humble as hell

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at the Kurt Schwitters Merzbarn, Elterwater

Oct 21 – Nov 26th 2017

Susan Collis, Neil Gall, Roland Hicks, Nicky Hirst,

Paul Housley, Duncan Macaskill, Stephen Palmer,

Cathie Pilkington, Joel Tomlin, Richard Woods   

It may seem reasonable to assume that artists who make work that appears modest in scale, materials or subject matter are, themselves, equally modest. Many artists are comfortable spending long hours in isolation in the studio, and - despite the desired end destination for the work usually being some kind of public gallery space - are not always natural exhibitionists. The thought of simply trying to stage some kind of non-exhibitionist exhibition does hold some appeal, and formed the original idea for this show.

But while it’s tempting to peg all such artists as humble introverts, quietly identifying with the fabric of everyday life - possibly even merging with it in a self-effacing way - the paradox is that work which refuses to shout for the viewer’s attention may actually be more demanding. In choosing material or subject matter that has no obvious value in itself these artists potentially place all the value on their role as the creator. Or perhaps that should be ‘Creator’. So now we have a rampant ego/god complex on the loose - with the artist cast as alchemist magician, turning base material into artistic gold. Both positions seem equally tenable. Or untenable. As Kurt Schwitters had it: ‘everything is right, including the opposite’.

The opportunity to use the site of Schwitters’ Merzbarn, away from the usual centres of art world activity, is, of course, perfect for an exhibition that shuns the limelight, and then places extra demands on the viewer in expecting some form of pilgrimage.

Paradox and humble materials are fundamental aspects of Schwitters’ work, and the artists in Humble As Hell can all claim some form of kinship. They all produce works, in some way, ‘of the hand’, but which, like those of Schwitters, deny easy categorisation. There is a particularly strong connection between many of the works on show here and Schwitters’ late sculptures, of which the writer and curator John Elderfield wrote: ‘in the sculptures, painting and modelling are combined to produce fabricated objects with the potency of found ones.’

In addition, Elderfield - when examining a written defence by Schwitters of his continued practice of naturalistic painting alongside the Merz work – describes him as: ’remarkably frank – and also curious for being so self-effacing and so supremely self-confident at one and the same time.’

Humble As Hell.

Roland Hicks, 2017

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