Freaks and misfits hold a vague and mysterious place inside human consciousness and outside of human comprehension. They can take many forms; a freak of nature, a freak accident or a freak appearance. For centuries freak shows and circuses have fascinated and perplexed the imagination of countless audiences. They show us something which is so close to home but living in a reality so far from what we call normality. These misfits serve as a reminder that our reality is only as concrete as we decide to make it. This exhibition serves to explore the notion of the Freaks and to wholeheartedly engulf its self and viewer into the mysteries of things not quite of this world.
This exhibition displays 35 artist’s from around Europe and their visions of what happens when we peer behind the curtain and see the glitches in the makeup of our reality.
SHOREDITCH TOWN HALL, LONDON
9 – 16 December 2010
Reviewed by: Gillian McIver »
at Artists Newsletter: INTERFACE
Invitation to a Freak Show
Thursday night, December 9th. Images flash across the screen: fires outside the parliament building; National Gallery occupied; royals threatened; rioters and police on horseback. I’m heading out to Shoreditch, going to see an exhibition billed – intriguingly – as “The Freaks.”
I reach my destination, a massive bit of Victorian Baroque stuffed next to the railway line where Old St meets Kingsland Road. Down the stone stairs, through an arch and a narrow doorway, and I’m in the vast underground space of the Shoreditch Town Hall.
“The Freaks Exhibition” is the brainchild of Tom Graham-Adriani, the young artist and curator, whose previous projects include the fascinating “Tales from the Electric Forest” show in spring 2009 at the St Pancras Crypt. It was one of the best shows in London in 2009. Tom has brought back many of the same artists, and added more, for “The Freaks.”
The venue’s corridors and small rooms offer a magical combination of both a fully sustained experience of freakishness, and constant frissons of surprise and wonder. One never becomes bored or blasé with each discovery, each manifestation; here the deep places of the unconscious are rendered – in paint, or paper, or other more mysterious materials.
The show is particularly interesting because of the way that Adriani has chosen artists working in distinctly figurative styles and often traditional media. It’s rare to see a show which brings so many painters and drawers together, to explore a single theme in so many startlingly diverse ways. This is not a conceptual show: every piece has been thought through and then made – into objects loaded with meaning and resonance.
With 35 artists and over 300 artworks on show, it’s impossible to justly discuss even a fair sample, but I will say that The Freaks makes the best use of this gloomy basement space I’ve seen since the exhibitions programme started. Everything is displayed to its advantage and in symbiotic relation within the show as a whole. There is much very strong work in the show, and the strength is reflected in all the principal strands of media represented.
My personal favourites include Jane Hoodless‘s eerie “historical” artefacts; Martha Todd‘s haunting hollow-eyed carapace-like figures, and Zoe Suenson-Taylor‘s truly disturbing room installation, Eighty-Eight Ears in a Room.
I was seriously unsettled by Adam Wardle‘s Vision in the Bay: I am sure I have been there in a dream….
Glenn Ibbitson‘s “Claw” works – large drawings and paintings of male figures afflicted with lobster-like appendages – are poignant and moving, rather than funny; while on the other hand, Nazir Tanbouli‘s huge painting, The Union of Confused Identities, manages to be both humorous and menacing.
The great legacy of English 18th and 19th century illustration (the tradition of Blake and Beardsley, and which so inspired Goya) is a thread that runs right through this show, though every piece has a thoroughly contemporary sensibility. And what these artists are illustrating is their own psychic delving, their own self exploration. And by making these available to the audience, we are incited to participate in exploring our own dark unconscious dreams.
The exhibition theme is “freaks” yet this is anything but a freakshow. What is fascinating is the tender sympathy with which the artists treat the notion of “freak.” Here freakishness is not only explored, but nurtured and celebrated as an essential part of the human condition. As Adriani says, “our reality is only as concrete as we decide to make it.”
We need this art. As I leave the exhibition, the talk on the street is all about the riots downtown. I realise how important The Freaks exhibition is. “Cool” and irony are dead, offering us nothing anymore. Same with “sensation.” In Jungian terms, we are getting restless behind the mask of the persona, and we’re feeling the claws of the shadow, and the other archetypes, scratching at the door and we’re feeling compelled to open it. We have reached a point where we want to understand who we are, and how we – collectively and individually – have got to the situation we are in. We desire to explore the unknown psychological spaces that lurk within us, and to know ourselves.
Wandering the labyrinth of the Shoreditch Town Hall basement really does feel like wandering the length and breadth of the psyche, encountering all the shadowy beings that lurk there.
