Blackpool Illuminations and the town’s long tradition of entertainment, illusion and escapism form the backdrop and the context for A Trick of the Light, which brings together artworks that use light to transform perceptions and trick the eye by Brass Art, Mat Collishaw, Rachel Goodyear, Helen Maurer, Tim Noble and Sue Webster.
Rachel Goodyear is known for her often dark and dreamlike works on paper, but the most compelling works here are her mischievous but charming digitally animated ‘Dancing Devils’ (2011) frolicking on their tree stump, and the looped hand-drawn animation ‘Hypnotist (Octopus)’ (2013). Situated at the exhibition’s entrance, the hypnotic movement of Goodyear’s octopus provides a visual echo of the opening and closing flowers in Mat Collishaw’s ‘The Centrifugal Soul’ (2016) in the exhibition’s furthest room, even though the levels of technological complexity involved in creating their respective illusions are so different.
Using light and glass Helen Maurer creates dreamlike scenes evoking Victorian magic lantern shows, and despite relying on overhead projectors, hers are the works that, in atmosphere at least, seem most connected to the context provided by the exhibition’s display of items on loan from the University of Exeter’s Bill Douglas Cinema Museum. There is a sentimental quality to Maurer’s imaginary land and seascapes, especially in ‘Cave Painting’ (2003), that is reminiscent of coloured illustrations in Edwardian children’s books enlarged to an immersive scale. Miniature glass models and other fragments of coloured glass placed on an overhead projector create a life-size projected image of the scene on the wall, and perhaps the most interesting aspect of these works is the visual discrepancy between the fragmented elements on the projector bed and the coherent pictorial image they produce.
A similar discrepancy is at work in more sophisticated form in the now very familiar technique that Tim Noble and Sue Webster have frequently adopted in their assemblages of random objects, skilfully constructed so as to enable a precisely directed light source to cast a shadow resembling not the objects themselves but a detailed and elegant image of something identifiable, frequently, as here, their own double self-portrait. Rather than the scrap metal, rubbish, piles of clothing or even taxidermy animals and sex toys that they have often used in this process of transforming the abstract to the figurative, in ‘The Masterpiece’ (2014) their shadow self-portrait results from an apparently abstract sculpture. On closer inspection the sculpture is a disturbing menagerie of dead vermin they collected, cast in solid sterling silver and welded together into a ball. Despite the conceptual sophistry and the remarkable spatial awareness involved in the skilful manipulation of a solid form to cast the resultant shadow image, here the silver sculptural object in itself might be more arresting and intriguing for some viewers than the shadow-play it generates.
In a theatrically darkened space the lights slowly come up on a garishly coloured construction, tiered like a giant wedding cake with alternating layers of flowers and birds. Static at first, the lights dim, the sculpture begins to turn, rapidly accelerating as the lights strobe in the darkness. Bowerbirds spread their wings, flowers open and close their petals, and hummingbirds suck on the pollen. In a few moments the birds slow their dance and the room returns to darkness before the whole cycle begins again, endlessly. This is Mat Collishaw’s ‘The Centrifugal Soul’ (2016), a triumph of glitzy, big-budget art-making spectacle that uses sophisticated technology in a contemporary version of a zoetrope. It has been shown previously, but probably nowhere better suited than here, within a short distance of Blackpool’s Golden Mile. Less spectacular, but arguably more resonant with metaphorical significance, is Collishaw’s ‘Albion (Model)’ (2017), a maquette for a larger work, again using modern technology to recreate Victorian illusions, this time based on the principles of Pepper’s Ghost, a technique devised by the scientist J H Pepper in 1862 and widely used in fairgrounds, carnival sideshows and theatrical extravaganzas. This ghostly apparition of the Major Oak in Sherwood Forest presents a negative image on a glass plate of the giant tree shimmering in the darkness. Move around it though, and the proud English oak disappears—truly a metaphor for our times and one that Collishaw has explicitly claimed as a portrait of England.
Brass Art utilise a shifting combination of analogue and digital technologies to insert themselves (though not immediately identifiable or recognisable as such), performatively, into diverse real and imagined spaces, including in this exhibition Sigmund Freud’s house (‘Freud’s House: The Double’, (2015)), the air above suburban Manchester (‘Out of Thin Air’, (2006)), and Blackpool itself in ‘Still Life No.3′ (2019), a work made specifically for this show. Like Collishaw’s ‘The Centrifugal Soul’, Brass Art’s ‘Still Life’ is a large, immersive work occupying its own darkened room and involving rotational movement; unlike it though, and none the worse for it, the technology on which it depends is simple and immediately understood, and its visual impact is contemplative and slow rather than deceiving the eye by flickering rapidity. A 3D-printed model of Blackpool Tower dominates a circular table that contains other architectural structures, smaller versions of Blackpool Tower modelled on gift shop souvenirs, statuesque female figures, rearing horses and wave-like forms. Around this a single light slowly rotates, casting ever-changing shadows on all four walls of the room, creating a dreamlike scene that simultaneously evokes ‘real’ and entirely imaginary places and experiences. As in all of their work, the three artists who comprise Brass Art (Chara Lewis, Kristin Mojsiewicz and Anneke Pettican) are both present and absent. And, through this particular trick of the light, they remind us clearly that we are in Blackpool whilst also fleetingly transporting us to some other shadowy place of capricious castles in the air.
A Trick of the Light, Grundy Art Gallery, Blackpool.
28 September – 14 December 2019.
Derek Horton © 2019.