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Manderley at John Jones
The forthcoming group show at John Jones subverts childhood ephemera and shines a light on the pitch-black recesses of the human soul.
This month, John Jones present an exhibition of deceptively cute work that juxtaposes the innocent and the profane. The artists involved in Manderley employ various mediums to peel away layers of respectability and reveal the bubbling undertow of the subconscious, thereby delving into the violence of our times. These visual provocateurs have ties with the Royal College of Art, where they have all either studied or taught in the past, and some of them are no strangers to controversy, having some 'previous' with the law regarding the so-called obscenity of their works. We entered into the strange world of curator and participating artist Edd Pearmann to talk lost innocence, fast fashion and political subversion...
Dazed Digital: Can you first talk to us about Parabellum (see gallery) – why have you chosen to use imagery so evocative of childhood to portray such horrors?
Edd Pearmann: Parabellum is taken from the latin quote ‘vis pacem, para bellum’ meaning ‘if you wish for peace, prepare for war’. This is part of series of works that utilize uniforms from national institutions such as The St John's Ambulance Brigade, Boy Scouts, Girl Guides and The Salvation Army. The badges come from my 1980s childhood. It was then that I had my first experience of envy as a ‘sixer’ or ‘seconder’ – paraded like a peacock with the ‘arms of glory’ (the reward of a badge for ‘doing good’ or ‘making progress’). The work represents a sea change in youth culture. I wanted to depict an abandonment of the stringently taught morals that each Scout or Girl Guide would abide to, and the broken promises of ‘doing your best’, which have resulted in a loss of innocence in youth in the present day.
DD: I can see parallels in this show with the music of Syd Barrett – those nursery rhyme melodies acting as a cover for inner darkness and struggle. Is juxtaposition something that interests you?
EP: I think there are definitely parallels and similarities to the style of Daniel Johnston – heart-wrenching lyrics on the subject of loneliness and despair wrapped effortlessly in jingles and catchy melodies. My inspirations tend to be subconscious. I would struggle to tell you what my favourite film, album and painting is, as the answer would always be wrapped in nostalgia – where I was, who I was with and how that made me felt always influences what I like, and this is in constant flux. It's too easy to just be disgusted by so-called 'shock tactics' employed by artists, and to dismiss or even demonize a piece based on our overactive media-fed moral compasses. Many focus on the content over the context. To make this knee-jerk reaction to challenging imagery more difficult to achieve, I prefer art to be subtle to allow certain truths more palatable. In the case of the more challenging work in Manderley, any immediate repulsion to the subject of a piece is gently assuaged by the excellent execution or craftsmanship employed, or yes, the overlaying of a contrary juxtaposing element. I think that is something all of the artists have in common.
DD: The work feels very political – do you think artists have a responsibility to engage politically? Or do you think art is inherently political?
EP: I don't think it's possible for art to remain completely untouched by politics, particularly when there is so much turbulence. Political affairs have always been a very fertile area of interest for artists. Regarding a responsibility to engage with politics within work, artists are no more or less duty bound than anyone else to react to what occurs in their environs. However, they may be more inclined to create art than to complain to their locally elected official.
DD: In the press release it talks of finding beauty in the profane – could you elaborate on that concept?
EP: The exhibition is named after the vast house of same name from the novel Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. The house is part of a rolling and quite magnificent estate but ghosts of the past – lies, deceit, murder and malevolence – bubble under the surface. The horror of these occurrences become all the more sinister up against this beautiful serene backdrop. It seems more usual to find work that is about finding and celebrating beauty in ugly things. This selection of work is more to do with discovering the ugly beneath the veneer of beauty. Most of all, though, the concept is about dichotomies.
DD: How did you go about choosing the artists for the show? Was there a common aspect you felt their work shared?
EP: I studied and worked at the Royal College of Art for a number of years and all of the artists selected have a connection to the Printmaking Department. I have had the pleasure of working with them directly in some form or another and share the same fascinations with dark humour, subversion and parody.
DD: What do you hope visitors to Manderley will experience? Is it your intention to challenge and unsettle?
EP: It’s not the intention, but it may be a by-product. Some of the artists in the show have had hysterical over-reactions to their work in the past and it’s always a possibility that may occur again. An example of this is the work of Ceal Warnants who had her entire exhibition confiscated by the police on the grounds of allegedly breaking up to nine counts of the law, including the Obscene Publications Act 1964 and The Indecent Displays Act 1959. However, the work was later released by the Crown Prosecution Service without charge. I hope that people are challenged but have a more positive reaction.
DD: Max Beckman said that "if you want to grasp the invisible you must penetrate as deep as possible into the visible" – would you say that is a true statement?
EP: Yes, the piece is more than simply meets the eye. It’s the subtext of the work that seems most important to me and for that you have to look beyond the visuals.
DD: In the early years of the 20th Century there were myriad art movements that changed the very notion of what art was forever – futurism, cubism, realists, abstract expressionists etcetera – are there any current art movements you can delineate with as much potential transformative power?
EP: I think it’s too early to say, but I think that like ‘fast fashion’ there is more of a tendency towards trends than movements. Having said that I think the time for purely concept-based work is at an end, and that craftsmanship is to become equally as important as the concept.
Manderley is at John Jones November 26 – January 16
John-Paul Pryor is Dazed Digital's Arts & Culture Editor. He regularly writes about the arts for a variety of leading publications and was responsible for exhibitions at the now decommissioned Dazed Gallery.