The Freaks is on until December 16th and the show includes a gallery shop.
December 10th – 17th
Weekdays: 10a.m. – 7p.m.
Saturday & Sunday 11a.m. – 6p.m.
“Consignment is an ongoing multi-media project comprising paintings, prints and film. The work developed from an initial theme of escapology into a meditation on the contemporary social environment. The composition of the figure physically enclosed within the confines of the frame, was chosen for its universality; it suggests simultaneously both cell and refuge or hiding place. It is employed here as a visual metaphor for the individual as the object of:
1 political oppression; the suspension of human liberties and the enforced submission of the individual.
2 human trafficking. The high risk strategies employed in acts of global transmigration, either voluntary or coerced, place people in situations of extreme endurance; conditions into which they are willing to place themselves and/or others, in the vain hope of improving their economic circumstances.
The paintings and prints are all square in format, with dimensions ranging from 10cm to 92cm, and have all been painted and designed to hang any way up.
The short film: “Consignment”, accompanies the exhibition and has a running time of about 5 minutes.
Glenn Ibbitson June 2009
Interview with Glenn Ibbitson
By Diane Walkey July 2009
DW. When and where did you conceive the idea for ‘Consignment’ and what came first, the film or the paintings?
GI. Like many art projects, “Consignment” resulted from an interweaving of several threads. It developed directly from my work on a series entitled “Smoke and Mirrors”. This consisted of paintings of circus performers and sideshow acts; mermaids, knife-throwers, conjoined twins, magicians and their assistants.
Acrylic and oil on canvas
Horus; the Illusionist
acrylic and oil on canvas
The next artiste in the series was to be an escapologist; a conscious nod to Houdini. The figure was to be physically confined by the close proximity of the edges of a square canvas.
I made a box with an interior dimension of 91 x 91 x 91 cm. and illuminated by spotlight from the side. Overhead, I clamped a stills camera. I modelled for a series of photographs shot by fellow artist, Carole King. The results could have made the box a haven of security or protection. However, by making the dimensions of the crate tight and the lighting grazed and contrasting, the photographs suggested scenes of sensory deprivation or enforced solitary confinement; a holding cell prior to deportation.
They also suggested to me a scenario of human trafficking, either voluntary or coerced.
My exploratory movements within the box suggested that the actual, constricted movements between poses should be recorded. Video could emphasise the sheer discomfort of the experience, which a single still might not convey. The set-up was duplicated and a camcorder replaced the stills camera.
The results were edited using repeat cross-dissolves, fades and clip reversals to create a loop.
A second editing session combined this footage with film of slow moving traffic approaching a toll crossing.
There is one prototype for this compositional set-up from my student days. At a time when I felt particularly isolated, I painted a series based on Francis Bacon’s “Caged Baboon”, a haunting image of alienation. It culminated in “Red Cube”, a crouched, contemplative and vaguely troubled figure in a darkened room on a square canvas. Although I worked from a life model, it was the most autobiographical work I painted at college.
The Red Cube
Oil on canvas
DW. In practice, as a painter, how do photographs and moving images figure in your work, and as a painter, what attracts you to the medium of film?
GI. For years, I harboured reservations about the value of the photograph to the artists practice. I was immersed in liferoom discipline with its central ethos of working directly from the model. However, as I aimed for some content beyond the merely observational, photography could contribute elements of immediacy and spontaneity to my painting. I am confident enough in my technique to steer my work away from the stylisation of photorealism; I know how a form curves away around a contour and out of view; how to see colour in shadows and half-lights –precisely those aspects of the human form which a photograph struggles to capture.
Although I am first and foremost a painter, the ease with which video footage can now be edited on a laptop makes film as a creative medium much more appealing to me. The visual dynamics of movement can be more comprehensively investigated with a camcorder, which can be used as a sketchbook in another form. Indeed, I feel more comfortable working from moving images than from still photographs.
DW. You mentioned an empathy with Bacon’s work. Do you consider Bacon’s use of diverse reference material, including the photographic, to have influenced the way that you now approach painting? Could the practice of drawing from life become redundant?
GI. What I admire most about Bacon is his ability to convey dissolution and pessimism through the use of paint. This is what will remain when the legends surrounding his art practice have evaporated. Significantly, the myth that he never made preparatory drawings prior to painting, dissolved shortly after his death, when a substantial cache of his sketches was revealed.
