"19Days" dances with "boobtubes"

Derek Culley and Anna Marie Quinn
Linda McCartney Centre, Prescot Street
26th September – 16th October 2008

Reviewed by Sandra Gibson

This exhibition involves work by Derek Culley and Anna Marie Quinn, both artists having a personal involvement with cancer treatment.

The ‘19Days’ refers to the duration of radiotherapy treatment undergone by Derek Culley for prostate cancer, in which time he produced a set of thirty-one paintings. The work was not entirely sequential – some pieces were re-visited whilst he was working on later paintings. He spoke of the anomaly of feeling "not too ill at all" yet knowing that he has a life-threatening and "psychologically anguish-making" condition. Anyone familiar with the work of this artist will recognize the instinctive and spontaneous complexity of mark-making painted direct but based on a bed-rock of what Culley calls doodling – "I can’t concentrate on anything if I’m not doodling."

These meticulous - almost cloisonné - acts of faith are individually and collectively exquisite, bringing a sense of the mediaeval in the choice of jewel-like colour. Culley’s passion for the Celtic decorative style and his fascination with Islamic script finds expression in many of these miniatures so reminiscent of the joyful illumination in pre-Caxton bibles. Only one work stands out as having sombre mood and only one is in monochrome - the rest are brightly coloured and in some the artist has introduced – for the first time - the use of spray paint to give a sense of blurring and texture and depth.

The artist is fairly equable about his frequent confrontations with mortality; his faith is unchallenged by any sense of the unfairness inherent in suffering: "It’s the next challenge – you don’t moan about it. I don’t even think I have the right to ask the question." His work – based on the immediacy of in-the-moment expression combined with unflagging faith - would resonate closely with a religious space: at one end of the scale as stained glass windows; at the other as jewels of miniaturisation.

I respectfully predict that Derek Culley will soon introduce gold and lapis lazuli into his palette.

"boobtubes’ refers to an item developed by Anna Marie Quinn – the first in a range of self examination kits currently undergoing the patenting process and endorsed by Cancer Research UK which the artist hopes to have on the shelves by Christmas. She has produced a painting and three installations – five if you include the boobtube display and the breast images. Owing to her mother’s experience with cancer, Anna Marie became involved with the Linda McCartney Centre as a voluntary fundraiser and this exhibition has arisen from her interactions with staff and patients receiving their treatment there.

Immediately obvious are the floral heads of newspaper - the print hardly touched by the application of paint – atop ‘stems’ created from medical stands the whole bunch corralled by plastic tubing and sterile bags. This is Information Overload, the point being that a patient is bombarded with information which, no matter how it is ‘coloured’ or disguised is quite simply too much, too cumbersome and unfailingly scary.

Entrapment addresses the status of the patient who, on entering the institution, feels infantilised and trapped. The metaphor of an infant’s running shoes inside a birdcage is an effective portrayal of this conflicting emotion.

A similar sense of powerlessness is presented in Helping Hand – a white porcelain hand attached to a jointed tube and resting on a much molested medical book. I found this installation the most complex in terms of the layers of ideas. The helping hand is that of the expert who accesses the medical information on behalf of the patient, this intercession being necessary because of the complexity and obscurity of the knowledge therein. The patient is thus disempowered by their ignorance and their dependence – the latter symbolised by the ‘umbilical cord’ attached to the hand in this life-threatening situation. The book itself – the body of knowledge called Living with Cancer – has been torn to reveal contours and print of pages below and parts of pages have been rolled up to obscure the print. It is imbued with heavy-handedness and a sense of frantic searching and incomplete information. Worrying fragments emerge: ‘faltered during the chemotherapy’ ‘more anxious than ever about her infertility’ ‘lower half of the body’ ‘the nodes can become so large’. So is this aspect of the installation about the patient’s incomplete understanding of what is happening – the tendency in all of us to read medical books in a state of panic, noting only the grosser possibilities, rolling up gobbets of information and scurrying off to read them out of context and with insufficient background knowledge in the subject? It’s an effective image.

Angel is a painting dedicated to the ‘warmth, courage and kindness of Margaret Shields’ – herself a cancer patient. Essentially linear, it references body as landscape with contours, mystery and hidden resources.

The boobtubes themselves, brightly packaged and promising to be ‘the fun and exciting way to become breast-aware’ are displayed on stands covered with white cloths - all rather reminiscent of the innocence of first communion or bridal purity – intentionally one presumes. The imprints of breasts are displayed on white backgrounds. The different colour choices emphasise individuality but the imprints themselves are so various that this is unnecessary. It’s very moving to look at these maps of nourishment and vulnerability that also resemble planets.

Anna Marie Quinn aims to produce more explorations of emotion and as a means to helping human beings confront and deal with their fears the activity cannot be faulted. I do feel quite strongly that the presentation could be reconsidered, though. The installations are poems and as such risk being lost amongst the prosaic goings-on around them. Perhaps they should be given a distinct area with lighting? The breast images could go on a wall where they would echo Derek Culley’s sequence.

Unless, of course, Anna Marie wants to make the point about how easily overlooked and misunderstood our poems of pain and confusion are.

Derek Culley was recently awarded a prestigious Pollock-Krasner Foundation Grant (New York) 2006-2007.

Anna Marie Quinn is currently a finalist for the Innovation Award from John Moores University.

Music was provided by Jimmy Rae, a Wirral-based singer songwriter whose country, folk and blues inspired music has echoes of Lennon and McCartney.

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Comment left by Don on 6th October, 2008 at 14:03
I fine ARTicle..Keep it up Culley!!

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