Wednesday, 17 April 2019

Artistic Inspiration Across the Centuries; the Supernatural Knows no Bounds

Most artists will have a visual image that proves to be inordinately influential to them…. This is mine. 

This is one of the most curious creatures that I have ever seen - possibly because of the lack of recognisable face - but I can imagine a personality. 

I am confused and intrigued in equal measure. 
Although the creature is like nothing I’ve ever seen before, I’m neither repulsed nor afraid.

For a long time now I have asked myself, “What makes a creature a creature? What do you have to include in a 3D work to suggest a living being; something with anthropomorphic qualities?”  

This continues to be a recurring theme in my art practice. 

This small wax and sponge creature with a single doll's eye was made well before
Minions ever hit the screens. He featured in my video piece Trolley Happenings 2010.

I take my inspirations from many aspects of human life…. I’m fascinated by people, their personalities, interests and stories of their lives, and I’m also exceedingly inspired by places and the stories/folklore associated with them. 

The stories that I weave from these inspirations are at the heart of my art practice.

Deep Space Moolog my most recent multi-media installation was initially inspired by Cresswell Crags and the ancient cave drawings found there. Creswell Crags has been in the news again recently as markings on another of the caves have now been revealed to be 17th and 18th century Witches Marks.

My interest in this discovery was especially piqued because of the confusion over the origin and meaning of these markings; what were once believed to have been Victorian graffiti have now been verified as being marks to ward off evil spirits and stop them coming from The Underworld. Plus I am thinking about those people who journeyed to the cave and spent time there to make these marks; they had to overcome their fear of evil spirits just long enough to be able to carve their individual mark into the limestone rock. And lastly I wonder (just a little) about what sort of creatures witches or otherwise might have been part of this ancient world. 

Over the years my own living room shelves have played host to a range of arrangements of curious creatures, rocks, coral and mementoes from travels and experiences. A current ceramic selection includes Nessie (in miniature whiskey bottle form) as well as a crosseyed deer vase and squirrel handled cream jugs. 

A recent TV programme investigating the history of a house in Newcastle upon Tyne charted the story of the house through the lives of the various owners over the years. When the programme came to Joshua Alder (1792-1867) I was fascinated in particular because of the two very different occupations of his life; first as a cheesemonger and then in his later years becoming known and respected as one of the 19th century’s most important marine naturists and a founder member of the Natural History Society. His specialism was Nudibranchiate Mollusca (Sea slugs) and he travelled all over Britain collecting specimens. 

How could I not be interested in Joshua Alder… firstly as I myself was a cheesemonger in my mid 20’s - (as mentioned before in a previous blog post) 

Plus, look at Alder’s illustrations of Sea Slugs! These beautiful curious creatures; with sculptural forms, no obvious faces and strange frilly protuberances. What’s not to love!

Inspirations come along when you can make new sense of them and weave them into a new creative form that works within your particular art practice

The word Cryptozoology is new to me; it is a pseudoscience and subculture that attempts to prove the existence of creatures from the folklore record, such as Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster - it is neither a branch of zoology nor folkloristics. Cryptozoology is a relatively modern label which I stumbled across not long after reading a fascinating Wellcome Collection essay about Ulisse Aldrovandi the famous 17th Century Natural Sciences professor at the university of Bologna. Pouring over his illustrations of inexplicable creatures in his Monstrorum historia I pondered on my thoughts and questions about inexplicable creatures. In particular allowing myself to be unconstrained by 21st Century rationalism and entertain the fanciful notion that these creatures really could exist... 

The feathered monk and a child with multiple puppies heads; illustrations from Aldrovandi's Monstrorum Historia
I have found that by taking a non-linear approach my research and artistic curiosity is able to ‘connect’ disparate dots in history. 

  • The rigorous scientific research of Joshua Alder in the 19th Century.
  • The openness to possibilities that Ulisse Aldrovandi’s 16th century Renaissance era ‘scientific’ approach allowed him to take.
  • A 21st century pseudo-science (Cryptozoology) whose trademark is that it expressly does not take a mainstream scientific approach.

So what does this all mean for my creative practice? 
Allowing my mind to freewheel, I have been thinking of amulets, relics, reliquaries and creatures, animals and beasts associated with other supernatural realms and ways in which they might come together sculpturally or otherwise. When allowing doing this freewheeling thinking I ban self ridicule. I think of the most childish things like superheroes' 'sidekicks' ... a witches cat for example. I think about lucky charms and amulets that I have seen; these range from tasteless rabbit paw key rings to amulets in the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford.

At this point I am very definitely at the early stages of exploring ideas for a new body of work whilst at the same time working in a playful way making some physical proto-creatures along this theme of the Supernatural- sidekicks, partners, lucky charms and precious relics. 

A studio experiment 1. I try not to question too hard.

Studio experiment 2. 

 A sombre face to greet you on your return to the studio. Complete accident!

*******And if you really want to know more about the curious creature at the top of this post - including how it can smell underwater then follow this link.