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The online editorial and curatorial project for systems, non-objective and reductive artists working in the UK

Website: Chestnuts Design

Cluster | Anna Fairchild, Sian-Kate Mooney and Lucy Renton


Supported by The Broadway Gallery and Letchworth Culture Project, Letchworth,  21 Oct – 20 Nov 2021


An essay by Cherry Smyth

“even now there are places where a thought might grow…” (1)


All the work in ‘Cluster’ has been produced post-lockdown, in the storm of the Covid-19 pandemic, which arguably, has heightened our relationship with buildings and interiors: how we interact with urban structures devoid of people, and curtained windows and screens that frame our social view.  During the enforced isolation, many artists experienced a split in their practice: either returning to former concerns with more urgency or taking up new aesthetics that can respond more deeply to the shake-up of meaning.


In Derek Mahon’s quintessential 20th century poem, A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford, thousands of mushrooms cram to the keyhole of an abandoned shed awaiting some kind of liberation: “we too had lives to lead”, they cry.  This scene is evoked on seeing Anna Fairchild’s provocative sculptures in which fungi-like protrusions sprout from curved plaster casts.  The casts, gridded in biro lines and frosted in pale pink or peach-coloured paint, resemble the husks of partially demolished buildings, where tiled walls denote kitchens and bathrooms and painted surfaces specify rooms exposed to space.  While Fairchild’s anti-concealment forms suggest a system with a meaning – architectural plans or maquettes – the protrusions invoke a parasitic growth in progress.  Their spray-painted surfaces evince the graffiti tags that proliferate on urban architecture through absorption of flecks of spray-paint from the casting surfaces.


Fairchild compares the two systems to rational decision-making and intuitive responses, and the work comes out of the struggle to keep them in fruitful balance.  While the Jesmonite plaster casts evoke Brutalist architecture and minimalist sculpture, the hyphae, made from plaster spilling and seeping through the gaps, provide a quiet, insidious interruption of the certain linearity of those aesthetic traditions.  The fungi-like growths stand for states of mind or thoughts that determine creative abundance.  Mycelium Blooms (2021), placed upright on the floor, recalls JG Ballard’s dystopian novel High Rise, in which a luxury block of flats disintegrates into a violent disarray the building provokes.  


Anna Fairchild, Mycelium Blooms, 2021, Jesmonite, biro and spray paint. Photo courtesy Andrew Moller

Twisters (2021), seems to want to rise, winged, from plasterer’s debris on the ground, salvaging new meaning and a certain dignity of reinvention.  Just as a forest’s health is determined by the numbers of fungal species it hosts, here, the sculptures insist on an uncompromising presence of continued life.  As in Mahon’s poem, the fungi have “Grown beyond nature now…/They lift frail heads in gravity and good faith”.  While Fairchild’s practice explores different aesthetic modes of thinking and making, it also points to dialogues around organic-inorganic co-existence that we have recognised are so imperative to our ecological survival as a human species among the non-human.  While Brutalist, hard-edged structures gave birth to amorphous beanbag seating and colour-saturated lava lamps, so humanist philosophy has to evolve hand in hand with the natural world and dismantle notions of supremacy and invincibility.


Foreground; Twisters, 2021, Anna Fairchild, background; Muster (Stripes) 2021, Sian-Kate Mooney. Photo courtesy Andrew Moller.

Sian-Kate Mooney’s practice continues the dialogue Fairchild’s has started.  A photograph called Muster, 2021, shows a woman in an aqua-blue and white diagonally-striped suit – part sky, part cloud, part sea – as she appears to climb down from a ledge beside a Brutalist tower block that looks like it’s made of greying, damp cardboard.  She holds up a ruched banner, made from the same hand-painted fabric as the suit that stretches up as a vertical accordion on a stick.  She is outsized as if challenging the scale of the modernist ramps and walls around her.  In Wrestle, 2021, she seems half in, half out of the fabric totem: is it a protest or a celebration?  What can her costume say that she can’t?  What is it to wear a painting and have to carry the husk of a larger painting like a grief or regret around with you?  The work evokes a wrestling with Daniel Buren’s striped paintings (among others), and by embodying the painting, highlights what geometric abstraction omitted: the sensory and awkward need of having, and being, a body.  

Sian-Kate Mooney, Muster (Stripes), 2021 (Canvas, acrylic paint, wood, steel, mannequin). Photo courtesy Andrew Moller.

