A Merman I Should Turn To Be
Curated by Dan Coopey
04 Jul 2014 – 02 Aug 2014

Rupert Ackroyd

Aaron Angell

Nicholas Byrne

Dan Coopey

Alex Dordoy

Graham Ellard & Stephen Johnstone

Paul Housley

Alexis Marguerite Teplin

Ruairiadh O’Connell

Karin Ruggaber


“A fossil is not merely a being that once lived, but one that is still alive, asleep in its form”

Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space (1958)

Laura Bartlett Gallery is pleased to present A Merman I Should Turn To Be, an exhibition of ten artists, curated by artist Dan Coopey. The exhibition pivots on Graham Ellard and Stephen Johnstone’s 2009 film Machine on Black Ground. The 16mm film fuses archival and original material, intermingling images from mid-twentieth century industrial documentaries and a 1976 concert by Tangerine Dream at Coventry Cathedral with original footage of the modernist stained glass of the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtniskirche, Berlin; Coventry Cathedral; and The Meeting House, Sussex University. Ellard and Johnstone’s treatment of the footage draws parallels between modernist sacred space and the mechanics of film projection itself, stained glass as filmstrip and the cathedral as a projector of light, whilst building a utopian science fictional narrative.

Like the abstracted narrative constructed in Machine On Black Ground other works in A Merman I Should Turn To Be are also characterised by a process of harnessing motifs of the past and occasional nods of artistic forbearers, together with the use of often rudimentary materials and processes, to begin a process of retelling, reinventing and reimagining history into the present moment. The overall effect of the works collected here aims to demonstrate the pre-eminence of the present moment, the relationship between viewer and environment in the instant, at the expense of didactic historical empiricism.

In Paul Housley’s ongoing Woodstock series of paintings the artist renders the titular 1960s cartoon character, Snoopy’s abstractly drawn sidekick in Charles M. Schulz’s comic strip Peanuts, in painterly styles largely influenced by art historical masters. Schulz’s original depiction of Woodstock lends itself to this treatment: the yellow bird usually appears in profile, akin to the pose of classical portraiture, and the looseness of the animation allows Housley to morph his rendition into the appropriated strokes of his medium’s predecessors. Woodstock was named after the iconic American rock festival and in the context of this show the works make a nod to the mutability and freedoms of psychedelia’s heyday. Rarely seen together, here they might also be interpreted as Icons, illustrating how an artistic motif becomes a symbol of devotion.

Nicholas Byrne’s sculptures The Rosary, 2014 and Portfolio for Intestines, 2014 – mimicries of portfolio folders – are handcrafted from carefully sourced fabrics chosen for their particular cultural histories and social usage. Hand stitched and pinned they are at once provisional and fetishistic. Within this show the ritualistic nature of their careful construction and how one might handle such delicate objects is brought to the fore. Bereft of contents however, the construction of the objects becomes the point of concentration. The satinised and starched cotton interiors and the particularities of the thread, as it makes its stitched path through waffle cotton and leather, seem imbued with the potential to communicate stories. Yet any firm narrative eludes the viewer, as if hidden between the seams.

Aaron Angell’s ceramic tableaux formally reference hobbyist crafts and naïve creativity. They speak of egalitarian cultures and utopic politics, and perhaps reminds the viewer of, variously, record sleeve iconography of 1970s folk and psychedelic bands, the landscapes of John Constable or the topography a mythic Arcadia. Like these references, the sculptures simultaneously look forward and backwards, seeking something radical from something old.

Alexis Marguerite Teplin’s work relates to the earliest moments of twentieth century abstract art and deals in the immersive and seductive qualities of visual stimuli. Multiple latent histories appear re-enacted through her brushstrokes – Kandinsky and the Russian artist’s ideas of the visualisation of music through paint being one such. Yet Marguerite Teplin also describes her work as self-consciously ‘feminine’, and it is this gendering of the abstract, and the radicalism that that hints at, which is what is brought to the fore in the context of this grouping of artists.

Karin Ruggaber’s work tells of the urban environment. Yet while she explores the semiotics of architecture, her work also speaks of the base materiality of the stuff that surrounds us. Drawn by the tactile quality of surfaces and the exterior fronts of buildings, she marries discrete concrete, plaster and textile elements into various wall and floor-based formations, exposing the balance between temporal design and the material ingredients that remain largely unaffected by fashion, resulting in an aesthetic that is timeless, yet so integrated within their immediate environment as to be firmly rooted in the present.

While working within painterly conventions Ruairiadh O’Connell’s latex cast of superfresco wallpaper on show, a continuation of a series originally instigated for exhibition in a former chapel, interacts directly with the particularities of the environment in which they are displayed, while also engaging with the wider technological landscape in which they are made. Here the work finds home within the transient space of the gallery’s staircase, acknowledged en route between spaces but resisting a prolonged gaze and instead offering a more subliminal form of interaction. This transient mode of viewing is perhaps analogous to the passing of time, as the present becomes an ever-moving point of reference.

Rupert Ackroyd’s work plays with vernacular design in public space, here looking at various styles of decorative brickwork found commonly between wooden beams in Tudor and more recently mock-Tudor architecture, and even more commonly now as a decorative infill beneath bar counters in pubs and eateries, a nod to which is given by a bag of processed cheese powder. This work is one example from an ongoing body of work that homes in on the ad hoc layered surfaces that are built up within pub interiors over time, and which form a composite collection of histories.

Alex Dordoy engages with the continual development of digital and information technologies. His series of silicone casts render their source – the interior of deconstructed, second-hand, photocopiers – less a mirror of the object, but something altogether more slippery. While formally addressing the legacies of minimalism and abstraction, as the rigid systems of lines and grids of the photocopier components are stretched and distorted by the soft and malleable rubber, they also portray, albeit unreliably, a technology of distribution and documentation as it passes in to obsolescence.

Likewise Dan Coopey’s series of etched copper plates also utilise an outmoded form of image reproduction. Still bearing traces of the chemical etchant, the works are presented in flux as oxidisation takes its slow affect. In some respects the motifs, generated from scans of high tech machine parts, might appear closer to ancient runes, yet their continually changing surface patination anchors them very much in the current, transient, momen