Recently, while sitting in a Leeds café, I overheard two young men discussing in somewhat risqué terms the provocative shape and girth of some oversized vegetables, and realised that they were discussing Jonathan Trayte’s work in Polyculture, currently on show at The Tetley. Ironically, it is the work in the gallery’s parallel exhibition, Lovers and Romances, a retrospective of Stass Paraskos’ figurative painting, which were at the centre of a censorship scandal in 1966. At the time, two schoolgirls were reported by a zealous constable to have been giggling at the allegedly obscene paintings. Fifty years on, Trayte’s giant vegetable sculptures (in the eye of some beholders at least), carry the greater sexual charge.
Paraskos was the last person ever to be charged under the 1838 Vagrancy Act which had notoriously been used against the author D. H. Lawrence. Lovers and Romances shares its title with the exhibition held at Leeds College of Art in 1966, which resulted in Paraskos’ prosecution, and it presents the offending paintings alongside other works by the artist and some fascinating archival material relating to this rather parochial case, marking its 50th anniversary. Paraskos’ case was supported by a number of prominent witnesses, including Herbert Read, Norbert Lynton and Quentin Bell, a testament to the intellectual standing of Leeds College of Art (later absorbed into Leeds Polytechnic) at this point in its history. Five years later, writing in the Guardian in 1971, Patrick Heron described Leeds as the most influential art school in Europe since the Bauhaus.
Paraskos’ double portrait, Carol and Robin Page, evokes another, lesser known aspect of Leeds College of Art’s history. Robin Page was a Canadian artist who taught at Leeds from 1965 to 1970 and, as a significant player in the Fluxus movement, brought artists such as George Brecht, Robert Filliou and Yoko Ono to Leeds. The resulting culture of anarchic performance became central to the radical reputation of Leeds College of Art in the late 1960s and 1970s.
Paraskos was not himself a radical figure, despite the notoriety surrounding these particular works. His paintings have a naive charm, influenced by Gauguin, Matisse and Fauvism, but do little to test any real boundaries of either painterly form or erotic content. Their supposedly scandalous nature was somewhat exaggerated; indeed, it seems only one police constable and three magistrates constituted the offended parties. The Director of Public Prosecutions advised Leeds city police against bringing the case to court, arguing that, “it would be absurd to have recourse to the criminal law in a matter of this kind”. Referring to the slow and rather ponderous response of the Leeds authorities, the DPP observed to the Chief Constable that, “the whole matter is now somewhat stale and therefore liable to criticism in that respect”. The same might be said of the Paraskos paintings, despite his defenders’ claims for their lyricism. The real interest in this exhibition lies not in the work itself but in its documentation of the misplaced and narrow-minded reaction to his work.
Polyculture presents an extensive and formidable body of Trayte’s work, in terms of both quantity and scale. With a large number of pieces made specifically for this exhibition, it demonstrates the artist’s full range of techniques and processes, from cast concrete and painted bronze to installation, photography and video. Combining a thought-provoking critique of the food industry with visually playful juxtapositions and a deadpan verbal wit (evident in the work’s titles), Trayte’s work exuberantly asserts itself in the space, providing a heady mix of colour and form.
The term ‘polyculture’ refers to the simultaneous cultivation or exploitation of multiple crops. Its use as a title for Trayte’s solo exhibition goes beyond this agricultural reference with allusion to the diversity of mediums, categories and methods of production in contemporary art practice. Jonathan Trayte makes work in an art context that overlaps with both functional design and traditional craft skills. There is, as my anecdotal introduction suggested, some comic potential in his voluptuous, super-sized vegetables (surprisingly, many of them are 1:1 casts of actual prize-winning specimens). Their glossy, luridly coloured surfaces recall the playfulness of pop art – Claes Oldenburg for example – but they also convey Trayte’s concern with the complex socio-economic relations of industrialised and globalised food production and marketing.
The evident quality of these two parallel exhibitions marks a new stage in the development of the Tetley as a significant venue for contemporary art in the north, with Bryony Bond as its new Creative Director. While the former Tetley Brewery headquarters is not always well suited to its gallery function, Polyculture in particular demonstrates its potential as a unique and stimulating space, optimising both its central open space and series of small, oak-panelled rooms. Lovers and Romances and Polyculture have no direct or obvious connection, but their juxtaposition invites audiences to make subtle associations. A mutual interest in the energy inherent in richly decorative colour, a shared delight in the sensuous and voluptuous qualities of natural form, and an implicit or explicit eroticism, all suggest a stronger connection between Paraskos and Trayte than first impressions might suggest.
Jonathan Trayte: Polyculture and Stass Paraskos: Lovers and Romances are on at The Tetley, Leeds, until 9 October 2016.
Images: Installation view, Jonathan Trayte: Polyculture. Photo: Julian Lister.
Derek Horton © 2016