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.
It was while researching collage references online that I discovered the work of Kim Frohsin, a painter based in San Francisco. Her pieces stood out from the general morass of montaged mediocrity. They each looked as if they had been considered and thought through to a satisfying conclusion. I sought out more references to her art and was delighted to find that she was a figure painter of considerable talent. However, as I read about her, a theme emerged which seemed at variance to the images I was uncovering. The art of Richard Diebenkorn was a persistent reference point, with which Frohsin’s paintings were being unfavourably compared.
Stephen Jay Gould in one of his reflections on natural history, reproduced in his collection of essays; “Bully for Brontosaurus”, examines the case of the “Creeping Fox Terrier”. The breed was [mistakenly, as it turned out,] used in an early nineteenth century paper as a size comparison for an extinct lineage of small horse. This comparison became standard in subsequent natural history textbooks, passing from generation to generation, because subsequent writers simply accepted this statement as fact and failed to question its veracity. I feel the same thing is happening with the connection between Frohsin and Diebenkorn; critics are re-treading the writings of their peers and not looking afresh at the work they are reviewing. Why? Because it’s so much easier for them to write this way; word-smithing without the encumbrance of examining the art at first hand.
The connection between Frohsin and Diebenkorn is straightforward. She moved to California in 1979. By living in San Francisco at this time, she was exposed to the art of the Bay Area Figurative Group; Diebenkorn, Park, Oliveira, and Bischoff. Frohsin’s work was influenced only in so much as a student is influenced by any tutor in any academic activity. In the early 1990’s, Frohsin’s work began to be exhibited alongside Diebenkorn’s work and other Bay Area painters.
LOOK AT THE ARTWORK
Richard Diebenkorn’s abstract paintings are marvellous; his figure painting less so. His move to figuration in the late 1950’s was overvalued at the time simply because there just wasn’t enough good representational art to balance the proliferation of abstract art in all its myriad forms. Any art with a figure as its focus was bound to be welcomed as relief by a niche audience who secretly craved the recognisable; some narrative in painting, no matter how tenuous. [This also explains the allure of the waxen figures of Philip Pearlstein].
LOOK AT THE ARTWORK
In fact, the paintings are pretty weak. Unsupported by concentrated, direct observation, they lack that small yet significant bit of detailed painting which might have anchored the drifting approximations and created the visual tension such paintings require. The major signifiers of human expression with which the audience can engage are largely absent: hands have no more expressive form than unoccupied gloves in a frost, and faces are not those of living, breathing models, but of curious modernist hybrids pre-packaged by Matisse and Picasso. In his hands, pigment is forced, rather than co-opted, to perform the task of depicting convincing, plastic form. It proves an unwilling slave.
Diebenkorn’s real talent, abstract organisation, shines through in “Figure on a Porch” 1959. Here the figure is formalised, absorbed into a composition which is organised on a grid, intersected by diagonals. The spaces between are infilled with variegated areas of sumptuous paint, applied with great dexterity. It is built on the same strong formal principles as the impressive Ocean Park series.
The figure gradually becomes a vestigial organ in Dibenkorn’s painting; in Frohsin’s, it is the beating heart of her practice.
Why does such an invidious comparison continue to be made? Her last obviously influenced paintings date from the 1990’s.What is significant about her painting is how these stylistic foundations have been built upon, de-constructed and modified with time and the accumulation of independent experience. Frohsin shook off any direct Bay influence years ago. It could take her only so far; a more concentrated relationship with the model was required to propel her towards where she wanted to go. Observational skills needed practice; her drawing skills had to be extended; pushed beyond what she already had at her disposal. What Frohsin is producing now, Diebenkorn couldn’t approach, because what are now her core skills in draughtsmanship, far exceed anything he ever had to call upon in his repertoire.
LOOK AT THE ARTWORK
It is at once rigorous and disciplined, yet playful and carried along with an obvious passion for colour. Her vision is translated through confident line and bravura paint application. A desire to grasp illusionistic form is held in tension by an acknowledgement of basic two-dimensional organisation. Refined tertiary hues carefully balance brash areas of super-saturated colour.
I began this ramble by recalling Kim Frohsin’s paintings. I conclude with a note to art critics. It is your duty to analyse work with rigour and clarity; unclouded by the prejudices and accepted opinions of your predecessors. If you are unable to do this, the apparatus is now freely available for a public interested in visual art to bypass your views altogether, and to enter into direct dialogue with the artists themselves through their websites and associated blogs. These provide an opportunity to engage with the practicioner, [perhaps even to arrange a studio visit] before that artist’s ideas are warped or skewed by even the most well meaning and erudite of interlocutors.
