Interview with Cathy Lomax of the Transition Gallery
Last year Cathy Lomax, who runs the Transition Gallery, curated an exhibition about the English seaside inspired by Lindsay Anderson's film O Dreamland. We asked her a few questions about it.
Did the idea for the exhibition come to you at once when you saw O Dreamland, or did it take some time to germinate?
I am very interested in ideas around Englishness, and particularly in twentieth-century Englishness, so I had seen the Free Cinema films (including O Dreamland) at a screening at Tate Modern a few years ago. When I started thinking of curating an exhibition about the escapist qualities of the seaside, the title just seemed to fit really well.
Was the exhibition a reaction or an homage to the film?
I would say that it was more of a reaction than a homage. I think that Lindsay Anderson had a real preoccupation with class and, along with a curiosity about the day-tripping working classes, there is almost a sneering quality to his depiction of them. I am much more interested in the romantic, escapist nature of the seaside and how, despite the passage of time and all the problems that the English seaside resorts have faced, they still have a pull over us. There are some qualities that he focused on, like the grotesque nature of the seaside attractions (which tapped into a more general human fascination with horror), which were specifically reflected in the show in, for instance, the work of Delaine Le Bas.
Would you say that the exhibition was chiefly nostalgic in tone?
No. Of course, there was a clear nostalgic quality to some of the work, but because there were so many artists involved there were many different interpretations of the theme and there was no one clear view. Some of the work looked fondly back on the days of seaside grandeur, but other artists such as The Caravan Gallery and Natalie Dive were much more concerned with what is happening now. I think that a lot of the language of the seaside, i.e. buckets and spades, Punch and Judy, and deck-chairs, is familiar from our childhoods whilst at the same time being current, so this creates an interesting crash of now and then which could initially be read as nostalgia.
How did the artists you invited to take part respond to the idea initially?
Some of the artists I asked to participate had already made work which fitted the show's themes. Other artists, such as Matt Rowe who is based in Folkestone, have seaside themes at the core of what they do. Then there were others who made new pieces specifically for the show, such as Lucy Harrison's Abandonment sign and Seaside Attractions flag. Pretty much everyone I asked to participate was very enthusiastic about the theme.
What kind of audience did you attract?
I was unsure about the audience we would get, but in the end it was a really gratifying mix. I spent a lot of time promoting the event and we had a big feature in Coast magazine. This attracted a particular audience, many of whom were interested in the venue (a Thirties modernist house). We also had a lot of local people, some of whom were interested in the art and some who just came to see what was going on, and then we had an art audience, many of whom travelled from London.
Do you feel a personal bond with the English seaside? What was the significance of the exhibition for you personally?
I have a real fascination with the sea and the way that the seaside is such a dream destination. You only have to look at the number of people who retire to the seaside to see the significance of this. The main part of the exhibition was held in my own house in Greatstone, which made the whole thing particularly personal.
Recently much has been made of the resurrection of the English seaside. Do you think it really is reviving?
I think that there are lot of interesting things going on at the moment, and that there is a real revived interest in the seaside. It is definitely changing: it is becoming gentrified (just look at the aforementioned Coast magazine), and some cities such as Folkestone are seeing the arts as a way of regenerating things. Because many of the old industries such as fishing are dying, there has to be a change in the way that the seaside revives itself, but there is a caveat to this. In Folkestone, the Creative Foundation, which is a great organisation headed by the ex-Saga boss Roger De Haan, has bought up all the crumbling old properties in the old bit of the town, and is renting them out to new creative businesses, which in theory is great. However, this renewal does not always seem to be sympathetic to the seaside heritage, with old interiors being replaced by what look to me slightly bland magnolia interiors. And then there is art and art, and much of what I see there is a little on the twee side. I am sure this will be addressed by the [Folkestone Sculpture] Triennial exhibition there, but I hope that some of the old atmosphere can be saved and utilised. Also, on a different note, the whole 'eco' thing is having a bearing on the fortunes of the English coast: people are looking again at holidaying in this country.
Was this the first time you had addressed a specifically English subject in your art?
