Transitions (October 12, 2013)
‘Change can only be proportionate to the amount of force which is put into it’
(J G Bennett, Concern for the Future (March 15, 1972)).
On Saturday October 12, 2013, I gave the opening speech at the Transitions exhibition of works by former MA students from the School of Art, Aberystwyth University. It was held at the newly founded Gas Gallery/Oriel Nwy, Aberystwyth.
In Tahiti, around 1897, the Post-Impressionist Paul Gauguin painted what was arguably his masterpiece: a reflection on the nature of life, entitled Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going? This is a painting about transition: the passage of humanity from its ancestry to its destiny. The title is often misremembered as ‘Where do we come from? Where are we? Where are we going?’ However, the central question is not a ‘where’ but a ‘what’: ‘What are we? The title implies that what or who we are presently has been shaped by our past. For artists, as for the rest of us, understanding our origins and current identity, and creatively acting upon that knowledge, is indispensable to determining our future prospects.
The artists in this exhibition are, like all of us, in transit: passing from where and what they were, through the connecting corridor of what they are now, and onwards. As such, their works represent an interim statement about their sense of self and commitments, artistically speaking. Where have they come from? Most immediately, from the School of Art, Aberystwyth University, and a BA and MA Fine Art program. From an art education that has taught them self-discipline, skills in relation to medium, a practice in relation to its history, the values of responsible professionalism, and, above all, that these things are meaningless and dross without also the resolve to nurture an authentic ‘voice’. What are these exhibiters? They’re among the most conscientious and serious-minded former postgraduate students that I’ve ever had the pleasure of teaching: practitioners – fiercely independent and self-sufficient – whose individualism is unalloyed by naked egoism. And that’s a characteristic to be prized these days.
And what about their work? Like their makers, it reflects, in very different ways, the process of transition. Steve Chilton’s paintings move between the material and the spiritual, the outer and the inner. Becky Backshall’s canvases evoke a world that modulates from one state of form to another. Pete Monaghan’s work shifts to and fro between pigment and description, abstract mark and figuration. Ben Partridge’s video pieces crisscross from past to present, and convert old technologies and mediums into new ones. While Kim James-William’s roving eye makes it’s own journey, traversing and mapping the particulars of a given space or scene. And, let’s not forget the exhibition’s curator, Jen Loffman, who has ably brought to heel this motley band of prickly prima donnas.
Where are they going? Probably far – everyone of them – and on their own terms. They’re already on the way, as this exhibition demonstrates. At this point in time, each is negotiating the most difficult transition of their career: the movement from art student to artist. Although, they’ll never quite stop being the former: they are life-long learners; education has become a habit of mind. They’ll never fully understand the meaning of the latter. (And neither will I, for that matter.)
Gauguin vowed that, on completing his masterpiece, he’d commit suicide. I cannot commend to you his example as a sound career strategy. In reality, he died of heart disease and syphilis, alone, penniless, and in obscurity. Which is not what any aspiring artist really wants to hear, is it. But you exhibitors will die healthy, popular, rich, and famous! (There’ll be times when delusional thinking of this sort is the only thing that’ll keep you going.) What I can commend, however, is this exhibition to you all, as an enterprise worthy or your support, encouragement, and praise.