LOOK AT THE ARTWORK…..
Glenn Ibbitson February 2009
Stephen Jay Gould “Bully for Brontosaurus: further reflections in natural history” 1990
charcoal pencil and white acrylic on paper 70x 56cm
Carole in Clover: acrylic and oil on canvas 80x 52cm
Easy Pieces: charcoal pencil on paper 82x56cm
Charcoal pencil and white acrylic on paper 70x50cm
CAROLE KING: painter, printmaker, installation artist.
See her artworks at:
charcoal or charcoal pencil on paper; some are highlit with white or iridescent white acrylic. 84x56cm in size
I have long suspected that all the treasures comprising the antiques trade have by now been sourced, identified and marked to their full current values. Given the televisual super-saturation on this theme, the chances of discovering anything approaching a bargain must be pretty close to zero. However, if you prefer artefacts whose worth cannot be marked in hard currency, there may be hope. Several years ago, I acquired this drawing of a military officer for something less than twenty pounds, from an auction house in Bridgenorth, Shropshire. How he got there I have no way of knowing. I had hoped that there may be some hidden clues waiting between the drawing and the frame’s rear panel. The frame was suitably old and the window mount foxed with age, so I carefully prised away its back with anticipation, but previous ‘tomb robbers’ had broken in first; replacing any original packing with a couple of pages from a 1980’s Daily Mail…
I am no expert in military costume and would welcome correction on this point, but I intuitively felt from first sight that this man was an officer of the German Army. After all, his appearance conforms to that “Prussian” persona so beloved of the national stereotypist; squared jaw, strong neck and full moustache. [Where is the monocle?] However, even a shallow trawl through any photographic record of the Great War shows us that the differences in appearance are between ranks, [and class] and not armies – compare British C.I.G.S. Sir William Robertson’s appearance with any of equivalent rank across the lines at German High Command; they are interchangeable. What actually indicated nationality of origin to me was a technical component of the drawing itself; the line of strange, stylised background swirls. These were characteristic of innumerable German Expressionist woodcuts of the time.
I would surmise that this drawing was executed by someone who had at least a minimum of academic art training and a working knowledge of contemporary drawing style. Operating behind the front line as an artist conscripted into the army, or on the home front as a student whose studies had been interrupted by world war, he was utilising his skill to produce works for the officer class. The head is fixed on the paper with a firm line rather than a sophisticated contour, but this is just the type of figure edge one sees in the contemporary drawings of a society portraitist like John Singer Sargeant; an example of a European-wide salon style. The pencil hatching follows around the form of cheeks, over fullish lips and around the chin with a lightness of touch typical of portrait drawings of the time. Modern portraiture tends to steer clear of softening effects; facets which unequivocally model form are currently preferred to blending and softening techniques. Yielding, fleshy softness is now the preserve of photography. Yet here, this hatching is still able to indicate form; note how a 180 degree change of hatching angle on the nose tip pushes this form well forward of the cheeks. The softness of flesh is held resolutely in check by the stiffness of the tunic collar, thereby stabilising the unmilitary weakness of the jaw line. The hair is depicted through a series of small planes, which convincingly follow the head structure beneath; contrast this with the rendition of individual hair strands in the moustache. The buttons are cursorily scribed, but still achieve the appearance of polished brass.
What I find particularly poignant about this work is the date; January 1916. Unless the subject of this portrait was a military adviser to the Turkish Army, which had decisively repelled invasion the year before, he was likely to have to face action of the utmost ferocity at some point that year. Repelling the Brusilov offensive in the East, or enduring Verdun and the Somme in the West. Might he have faced the battalions of my West Yorkshire forbears at Serre on the first of July? There, on that morning, my great-grandfathers prepared to advance on a tribe who had burned history and knowledge in the medieval library of Louvain within days of their incursion through the Belgian frontier and who thereafter practiced ‘schrecklichkeit’; terrorizing civilians on both land and at sea. These British troops had been reliably informed by their leaders that this Teuton and his ilk had bayoneted babies, cut off the hands of children, and used live priests as bell clappers.
Now the fog of war has cleared, the imperial propagandist’s black arts have been scrutinised and deconstructed and ninety years later, a little piece of a lost world hangs in my study. Here is a man, his history obscure, this displaced portrait of him forever lost to his family. An essentially benign man, his severe collar is not quite able to squeeze the smile from his eyes. Unlike my forbears, I can only hope that he survived his ordeal with this sympathetic demeanour intact.
This article first appeared in “Carmarthenshire Life”; April 2006