Trauma at GV Art

Filed in Reviews by on December 2, 2011

Trauma

GV Art

1 December 2011 to 8 February 2012

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The last time I was at GV Art’s gallery in Chiltern Street, the entrance was in near darkness so as to facilitate the subtle illumination required by Ken and Julia Yonetani’s representation in sugar of a coral reef from their recent exhibition, Sense of Taste. This time the gallery was brightly – perhaps even clinically – lit, which felt highly appropriate given the theme that ran through this group exhibition: Trauma in all its manifestations and effects. GV Art is unusual in that it specifically sets out to explore the nexus between fine art and science. But this exhibition is no mere museum exhibit transported to a gallery; there is a very strong aesthetic at work as well as a great deal of scientific discovery and knowledge. Understanding of the processes and organisms that cause physical harm to us may be a dominant theme of the exhibition, but the other aspects of trauma – psychological and emotional – are not neglected.

This is a group show and the two main traps that frequently ensnare curators of such exhibitions are skillfully avoided here. Often there can be a lack of cohesion when presenting the work of many artists side by side; not here though – the whole manages to be greater than the sum of the parts, a sign of outstanding curation. And sometimes the theme of a group exhibition, however the curator imagines it, is almost inevitably subverted to a certain extent by some of the pieces on display so that one feels that the theme is being stretched to fit the work. Again, not here.

It is impossible in a review like this to mention every work and every artist so I can only say what stood out the most for me.

Susan Aldworth’s images use lenticular lenses, so that their appearance changes significantly but gradually with the viewer’s movement, which is both arresting and disturbing. While they were undoubtedly beautiful and powerful, I found that they caused some mild sensory and emotional confusion, not unlike that caused by some of Bridget Riley’s early op art although that is where the similarity ends. This is an effect that is actually extremely apt given that these pieces are intended to convey an idea of the trauma caused by epileptic seizures.

Downstairs, Luke Jerram’s sculptures faithfully articulate the cellular structures of various microorganisms which cause disease and death, elaborately and skilfully rendered in glass, the most fragile and unforgiving of materials. They are truly beautiful and extraordinary objects and while their aesthetic value is not sullied or compromised by the nature and life-shattering effectof the pathogens they represent, it is inevitably coloured by it. The fragility of the enlarged glass structures and the virulence of the microscopic organisms they depict make a jarring and ironic contrast.

For me, however, the highlight of the exhibition was a small group of prints of self-portraits made by the late William Utermohlen, chronicling the decline in his final years as a consequence of Alzheimer’s disease. The self-portrait is perhaps the most personal of artistic statements, frequently perceived as a veritable outpouring from the artist’s soul and psyche direct to the viewer. These self-portraits are incredibly powerful both as art and as documentary of the effects of Alzheimer’s on Utermohlen’s mind, eye and hand. The artist’s mature style was expressionistic, characterised by a boldness of line and strong use of primary colours, and the extent to which these features are retained in his last self-portraits is both exceptionally striking and profoundly affecting. We see the artist’s faculties, his conscious self and the physical powers that made him an artist slowly slipping away. But what remains after the painterly skills have virtually vanished is something even more primal and intensely moving, offering us an insight not just into the ultimate trauma of decline and death but into the essence of what it is to be human and what it is to be an artist.

 

 

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John Kavanagh

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John Francis Kavanagh is the founder and editor of Artists Insight.

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