Englishness is a bit of an ongoing theme for me. In my own work, I have a particular interest in the Royal Family and how their identity affects the nation. Myself and Alex Michon have an ongoing project called the English Museum. The idea is to look at key themes and images of Englishness and to give them a contemporary context. Our first English Museum show was at Transition Gallery in 2005. I have always been inspired by England, and in recent years the revival of interest in romantic notions of Albion by groups such as The Libertines has been very inspirational. Back in 2005 I curated a show called Eng-er-land, about modern-day ideas around Englishness. I think that a sense of place is really important, and at Transition we have had two shows that have looked at the area the gallery is situated in, E9: An Anatomy of an Area in 2004 (when we were still in E9), and E8: The Heart of Hackney, earlier in 2007.
Do you have plans for any future exhibition themed around an aspect of English life or a particular English place?
The English Museum Part 2 will take place at the B&B Gallery in Folkestone in Spring 2008. It will have a subtitle which we haven't quite decided upon, but it will be focused on the life of Joe Meek.
Many thanks to Cathy Lomax for her time. The interview was conducted by Isabel Taylor.
Jason Rosenfeld and Alison Smith's Millais: Review
Millais Jason Rosenfeld and Alison Smith (Tate Publishing, 2007)
What a breathtaking book this is. Much more than just an exhibition catalogue (it accompanied the Tate's Millais exhibition, which finished on January 13), this sumptuously produced tome contains a wealth of superb images, including watercolours, drawings and engravings as well as oils, and a learned but accessible commentary on each of them, classifying them chronologically and according to type: Pre-Raphaelitism, Romance and Modern Genre, Aestheticism and so on.
Unfairly associated mainly with the saccharine Bubbles, notorious for its use in a Pears soap advert, Millais was in fact a versatile and technically brilliant artist whose work, as Alison Smith argues in her introductory essay, resists categorisation. She reminds us that it is misleading to talk about Millais's 'style' because he was constantly innovating. A browse through the book shows how his art evolved from the stylised, angular, mannered forms and jewel-like colours of his Pre-Raphaelite period (which also produced oddly trippy works such as Ferdinand Lured by Ariel, with its hyper-real landscape and bat-like elves), to the more realist style and muted palette of his middle age, and finally to the wintry and melancholy Scottish landscapes of his old age. The development in technical ability is particularly striking, especially if we compare the early portraits, which are gauche and not very well finished, with the majestic speaking likenesses of Disraeli, Tennyson and Gladstone that Millais produced in his later years.
Jason Rosenfeld in his introductory essay claims Millais as a major figure on the contemporary international art scene, not simply an important English artist. Influenced by Dutch art, Millais in turn had a powerful effect on the young Van Gogh through his late landscapes (particularly Chill October). He was admired by Salvador Dalí and exerted a substantial influence on Whistler and John Singer Sargent. Rosenfeld also rediscovers the profound impact that Millais and the rest of the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood had on visual culture in the later twentieth century, when the heightened detail of his nature paintings and the languour of much of his work inspired the Brotherhood of Ruralists, and film-makers such as the Australian Peter Weir (in Picnic at Hanging Rock). Rather than bland and sentimental, Rosenfeld sees Millais as one of the most innovative artists of his time, the counterpart in art to the great Victorian literary behemoths (Dickens, Eliot and Hardy). His artistic stature has recently been underscored by newly discovered masterpieces, reproduced in this book, such as the portrait of a young girl which faces the title page, looking out of the frame with unsettling awareness and melancholy, and another portrait of three young sisters which anticipates Sargent's Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose.
The reproductions in this beautifully-produced volume are exquisite: the way the burnished copper skirt of the heroine in The Proscribed Royalist, 1651 glows out from the page is a marvel, and the reproduction of the famous The Blind Girl is stunning. The book concludes with a four-page chronology of Millais's life. Although the print could be a little larger, and the choice of the famous Ophelia for the cover art seems too obvious—it might have been more adventurous to use one of the lesser-known masterpieces contained in the book—these are niggling criticisms. This beautiful book provides a thorough education in the work of a painter who towered head and shoulders above his contemporaries.--Isabel Taylor