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GO WILD! Curated by Conor Walton

Painting by Susannah Martin

Painting by Susannah Martin

There’s no blank spots on the map anymore, anywhere on earth. If you want a blank spot on the map, you gotta leave the map behind. ― Jon Krakauer

Inside all of us is… A Wild Thing. ― Maurice Sendak

Straight after I agreed to curate this exhibition, I sat down to dinner with my children and asked if they could think of a good title for a show. The first thing my thirteen-year-old son Daniel suggested was 'GO WILD!' and I thought “Wow! That's it!” As a title and a theme, ‘GO WILD!’ provides a context tight enough to offer coherence, yet loose enough to give the artists freedom to do what they do best. You can interpret it as targeting Nature in its broadest sense, or simply as an exhortation to take a risk; to unleash one's talent, express the Dionysian aspect of our natures. Both of these themes (and many more) came through in the work I have been offered, so I am delighted: overall, I think a bit of the zeitgeist comes through in this show.

In many of these paintings our relationship with Nature is obviously an underlying issue, but one which presents itself in many forms. In Rachel Linnemeier’s Camera Click it takes the form of ironical detachment. The subject of the painting stands heroically, camera in hand, apparently seeking Nature and ready to ‘capture the scene’, and yet the Nature he seeks already appears reduced, processed, flattened. The painting seems to comment upon the way so much of our experience of the world is now packaged and mechanically mediated. There is humour in this painting, but also melancholy; a sense of lost directness and authenticity in our relationships, both with that which is ‘other’ and with our inner selves.

Childhood is a recurring theme, which for many of us appears to stand for a time when we were closer to Nature, more spontaneous and whole, and wilder. Dana Hawk Heimbach’s Wildlife “is about being a kid immersed and one with nature.” Serena Potter’s Night-timers are adults escaping into an infantile world of spontaneous fun and irresponsibility. For Linda Tracey Brandon in Capture the Flag, childhood represents “that brief juncture where fantasy and innocence intersect with the wild, reckless freedom of living in the present moment.” These words are also appropriate for the child in Cynthia Sitton’s She Delighted in Them: living in her fantasy, unaware of the approaching storm behind her, it is, according to Sitton, “a love letter to my ill daughter”, and infused with a wistful sense of adult suffering and regret.

Some of the artists have used the nude as a way of articulating our animal natures. Susannah Martin's provocative image Schmetterling (‘Butterfly’) is the quintessence of Dionysiac rapture. In Tina Garret’s Baptism, a female bather evokes the pleasure of skinny-dipping; momentarily shedding inhibitions and finding peace through immersion in watery nature. In Denise Fulton’s Camouflage, the woman hides in plain sight, her form broken up by dramatic shadows. She eyes the viewer like a wild animal (though it’s not clear whether she is metaphorically prey, or predator waiting in ambush). Sarah Lacey’s exquisite drawing Cygnus finds analogies in human and animal form, in this case between human and swan. As she says:

Organic form - the way nature grows and shapes itself - is deeply playful and fractal, and shapes repeat, mirror and metamorphize across forms and species. My model’s bone structure, particularly in the shape of her collarbones, reminded me of the curve of a swan’s outstretched wings. I wanted to bring those shapes to life as a physical manifestation: her daemon, her familiar, an extension of her spirit and power. She is the swan and the swan is her. We are not separate from Nature, we are Nature.

In exploring the contested borderlands between human and animal, ‘civilised’ and ‘primitive’, several of the artists in this show have rediscovered the power of mythology. Adam Miller's reworking of ancient mythological themes of violence and transgression, suffering and rapture, seem intent on reconnecting us with our deepest natures. For the hunter Actaeon (whose punishment for seeing the Goddess naked is to be turned into a stag and torn apart by his hounds) insight comes at a terrible price. 

An inevitable consequence of reinvigorating of the mythopoeic imagination appears to be the rediscovery of Tragedy, all too apt for the coming age. Indeed, my wager on our dawning epoch is that (contra the superficial optimism of our ‘official’ culture) only a sublimely tragic art will do it justice. In these works, I see its first awakening.

Like Miller, Luke Hillestad brings continuity of human and natural form in a mythological direction. His Medusa, half-animal, appears not as an object of terror but of pathos and desire: in its way it too speaks of our situation in which wild Nature appears less fearsome and monstrous than beautiful and suffering. This Medusa stands like an endangered species; the carrier of an intuitive, poetic wisdom entirely at odds with the technocratic logic of our civilisation. 

Molly Judd | Raskolnikov | 140x150 cm | 2019

Molly Judd | Raskolnikov | 140x150 cm | 2019

Molly Judd is a young Irish artist snapping at her elders' heels with whom I seem to have an unwitting relationship of common themes. When I first saw her Raskolnikov I was so happy she hadn't called it Flogging a Dead Horse, because I am working on a painting of this title, and close enough in theme to hers (which I take to be ecocidal guilt, shame at our criminal treatment of Nature) in Molly's case raised to the level of sublime metaphor.

I’ve long been fascinated by Martin Wittfooth's depiction of a post-apocalyptic, post-human world in which a degraded, mutant nature recovers amongst the ruins of our civilisation. Wittfooth’s imagery is striking for its anti-humanism: ostensibly the human image is banished from his art and animal nature reigns supreme. Yet the physical or metaphorical detritus of our culture is everywhere in his world and the satirical force of his work is clearly premised on our species’ collective insanity: Wittfooth’s imagination is wounded, angry and feral.

Both directly and indirectly, many of these paintings bear witness to the planetary catastrophe unfolding around us, and the need to recover a sense of human identity in which Culture isn't opposed to Nature but unfolds within it. This is, I think, what gives some of the best contemporary figurative art - naturalistic in technique but using dream, fantasy, metaphor to plumb our psychic depths - its current impetus and urgency.

All these artists combine old-master virtuoso techniques with a contemporary sensibility to produce paintings that, in sum, tackle almost every subject, from the painfully or joyfully private to the great public issues of our day: politics, ecology, the fate of our civilization and our planet. If an artist's job is to give us images through which we can better understand ourselves and the world, this is exactly what these artists are doing. I think there's a huge appetite today, particularly among the young (and in the context of an often shallow, consumerist pop culture) for an art that isn't simply brash or slick or clever, but that speaks to our deepest desires and needs: for truth and beauty, and above all, for meaning.

There are many treasures to be found in this little collection of works, for those with eyes to find them! Expect to be provoked, teased, caressed with beauty, troubled with insight. You deserve nothing less.