Working direct from the model was supposed to have been largely redundant from 1870’s, yet the practice is being constantly re-evaluated; indeed, it is currently the subject of an [albeit media-restricted] experiment on Channel Four television. Move over, “Big Brother”…
Life study for the Levitating Lady
Charcoal pencil on paper
I don’t see a time when first hand experience of particularly the human form can be fully replaced by the photographic gaze whose filtration process limits the artist’s sensation. Work derived exclusively from photographic sources becomes as much about this filter as the object being captured through its medium. This is fine, as long as that artist/photographer is fully aware of this.
DW. ‘Consignment’ deals with issues that go beyond the artistic. Is your concern directly political and how do you feel about the emotional debate that this work provokes?
GI. Nothing dates quite so badly as overtly political painting. The moment passes, the target moves on and the artwork is rendered redundant. Polemical, didactic art by definition reveals its content immediately, leaving nothing to revisit. The “Smoke and Mirrors” project had had a socio-political content which alluded to both governmental sleight of hand, and social and biological engineering. But this was subtext; if people associated the deceits and hubris of “Horus the Magician” with a Cheyney or a Blair, they wouldn’t be too far from the mark, but the paintings could be viewed and appreciated without this connection being made.
Even in the far West of Wales, one remains acutely aware of political corruption, state-sanctioned interrogation techniques, the waging of war contrary to international law, the pursuit of security and defence policies which make us less, rather than more secure. Habeas Corpus could be suspended at any time. The price of liberty and democracy remains eternal vigilance. Visual art is an instrument in this vigil. I have never been the subject of sensory deprivation techniques. I don’t have first hand experience of what it is like to be smuggled across a border. Any literal interpretation of such imagery would seem too contrived. My aim is always to produce a visual metaphor. In this series, a white male figure stands as a synecdoche for men, women and children of all races trafficked across frontiers to satisfy economic and sexual appetites in more developed countries. The film “Consignment”, doesn’t locate its human commodity in a particular container or identify the vehicle used for the trafficking. The figure ghosts through this footage; somewhere, in one of those vehicles, an economic migrant is in transit…everything remains implicit, opaque.
DW. In ‘Consignment’, as in ‘Red Cube’, individual identity is obscured. Your figure is anonymous. Do you regard ‘Consignment’ as in any way an autobiographical work, as you did the earlier piece?
GI. No, the fact that I am the subject in the crate is pure contingency: I didn’t have a model to work with. I would have been more than happy to direct a performance artist during the photographic and film sessions.
A sense of anonymity is integral to the ambience of this project; lighting was arranged to cast shadows which would obscure evidence of individuality.
An already anonymous figure is further demoted to the level of mere human commodity through the use of a wholly dispassionate titling system. Each ‘unit’ [ or artwork] belongs to a particular ‘batch’ [or set of paintings], identified by shared dimensions, and made ready for shipping on a particular date [the completion date of that set]. The whole total of ‘units’ produced becomes the “Consignment” .
DW. ‘Consignment’ constitutes a large body of work, film, paintings and prints. What affect has this work had on your view of yourself as a contemporary visual artist? Do you anticipate a return to the subject or has the production of this work affected your approach to further projects?
GI. “Consignment” now constitutes over 60 separate works. Its development has involved separate uses of paint, print and film. It is likely that I will adopt this multi-media approach to future projects and perhaps experiment with a more physical integration of these media.
Like its forerunner, “Smoke & Mirrors”, I regard this project as ongoing: there are always going to be gaps in a sequence, which can be filled with a return to the motif. The element suggesting further development is the film making. I have an extensive bank of footage, which I would like to re-edit, using only the figure’s movements. By pushing the audience’s attention span beyond the unspoken five-minute limit, which most gallery visitors give video, the distress and threat implicit in the scenario could be further emphasised. Perhaps they should view the film from within the confines of a crate of their own?
Diane Walkey is a painter, photographer and illustrator living and working on the West Wales coast. She has an MA in Art & Design Education and a BA in Industrial Design. She is a tutor for the Open College of the Arts painting and photography courses. Her work can be seen at
A full colour illustrated catalogue in CD form will be available from September 19th 2009. This will be limited to an edition of 500 signed by the artist. The cover is a screenprint also limited to an edition of 500; printed, numbered and signed by the artist.
What type of artist do you see yourself as? Do you see your work as a coherent body of work, developing in a particular direction?
I cover a broad range of subject matter; landscape, interiors, still-life, portraiture and life painting, all in a representational idiom. My central interest is the human figure.My approach to each of the genres in which I operate is one of flexibility; developments in any one area are unlikely to influence my activity in another. This may seem rather schizophrenic, but exhibition audiences appear to discern an overall coherence to the body of work as a whole.
