The works of both Margaret Harrison and Conrad Atkinson have an immediate impact; often employing techniques, materials and imagery that have been combined to shock, and in this they have been successful. In Late and Soon: The Works of Margaret Harrison and Conrad Atkinson at Cross Lane Projects, Kendal, their work is exhibited together for the first time, having been produced over several decades from their shared studio and shared life as a couple. Through this curatorial scheme and gesture the interplay between the two artist’s ideas and political convictions bubbles to the fore, as well as the way their pedagogical practices and regional art school beginnings weave through over forty years of making. Works spanning this entire period are on display, drawing out interesting questions and realisations around the way visual culture and our individual relation to images has evolved since Harrison’s ‘He’s Only A Bunny Boy But He’s Quite Nice Really’ (1971/2011) lead to her first solo exhibition being closed down by the police on account of its ‘indecency’. Framed works on paper by each artist are clustered together on the gallery’s white walls, with sculptural works by Atkinson running through the centre of the space, most conspicuously ‘Equals’ (1992) which consists of a brightly patterned carpet catwalk and mannequins in adapted and dishevelled formal clothing. While each of the works shown here can be considered in isolation, with their richly layered references, loosely collaged and sketched aesthetic, and cheeky but deadly serious provocations, what elevates this exhibition in particular is the foregrounding of historical and economic context. The two artist’s practices are historicised, but the humane tenderness of Harrison’s choice to exhibit hers and Atkinson’s work together so soon after his passing in 2022 adds an affecting dimension.
For this review Corridor8 Director Lauren Velvick is in conversation with her mum, Bernie Velvick, a community and participatory artist based in Preston whose personal experiences of attending art school as a mature student, consciousness raising, and bereavement are brought to bear on a secluded but compelling exhibition.
Lauren Velvick: I hadn’t initially realised that the gallery reproduced interviews with Harrison and Atkinson in the catalogue, and maybe that’s a good place to start. When we visited, I thought it was interesting how they had displayed the films of interviews with Harrison as an integral part of the exhibition, alongside other work. Which makes it appropriate to discuss that material alongside the work.
Bernie Velvick: Yes, bringing in these threads to do with context and education. I hope lots of current students go and see it, because it was a really good show in terms of starting that conversation about context. Because, and I did my degree in the 90s, it wasn’t always an obvious question or point, and it was more those of us who were looking at feminist art that were talking about context, and not just making assumptions. Subjectivity and objectivity, those were the things we were questioning and exploring at that time.
LV: If we could talk a bit about the way this exhibition foregrounds the explicit feminism of their practices, I also thought there was a representation of or a grasp of intersectionality.
BV: It stood up as really contemporary, and I was surprised that I hadn’t come across Margaret Harrison when I was studying. But she did mention working with Mary Kelly who I was looking at around that time. I was really interested in the interview when she was talking about making the drawings [that were exhibited in Harrison’s solo exhibition in London in 1971]. I think I would have found them quite challenging when I was first exploring feminist art practice and ideas of producing art as a feminist artist, but then she spoke about recognising that she needed to find new ways to do things and represent her ideas. Also, the economic situation [in the 1970s and 1980s], and those artists realising that it wasn’t going to be about trying to sell art; how that freed them to explore things in a completely different way. That’s where the fact that they are both educators comes in, because that’s one way artists make a living so they can make the work they want to make because they’re not chasing a market.
LV: Considering how it’s the season of Degree Shows at the moment, and how it’s also been a long season of strikes, I thought this show and the extra bits of information around it clarified something; whereby art schools employ artists who can then rent studios and make work, these are all the people and all the work that goes on to create the critical mass and a scene. I do enjoy shows like this that have complexity and ambiguity but also lay out quite a clear ethics. I was pleasantly surprised because these sorts of images featuring superheroes or celebrities in ‘edgy scenarios’ are something quite familiar in visual culture, like an edited photo of the queen with tattoos, things like that.
LV: Yes, I was expecting to roll my eyes, but then I actually enjoyed the playfulness? Or more specifically, knowing playfulness? A kind of self contextualisation.
BV: A kind of ‘not preciousness’ about it, and that’s what I got from Conrad Atkinson’s work. So the ceramic landmines [‘Mining Culture’ (1996) and ‘Landmines’ (1999)] and the Ruby Slippers [‘The Wicked Proposition of the World’ (1995)] made me smile. Well, didn’t make me smile, but in terms of how good it was to see that work and then read more about it afterwards, to realise I’d ‘got it’ anyway, just from the work.
In one of the interviews [that are reproduced in the exhibition catalogue] Atkinson is being asked whether the [landmine] works are ‘self sustaining’ or is the context always part of it, and his answer was very ambiguous, and very much an educator’s answer: yes and what do you think? It wasn’t a proselytizing show, it was a ‘well what do you think about this?’. Let’s put Wordsworth’s words and those of his sister together in a picture, and what do you think? *laughs* So it was delightful in that sense.
LV: That’s a really good way to explain something I was trying to get to but from a different direction, thinking about the work in terms of art history, but coming at it instead from the angle of direct engagement with the visitor; a sort of irreverent acknowledgement that once you’ve created an artwork and it’s on public display it really isn’t up to you how people interpret it and you have to renounce that control.
