist’s vision is a set of imaginings born from the hybrid matrix of what it is to be any nationality within a modern society. These English artists have Irish, Italian, Polish and other historical roots and what is local is often the learning of a received pronunciation of contemporary culture. Therefore, what it is to be an English artist in the 21st Century is problematic and conflicted. Even so, the long visual history of what has often been said to be a literary culture has reoccurring strands that enable artists to on the one hand feel they belong to a tradition and on the other to believe that they can partake in the constant reinvention of the now.
Global communication systems and cheap access to air travel have tended to blur differences but difference is still an anchor with which to measure sensibility. These artists from Leeds College of Art, an old established art school located within the Northern England, have established art practices that reflect the origins of the English imagination.
Richard Baker’s intimate portraits of Modernist furniture isolated within an intangible spatiality invite the viewer to reflect on the formal qualities of design geometry, the aesthetics of modernism and the processes of painting and drawing. Within a dialogue between photographic objectivity and painterly subjectivity these seemingly insignificant objects index mythologised, lived, remembered and forgotten human histories. These paintings invoke initial sensations of absence and emptiness which then give way to more complex questions of use and exchange values as well as voluntary and involuntary memories.
The critic and curator Angela Kingston when writing about Garry Barker’s drawings stated that Chapeltown (the area of Leeds in which he lives) is a story of which he finds himself a part. Kingston saw in Barker’s drawings of his local area, a vivid engagement with narrative and that even at their most fantastical, his drawings aspire to truth. In some ways, Barker’s drawings are simply documentary, but more than just recording the times, Barker mentally re-plays, pen-to-paper, the multifarious things he sees people doing: the stories of the place. He re-enacts and enlivens in much the way that children do when they draw. The realization that each of the figures in the drawings is a self-portrait is puzzling at first. But it fits with the intense identification that Barker brings to what he draws. And also, perhaps, he is conjecturing himself as Everyman, someone easy to identify with; someone who helps the viewer enter the story too. His imagination is indeed localized but the territory that these drawings cover is open to everyone.
Kelly Cumberland examines the change and removal, growth and deterioration of the life and nature of a virus. Installations and objects demonstrate how something seemingly delicate and insubstantial can overwhelm its environment; whilst dissected drawings represent the paradoxical fragility and strength of microbiological structures. For Cumberland the continuous addition and removal, (re)production and reduction results in a coherent body of structural variations. Working in sequence the components initially appear identical, however, the process ensures each work is unique, retaining the possibility for expansion and modification.
The central theme of Sheila Gaffney’s practice is a reflection upon what it is to be human. The body, humble substances, space and place are the tools she uses to mediate this. Her projects draw on the concept of subjectivation. That is, she focuses on how we go through the process of ‘becoming’ who we are, rather than equating the notion of identity with being. The works featured in ‘Local Imagination’ comprise drawing, collage, sculpture and scannograms. Personal and intimate objects (in this instance family photographs and historic costume) form the subject matter of the works and the notion of embodiment is central to Gaffney’s studio processes. She feels working in the artist’s studio aligns with the psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas description of embodiment in ‘The Mystery Of Things’
‘Putting the self into the real through play, children are engaged in a kind of embodied dreaming that brings elements of inner life into the world. The quiet, continuous embodiments of dream mark the passing of time with signs of the child’s idiom’(1)
Gaffney imagines her subjects into embodied form rather than interrogating or studying them, in order to entice a haptic universal recognition from the viewer. Dr Kiff Bamford when writing about Gaffney’s work with the costume collection of Bradford Museums and Galleries in 2009(2) observed ‘the fact that Sheila Gaffney is a sculptor, that her work is physical, is worth noting in relation to the way in which she … approache[s] her subject matter […] I would argue that it is relevant and appropriate to be reminded of the way in which Gaffney […] physically handled the clothes in order to make these images.’ (3)
Andrew Lister has reproduced reproductions of paintings by Holbein and Bellini on a j-cloth and a handkerchief. His reproductions are painted, rather than printed, to connect them directly to the originals. Painting the images also allowed him the control and care required to touch and respect the profundity of Holbein and Bellini and set this in balance, albeit precariously, with the frivolous and ephemeral qualities of the j-cloth and the handkerchief.
Tom Palin draws heavily from the tradition of English and northern European landscape painting, combining an interest in the iconography of the everyday and the Romantic with a concern for the materiality of paint and the passing of time. This preoccupation with materiality stems from a perception of paintings as objects oscillating between the viewer’s space and the psychological space opened up by picturing.
The processes of involuntary memory act as a starting point for a prolonged game of assertion and negation, statement and modification. Images come, go and transform, layers of paint obscuring and revealing what has been in an attempt to arrive at a position between object and image.
In recent work, Palin has adopted the diptych form, playing compositions and images off against the material divide between panels. This serves to dislocate the skin of the paint, reaffirming its objecthood in the process. “I don’t believe in representation, or at least in my ability to hide the processes of painting behind images in which I have little faith. Nor is my love of paint such that it feels sufficient to push it around unhindered by the desire to fashion it into a form of image.”
Within Sarah Taylor’s practice tea towels, ragbag remnants, plastic bags, and printed packaging are some of the items of domestic bric-a-brac that are elevated to a higher status of painting. In the ongoing series, Prior Arrangements these items are stretched on to frames as approximations of painting, grouped together and arranged in ‘Lots,’ as in an auction, the individual works are displayed leaning against the wall & aspire to be presented as painting, the most aristocratic of art forms.
Taylor’s project investigates painting as an aspirational activity in which she considers what can and cannot be classified as painting. The work shifts between the modest and the monumental, the discarded and the valued, engaging with themes of class and hierarchical classification.?
All of these artists belong to various threads of English fine art traditions. Peter Ackroyd(4), pointed to ‘a tendency to understatement,’ as being an essential feature of English Art, this tendency being the result not of a failure of nerve, but rather a certain quality of self reflection, an attitude born of a still resonant poetic tradition that is inescapable for an island of children still educated to revere Shakespeare as the measure of how an artist can speak to the human condition.
The Shakespearian narrative will at some point touch that of William Blake’s oeuvre which welded the visual to the word and Virginia Woolf’s ‘To the Lighthouse’ a key Feminist statement that located the English imagination within early Modernism and eventually as the 20th century unfolded the visual arts in England came to be also ‘characterized by a fundamental concern with material culture’ a concern, perceived by many as ‘a post-imperial cultural anxiety’,(5) and by others, including the Leeds based Griselda Pollock, who’s ‘Vision and Difference’ highlighted the role of feminist perspectives, as coming to terms with post-patriarchal imperialism(6).