It seems to me that light plays an important part in your work. Would you say that wanting to capture the qualities of light is one of your inspirations?
As a student, I concentrated on the problems of defining the form and structure of objects, to the exclusion of painting anything remotely ethereal. Only gradually [initially through drawing practice, utilizing contre-jour and chiaroscuro lighting set-ups], did I realize that light effects could make my task easier.
Light has become particularly important as a result of a career working as a scenic artist in the film and television industry, where paint and light is thoroughly integrated in the studio to produce the required result. I am now using this experience to inform my own painting; coloured, high-contrast and directional light is now used to heighten the theatricality of these compositions.
Where do you find inspiration for your work?
Direct observation provides the core of all my work. On this I build my projects with random observations from everyday situations, combined with salient memories of past experiences. For example, the central figure of “Giant” was painted from life studies, and the onlookers from a sketch of visitors in the Prado museum; but the theme derives from a powerful image from my childhood. My father and I were walking along a stretch of Lincolnshire beach on one of those hazy mornings where the pearlescent expanse of wet sand at low-tide blends seamlessly into watery sky. There were several dark, glossy forms in the distance. As we advanced, these forms revealed themselves as a stranded pod of Pilot Whales. To a land-locked five year old, they looked utterly colossal.
What sorts of things are you looking at and thinking about when you are making your work?
Formal considerations predominate during the making: shape, contour and line; chromatic intensity and hue.
Do you work entirely from life, or do you ever use photographs to complete your work?
My core activity remains life work; drawn or painted entirely from the model. Only recently have I been confident enough to supplement observational work with photographic imagery to produce the larger multi-figure compositions. After nearly thirty years, I now have the experience of anatomy to compensate for those ‘flat’ areas bereft of structure in a photograph. The real breakthrough for me has been the ability to compose paintings using the “Photoshop” programme on a Mac. I am able to re-size figures from several sources [drawing, painting studies, sketchbook, photographs] and combine them to scale in a convincing space. Though the final painting may depart significantly from these studies, they give me a vital starting point.
Your work seems meticulously painted. Do you usually do an acrylic underpainting for your oil painted work? How long, on average, does it take to complete a piece?
Only certain areas are meticulously painted; I am particularly interested in the juxtaposition of thick impasto with thin glazing; careful multi-layering alongside cursory thin layers; broken colour techniques beside flat areas. I feel this gives the painting a greater surface interest at close quarters.
I tend to use acrylics for the preliminary layers of painting simply because they dry so quickly. Thereafter, I switch to oils which provide unmatched versatility and subtlety of handling.
It is difficult to calculate time taken on the studio compositions; it depends on size, complexity of pose, and arrangement of light. Because I tend to have several paintings on the go at any one time, there is always at least one work at a stage dry enough to take another layer of paint. A painting may have been worked over a period of months [sometimes years], though the actual time devoted to its surface may be measured in days or weeks.
The smaller landscape panels, [generally no larger than 18” in either dimension] are painted on site using acrylic and these usually take no longer than 3-4 hours.
Who or what are your main influences?
As regards drawing, my main guides have been Degas and Schiele, though much earlier, the impetus to sketch came from my childhood enthusiasm for American Super-Hero comics. These generally displayed little aesthetic merit, until the later 1960’s when an artist called Neal Adams began work on several titles [Batman, Spectre, Green Arrow]. He obviously used models to achieve his foreshortenings, and the unusual viewpoints he chose, effected a new realism in this genre. He is well worth an image search on Google.
My big three painters who helped me through three stultifying years at art college were :Cezanne; for his pictorial organizationEuan Uglow; who showed me what a life painting might look like before the more closely observed subtleties of surface detail are layered over a structural scaffolding.Vermeer; cool and analytical; a perfect integration of figure and environment; forms and planes modeled using light effects of remarkable sophistication, yet with an ability to downplay his virtuosity which I think makes him more appealing to a modern audience than his more artistically bombastic contemporaries.
Are you a performer yourself?
No; I prefer the role of director which painting gives me. In fact, I have begun to investigate film-making as a medium to develop some of the themes which recent work has revealed, but which may require a time-based treatment. Earlier this year as part of the Fishguard ArtsFest, I presented a short film entitled “Blacksites”; provoked by the use of abduction and psychological torture techniques, used by Western Governments in our name. I am currently working on a film and series of paintings [working title; “Box”], which combine the imagery of escapology with issues of human trafficking. In this project, I am artist, film-maker and model. Does that count?
June 2007: “Sleight of Hand” Oriel Cambria, Tregaron