Contemporary painter Mark Fairnington is celebrated for his interrogations of the ways in which natural history collection specimens are organised and interpreted. His work is often hyper-realistic with a twist of the surreal, giving us intensified ways of seeing other creatures and subtly questioning the cultural attitudes involved.
His flair, sincerity and wry intelligence in this would have struck a chord two centuries earlier with acclaimed Northumbrian artist-naturalist Thomas Bewick, at whose birthplace (Cherryburn, run by the National Trust on the banks of the Tyne) this latest exhibition is installed.
Walking, Looking and Telling Tales was commissioned as part of the project ‘Mapping Contemporary Art in the Heritage Experience’ (see Corridor8’s review of an earlier component here).
On a single wall in the restored buildings we find eighteen intense miniature oil paintings, sampling today the natural environments from Bewick’s world, and a few of the local characters he immortalised.
Fairnington is an ideal choice for this sharp homage. Both he and Bewick studied museum specimens as source material, and both based studio work on copious field notes and sketches. Both have worked with painstaking build-ups of micro-markings to compose their images. Both also infuse these practices with whimsical narratives of local life, encountered on extensive walks. Indeed, given the way it has been compiled, it is possible to think of the present work not only as a production of paintings but also as an instance of contemporary ‘walking art’ practices (as espoused for example by WAN and WALK).
The compressed experience of viewing the paintings all in one small compass gives a sense of a single curated story, and of how single ‘specimen’ examples can convey more than a systematic survey would do. The fine-resolution ‘hand-held’ scale (inviting further parallels with today’s pocket digital devices), and the deep chunky frames, echo Bewick’s printing woodblocks and the glass-topped boxes of museum specimens. The wall itself is a timbered grid, and the viewer then begins to notice grid shapes in the compositions themselves, as if each is made up of tiny sub-compositions, each with its own perfect sculptural geometry. The photo-realistic renderings of rushing water are particularly uncanny, and something in the varnish gives each tiny scene a keen luminosity.
These factors (of geometric emphasis and the play of light) elevate the work beyond merely brilliant technical documenting. The hyper-realism, however, is also wholly eclipsed by a more important factor of authenticity – which, as with Bewick, admits authentic speculation as well as authentic witnessing, and is rooted in Fairnington’s prodigious hours of direct contact (through walking and talking) with the riversides, trees, wildlife, residents and eccentric travellers he encountered in this highly particular place.
The installation is therefore not only a response to Bewick and to Cherryburn, but to the natural environments and the people that were the bedrock of both. Whether one reacts by picking up a finer brush or going for a walk with eyes and ears more keenly open, one can’t help feeling that Bewick himself would approve.
Dave Pritchard is an independent consultant based in Northumberland.