BV: This goes back to that objectivity and subjectivity dichotomy, and I like when I’m in a show where I feel like I’m allowed to move about, and that was a nice thing about those two’s work being shown together for the first time. Their works seemed to bounce off each other, it was interesting to see that one will have been made at a similar time to another [for example, ‘Marilyn is Dead! (1994-98) by Harrison and ‘Equals’ (1992) by Atkinson] and enjoy those little crossovers.
LV: There’s something around subjectivity, or the acknowledgement of subjectivity, as an integral component of this work rather than being incidental to it. You’d mentioned that when you were studying in the 1990s…
BV: I was in my thirties then, so I wasn’t an eighteen-year-old. I was studying as a mature student.
LV: The way these ideas have developed and become commonplace in art education. How new did those ideas feel to you when you were studying? With Harrison and Atkinson they studied together in Carlisle in the 1960s and 1970s.
BV: Yeah, so their first shows were in the early 1970s; the one that got closed down with the bunny boy!
LV: I always think of 1970s humour as being really bawdy, but… it has to be sexist though! *laughs*
BV: Oh god yeah you can’t have men being represented like that! Oh no! *laughs*
When I did my degree, I was lucky in the sense that there were women lecturers, so I didn’t have to battle too hard to be able to explore what I was interested in, and the male lecturers were reasonably open. I was exploring a lot of the theoretical ideas behind feminist theory at the time; semiotics, language development and things like that. Something I recognised in this show was remembering writing about feminist artists using words in their work as a way of disrupting the male gaze. It was really interesting seeing that Conrad Atkinson was doing that as well, around that time, and that was a thread that I could relate to. If you put written language in a picture you’re forcing people to use a different part of their brain so it’s a physical way of making that subjectivity more… noticeable?
BV: Yeah, it changes something physically, and if you’ve got pictorial images and written language you’ve got to bounce back and forth.
LV: With that thought, what about the way that global issues, and people of other races and nationalities, and the way different national struggles were represented, not in all but in some of the works? Here, even though they’re including some imagery of violence and people in distress…
BV: Some quite famous media images…
LV: …images that have already been distributed loads and loads. Considering this in context of our present moment and reliance on social platforms where disturbing and unwelcome imagery can be distributed very widely and easily, got me thinking about how the overwhelming abundance of images expanded massively during the decades while these two artists have been practicing.
BV: Access to images is so much easier now. Even when I was doing my degree you had to get a book… did we have the internet in the 90s? I can’t remember…it happened between…
LV: 1995 and 2000?
BV: Yeah and so I finished in 1994, and at that point if you wanted an image or some information but a book hadn’t been published with it in, you were stuck. The immediacy that we have now is so very different. When was the wallpaper piece by Harrison made?
LV: I’ll have to check [‘Power, Pain And Pleasure’ (2019)], it’s difficult to remember and place because often works that turned out to be made in different decades didn’t seem all that far apart? Relating back to this idea of historicising and contextualising, certainly the attitude I took into the exhibition with me was undercut. I was expecting somebody to try and shock me and to already be bored of it, and then instead found myself thinking a bit more carefully and gently about how these images would have functioned in the context they were produced, and why they were produced.
BV: In seeing the earlier drawings and hearing Harrison speak about them, there was definitely a naivety in her production then – not realising or expecting that people would be so very shocked. We’re not shocked by them now.
LV: You can do violence with images now in a way that you couldn’t then, and how has that affected how we can take in and process images in general?
BV: Almost like we have to protect ourselves in a way that we didn’t in the early 90s because you had to seek it out. That’s interesting to think about in relation to the landmines and the imagery depicted on them; just exploring the meaning of these recognisable images in the context of a ceramic landmine that’s really beautiful was so thought provoking.
LV: Something I wanted to make sure we covered before we wrap up was the fact that the two artists were a married couple and this is the first time their work has been shown together.
BV: Together for a long time!
LV: Having met in art college, which is relevant in terms of the importance of pedagogy in their practices, I wanted to get your thoughts on this as a curatorial idea. In one of the interviews, Harrison described how they hadn’t shown together because there were times when each would have overshadowed the other…
BV: I had a very personal response to that having experienced it myself; finding out that Conrad Atkinson died only a year or so ago, it felt very natural to me that Harrison would want to do this as a kind of acknowledgement of reality and of this very long relationship. It touched my heart a little and I felt privileged to experience the interaction between the two bodies of work, especially considering it was the first time it had been done.
Again, this is one of the reasons I hope that students at the art schools within reasonable distance of Kendal come and see this exhibition; it can spark off in a lot of different directions, and there’s work dealing with ideas that it’s good to remember aren’t new but might be more accessible now.
Late And Soon: The Works of Margaret Harrison and Conrad Atkinson, Cross Lane Projects, Kendal, 20 May – 24 June 2023.
Bernie Velvick is a community and participatory artist based in Preston who facilitates a peer support led artists drawing and creative practice project.
Lauren Velvick is a Director of Corridor8 and Cultural Programme Manager for the School of Arts and Humanities, University of Huddersfield.