Within this historical and cultural milieu the practice of art continues, these artists are attuned to how their approaches to making are informed by contemporary debates in painting, sculpture, installation and the expanded field of relational and other arts practices. However, each of these English artists has taken advantage of what can only be described as an allowance for eccentricity or a suspicion of easy answers or the need to follow a fad. They have carved unique territories within their various disciplines and position themselves both within a global context and a local one.
Pevsner(7) noted a detachment and self-effacement among English artists and an understated but often quirky intelligence. This exhibition offers a San Francisco audience an opportunity to assess if this is still the case and to see if George Bernard Shaw’s often quoted aphorism that "We are two countries separated by a common language," still stands.
1.Christopher Bollas, The Mystery of Things (London, Routledge, 1999),p 152
2.Bradford Museums and Galleries Cliffe Castle Museum was originally the spectacular mansion of the local Yorkshire Victorian millionaire and textile manufacturer, Henry Isaac Butterfield. It stands in attractive hillside grounds with greenhouses a garden centre, aviaries and a children’s play area.The house is now a large museum with a wide variety of displays which all have relevance to the locale. These include an array of glittering minerals, local rocks and fossils (including a 2m long fossil amphibian), mounted birds and local mammals, original furnished rooms with chandeliers, William Morris stained glass, old dolls, toys and domestic items and a programme of temporary exhibitions.

3.Bamford, K (2009) Catalogue text to accompany ‘Others’ exhibition 19th September 2009 – 10th January 2010. Cliffe Castle Museum, Keighley

4.Ackroyd, P. (2002) Albion: The Origins of the English Imagination, London: Chatto & Windus

5.Barringer, T. J.; Quilley, Geoff; Fordham, Douglas (2007), Art and the British Empire, Manchester: Manchester University Press

6.Pollock, G (2003) Vision and Difference: Feminism, Femininity and the Histories of Art London: Routledge

7.Pevsner, N (1955) The Englishness of English Art London: The Architectural Press

Local Imagination