The scrunched and bunched form has female associations and conjures the bustle, that large, sexualised bolus of late 19th Century women’s dress.  Amy Sillman, in her extraordinary collection of essays, Faux Pas, calls protest:


“the linkage of process and form, a call to arms against ‘success’ and a commitment to craft and the handmade….embodied work, like managing the weight and density of a painting or struggling with its edges.  And this struggle is a metaphor for working against collapse, for art as a kind of non-alienated labour…” (2)


This is a mobile, moody, vulnerable, performed resistance to the imperative cool of traditional stripe paintings.  By animating and by crushing the flatness, she genders the stripe, bestowing it with curves and complications, refuting its alleged objectivity.  Arlington House, finished in 1964, overlooking Margate, proves the perfect backdrop for Mooney’s performance and photographs, which create her own value system in conversation with fashion, fashion photography, 60s’ futurism, abstraction and modernist architectural utopias.  The playful and at times triumphant tone recalls the work of John Bock and Lucy and Jorge Orta, who use clothing as props in a wider discourse about philosophy and legacies of art history.  What does it do to parade one’s art, to make the interior so exterior?  To fight for the emergence of a space that can be both?  I only wish I could have spotted Mooney from a passing train or while parking, to witness the sudden unruly delight of a living, moving critique of the building’s frame.  A painting on a saluting woman on stilts!  


Edgelessness is also a theme in Lucy Renton’s work where painting’s boundaries, conventionally constituted by a frame, are tested, extended and undermined.  Renton is drawn to thresholds – openings we dress or try to minimise, closures we elaborate through decoration.  Her wry and meticulous practice teases out an aspirational fondness for bright patterns that hide physical and emotional woes: think plastic tablecloths covered in sunflowers or baskets of fruit, hiding a scorched Formica table.  Juliette, 2021, is a diptych, consisting of two vertical paintings hung from rivets struck into raw canvas.  It suggests ‘the continent’, a place of endless summer where the illusion of depth belies the surface.  The candy stripes and trompe l’oeil suggest an aesthetic of artifice that we don’t necessarily like but which governs us, places and comforts us.  

©Copyright Patrick Morrissey and Clive Hancock  All rights reserved.

Lucy Renton, Juliette, 2021. Acrylic on canvas. Photo courtesy Andrew Moller.

Renton has a fondness for highlighting the connections between class and taste, here underlining the tension between the carefree beach life and the imitation grandeur of the cut-price pallacio.  She seems to pit sentimentality and sensuality against dispassionate intellect, feeling versus thinking, and jesting at the limitations of both.  Renton explains that she envisages Bohman, 2021, as a kind of graphic score, in tribute to the cheerily dissonant work of Adam Bohman, of the trio Secluded Bronte, whose playful and irreverent words and sounds are a constant feature of the improvised music scene in London.  


As artist Magalie Guerin wonders, can there be a ‘visual rhythm from a point of sound as opposed to a point of view’? (3) The horizontal, pleated canvas of brightly coloured circles and blobs is held to the wall by upholstery tacks, offering an improvement or device for disguising something unsightly beneath.  Renton is fascinated by the point where fixtures, furnishings and fittings meet fine art, if they can, and asking why shouldn’t they.  The works pronounce the word ‘display’, like a roll of fabric unfurled on a counter, or samples in a shop’s curtain department hung in a cacophony of colour, texture and design.  They present painting as sample, a sample of art history, of looking, of pleasure, of choosing, of curating a look, of the hierarchy of taste.  Art needs us to complete it, just as samples need a home.  We are housed by Renton’s work, invited to an interior we half recognise, are half ashamed of, but have somehow ingested.  


The paintings evoke a certain room, with its coating of form, then blunt that evocation, snubbing you after pulling you in.  Look at Fritz: here I was seeing a Japanese scroll-like altar with a low shelf for Buddha or candle, while Renton explains that the motif was inspired by 30s’ lino from Berlin, and the shelf is in fact a stair, with the ‘carpet’ held in place by two stair rods.  The cowgirl blue and yellow fringes blow open all resonances and are very Renton.


These paintings are proposals for rooms, for moods, for a whole that can never exist.  Their function is to make us think about function – how etiquette enables discretion, how disclosure can quickly be absorbed by the right shade of blushing pink.

  

Each of the three artists engage thoroughly and distinctively with making materials move – through casting and pouring, tailoring and ruching, and/or pleating and folding.  Each employs paint, whether acrylic, household paint or spray paint, to reinvigorate the pinch-points where painting meets and expands sculpture and the provisional interrogates art’s mutable purpose.  



(1) Derek Mahon, ‘A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford’ from New Collected Poems (Loughcrew: Gallery Press, 2011)

(2) Amy Sillman, Faux Pas: Selected Writings and Drawings (Paris: After 8 Books) p.89

(3) Magalie Guerin, Notes on (Chicago: The Green Lantern Press, 2019) p.87



Dr Cherry Smyth is an art writer and poet.  She writes regularly for Art Monthly.

For further information see www.cherrysmyth.com