Safety Net of Sky

'The Induction Wing', Anon, HM Prison AltcourseThe Koestler Exhibition for the North West
World Museum Liverpool
30th March – 27th May 2012

Reviewed by Sandra Gibson

Part One: Art, Photography and Three-dimensional Work*

from a great height the smile
deadfalls into frown.
this bird will never know a cage:
startled by a dog’s bark
she flings herself
into the safety net of sky.

Extract from the poem: From a Prisoner’s Window (Anon)

You would expect an exhibition of artwork and writing from prisons, secure hospitals and secure children’s homes, curated by people on probation, to address themes of authority and freedom and this one surely does. But doesn’t all art and writing address these big issues?

The first painting I saw: Birdman (Anon) has a potent image of a man looking at a bird and a cage. The bird is not inside the cage, but on the threshold, and could enter if it wished; the point being that we have a choice and we can choose freedom. Now this might not be possible if someone or some authority has the power to lock you up, but the mind is free to go where it wishes. We can withdraw into our restriction or look out through the barred window. The photograph Tic-Tac-Tree (Anon) encapsulates this decision. Tyler Forshaw sees a Road to Nowhere yet this title is misleading: we don’t know what is over the horizon - the artist hasn’t painted a dead end and although the road is grey the other colours are bright. Sometimes the answer is resurrection through faith. Way of Sorrows (Anon) shows the Stages of the Cross and Christ’s redemption after so much suffering. It is very carefully painted and has an authenticity - often found in naïf art - that comes from sincerity. Help Our Mariners (Anon) offers a less secure hope. The implication is the danger of wreckage because the beacon is rather damaged. Nevertheless, the potential for help or guidance does exist. I liked the textured painting in the foreground of this picture. The Rose Garden by Sean Donoher uses art to recreate a tranquil experience. In this meticulously painted piece the roses are stylised into orderly areas of warm pinks; the water is tamed into blue brick-like shapes, though there is implied movement. There is something that looks like bars but this is not the prominent motif; it is part of the whole composition and does not dominate. The eye rests on a focal hieroglyph (Sanskrit?) and what this painting most resembles is a mandala: an aid to meditation often found in Eastern cultures but with this difference: the concentric circles in the design are off-set, not centralised; not contained within the frame.

The Induction Wing (Anon) exploits the emotive, expressionistic potential of colour, to convey a nauseous, claustrophobic feeling by combining garish orange, green, lime, blue and pale yellow with the bulky form of pool tables. It’s as if all the space has been swallowed. The Precinct (Anon) is similarly claustrophobic but the artist has produced the feeling using monochrome instead of colour. There is a sense of grey oppressiveness reinforced by featureless faces. And so carefully drawn and composed. In contrast, View of Park in Morning (Anon), carefully shaded in linear strokes in such a way that light shows through, has a feeling of spaciousness and hope, supported by images of light.

Untitled by Bernard Compton subverts the anonymity of the cell by filling it with paintings so that, in this triumph of individual creativity, the heavy clanging door is absorbed – you don’t notice it. By crowding in the paintings you crowd out the negative feelings of confinement. What a contrast we find in Colin James’ painting of bleak solitariness. Solitary shows a single bed in a barred cell. The feeling of cold comfortlessness comes from the dinginess of the beige walls and the use of colours from the cold part of the spectrum. Yet the light showing through the bars is bright and reflects from the white institutional towel on the bed.

Sean Caherty’s painting Parade is an affirmation of individuality and if I had to choose a favourite - a difficult call - Parade would be it. This is a loosely figurative composition which spans the rainbow colours. The figures are separate entities but the colours run from one to the next; there is a chromatic influence which bridges separation. Death is the ultimate separation and Gone! (Anon) eloquently communicates its finality. It is a vigorously executed picture of a corpse lying on a table: a frenzied piece drawn as if racing against time.

Which is what we are all doing.

Speaking of individuality there are some impressive portraits such as Oliver by Steven Beattie and Goldie by Paul Taylor. Craig by Craig Gardner challenges the viewer with its use of deep contrasting colours - blue and orange - and steady, unsmiling gaze. The eyes convey a combination of serious realization and peripheral fear. Well - this is what the painting said to me. Laide de Jules Renard by Sean Donoher is a striking expression of frustrated anger, the lines in the shirt and in the strings evoking a sense of powerlessness. There is a touching portrait of a fish: Nice Fishy by Kieran Jameson shows a primitive-looking creature who seems to be striving to move upwards to find air. Young Un (Anon) has a similar feeling of incipient growth.

Some works are overtly political. The Heavy Scales of Justice (Anon) is a witty comment: the judge is holding the scales with only one hand. The other is forming a V sign. Virtual Prison Life by Ben Duckworth envisages a futuristic penal system, pugnaciously overseen by a heavily armed guard in which the prisoners live an existence of virtual exercise, education and association. Some would say that that’s how it is now for some people. Pompeii (Anon) has some apocalyptic scenes reminiscent of recent urban riots. I appreciated the powerful choice of colour.

I keep using words like “carefully” and “meticulously” in my descriptions of this exhibition; this is one of my overall impressions: the attention to technical matters as well as other considerations. Several works - some of which I have already mentioned - exemplify this. The WWI Tri Decker Aeroplane by Lawrence Bennett and Tandolker Wins Again (Anon) are evidence of hard work, attention to detail and the use of recycled materials. Who can fail to smile at Bird Lady (Anon) with her enormous handbag? Untitled by Lee Smith is a monochromatic piece with dynamic patterning created with detailed care. The same can be said of Out of my Hands (Anon) which combines drawing with text in a beautifully intricate work. I Live the Good Life (Anon) skilfully combines text and colour into a radiant spiral composition. Pantomime Horse of the Year by Jason Ferris is probably the best example of technical excellence in the exhibition. This artist certainly knows how to make paint move. In all senses of the verb.

The other repeated term I have been obliged to use is “Anon”. There will be several reasons for people to preserve their anonymity and I respect this. But I didn’t want to, for surely this exhibition is about the abolition of the anonymous.

The booklet for the Koestler Exhibition has one of the paintings as its front cover. It’s a nicely caught moment of a robin about to alight on the handle of a garden fork. It’s not a Christmas card cliché – Red Robin by James Cole is about the precariousness of finding a safe foothold.

Hopefully these artists have found this in their creativity.

*Read review of Safety Net of Sky - Part Two: Writing.

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