Leonora Carrington / Lucy Skaer

At the age of 18, Leonora Carrington (1917-2011) left her bourgeois Lancashire upbringing behind to study art in London, before moving to France with Max Ernst. She later fled to Spain to escape the Nazi invasion, then to New York in the early 1940s, and finally Mexico City, where she spent the remainder of her long life. Throughout these dramatic changes in circumstance she produced a body of artistic and literary work that is remarkably consistent in its imagery, symbolism and magic realism. This exhibition includes two paintings she made as a young student in 1935, Hyena in Hyde Park and Still Life with Creature, which provide evidence of the surreal sensibility that informed all of her subsequent work. The goblin that lurks in the corner of one of these otherwise innocuous art school exercises bears an uncanny resemblance to the spiky haired, spindly-fingered creature found in an untitled drawing produced late in the artist’s life.

This exhibition, curated by Leeds College of Art Curatorial & Exhibitions Manager, Catriona McAra, examines Carrington’s oeuvre through the work of others who have learned from and been inspired by her: Lucy Skaer, Samantha Sweeting and Lynn Lu; and less directly, Viktor Wynd and Chloe Aridjis. McAra’s research background in Surrealism, feminism, and the interconnectedness of art and literature, features strongly here, as she weaves together thematic, historical and biographical strands. Skaer, for example, has spoken of Carrington’s ongoing practice of Surrealism as a strategy of living by the irrational, hence using her presence in her work to disrupt her own rationality. Her works are not intended as portraits of Carrington, but rather a means for the artist to examine her own practice through that of another – to find herself through finding Carrington.

Skaer’s short film, Leonora (The Joker), documenting her unannounced trip to Mexico to visit Carrington in 2006, is a mysteriously mute portrait. Gesturing on a tabletop, the wrinkled and prominently veined hands of the then 89-year-old artist dominate, along with a row of coloured plastic clothes pegs on a line; fragmentary glimpses that invite and elude interpretation. The endless looping of Skaer’s film reflects the constant flow of imaginative activity through Carrington’s long life and its continuing currency and significance for younger generations of artists. Carrington died in 2011 and Skaer returned to Mexico to photograph the exterior of her house. These photographs, veiled beneath screenprinted layers of translucent grey geometric shapes, form the series Harlequin Is As Harlequin Does. Their whitewashed tree trunks resemble the limbs and hooves of horses or other creatures, echoing the persistence of animal imagery throughout Carrington’s career.

This is an intimate exhibition of primarily small works. Its impact, however, is significant, and some of the most powerful and memorable images are found in Carrington’s small-scale drawings. Horses and dogs, cats and rats, badgers and crocodiles, snakes and geese – fantastical creatures that blur categorical distinctions between different animals, the animal and the human, and gender – all are exquisitely rendered in deft and deceptively simple line drawings and etchings. Witchcraft, magic and the occult are recurring themes that challenge the male-dominated Surrealist movement and its historical legacy. As Marina Warner writes in the catalogue, Carrington ‘returns again and again with a kind of voluptuous attraction and repulsion to animal warmth, pelts, lairs and dens’. A mysterious trio of etchings featuring a badger at a séance is made even more strange by the fact that Carrington was evoking this archetypal British creature after decades spent in Mexico.

Two photographs by the Mexican novelist Chloe Aridjis show Carrington’s cat on her kitchen table, surrounded by kitchen implements and their distorted shadows. These photographs poignantly connect an intimate domestic scene with the surreal spaces of imagination. We see this cat in relation to the rat-like cat of a 1995 drawing by Carrington, and the kitchen table in relation to a levitating table in her badger etchings. Lynn Lu and Samantha Sweeting’s The Hearing Trumpet (also the title of a 1974 novella by Carrington), is another quiet intervention. The aural equivalent of looking through the wrong end of a telescope, you put your ear to the trumpet’s mouthpiece to hear whispered confessional accounts of intimate misdemeanors.

McAra has filled an unpromising space with a sumptuous array of work, creating an elegant web of associations that provides compelling insights into Carrington and her influence. In bringing together her work with a range of recent works by women artists, McAra’s achievement is not only to demonstrate Carrington’s continued relevance, but also to reframe Carrington’s career in contemporary terms.

Leonora Carrington / Lucy Skaer, Curated by Catriona McAra, is on at Leeds College of Art until 2 September 2016.

Derek Horton © 2016

Images: Lucy Skaer, still from Leonora (The Joker), 2006 (photo by Derek Horton); Installation view (photo by Derek Horton); Lucy Skaer, screenprinted photographs from the series Harlequin Is As Harlequin Does, 2011 (photo by Ian Hinchcliffe);