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Andrew Lanyon

Goldfish Fine Art

December 2007


Andrew Lanyon is a unique artist for lots of reasons. Since the eighties he has been one of only a few Cornish artists working in film, writing and photography as well as painting, and he has worked in a way that - in a local context - is defiantly different: that is, in a way that is diametrically opposed to the St Ives school of abstract painting.

Belonging instead to the surrealist strand of modernism as it became part of 60's psychedelic counterculture, his painting tends to be small in scale, monochromatic, and highly stylised. It is not decorative or sensual in the manner of eg Patrick Heron and Terry Frost, and it lacks the spontaneity and physical exuberance of his father's work (his father was Peter Lanyon who died in a gliding accident when Andrew was a teenager). In fact it is relatively non-visual, and through its use of surreal narrative, full of content which unfolds slowly and carefully in time, not in space. It also makes its point through the use of layers of dream-like symbolism and metaphor, such that to a large extent it can be read like a book or a poem.

Perhaps the relationship with narrative is not surprising. Artist's books have been a constant feature of Lanyon's output. In addition he trained as a film-maker in the late sixties, and his work has things in common with that of other artist film-makers like Jean Cocteau and Derek Jarman, with his drawings and paintings looking like storyboards and his sculptures props from a film or stage-show.

The exhibition at Goldfish was installed in a way that emphasised these theatrical qualities: dark chocolate brown drapes downstairs created a labyrinth of little grotto-like spaces in which the work was placed. This 'staging' helped create a sense of otherworldliness that fitted the work well.

The paintings that worked best as visual art were those which carried minimal narrative baggage, instead being like short poems or haikus: 'A cloud and a tree' (pictured above), only a few inches across and depicting three raindrops and three red leaves, was a good example.

Much of the work in the show had a similar poetic quality, often nudged along by an evocative title. 'Time's Breath' was the perfect name for an otherwise unassuming sculpture comprising an old clock filled with dandelion seeds.

Often made using antiques and discarded objets d'art, there was very little of the contemporary world in the sculptures. Several pieces engaged with history instead: often doing so in a way that was irreverent and playful by finding the absurd in what might have been serious content. An example would be the painting 'Newton' in which a figure in the foreground - who we take to be the 17th Century mathematician - appears to miss the small acid green apple falling to the ground behind him (above right).

In the upstairs gallery, the space was opened out and works from 'The Fairy Museum' at Godolphin were shown (picture right below). Some of them were enchanting, as if made by fairies, like the book 'Colour first seeped out of TVs' and the sculpture 'Each amaranthine hour unfolds an everlasting flower whose roots draw metaphors from pools of purple prose to protect with thorns the everlasting rose' (left). But random juxtapositions of objects do not always hit home, and though memorable as an object 'If birds had evolved language they'd be just as bad as us' had an arbitrary quality that frustratingly resisted interpretation.

This applied to a number of the works for which there was little in the way of explanation, and with so much visual information to digest it was difficult to know where to begin.

This overwhelming quality was no doubt intended by Lanyon who, through a sustained and mischievious assault on reason, creates a similar disorientation of the senses in his books. His films, however, are more accessible and direct, and occupy the same universe, but one that seems more familiar and closer to home.

Lanyon has been making films since the mid 90s. They have benefitted from a cast of willing volunteers, who bring a dose of reality as well as local colour and contemporaneity to his work. Thirty or forty of these carefully crafted short films were projected in a separate room in Goldfish.

As with the paintings, the works that were shorter, less jokey and less obviously caricatured were the most powerful - at least when considered purely as visual art.

A good example in this respect was 'The Flower Arranger'. Only two and a bit minutes long, it depicts a woman arranging flowers, each finger of each hand tied by string to a pole; her movements controlled by a small army of puppeteers. All the participants were Lanyon's friends, wearing wellies and fleeces, and looking very ordinary and normal. Slightly slower than real time, and zooming in and out, it is a haunting and dramatic film that effortlessly mixes elements of dream and reality in a way that is completely beguiling.

In fact Lanyon's films represent an extraordinary artistic achievement and they deserve to be seen by more people.  His work as a whole is not always easy however, and at times it is so full of personal references, caricature and whimsy to be as impenetrable as Cornish gorse.

The surfeit of meaning that it contains was amply demonstrated in the Goldfish show, and it is both a strength and weakness.  Its complexity is in contrast to much contemporary art, which is made to function as quick-hit photogenic soundbytes: ready-made for our increasingly instant, decentred (globalised) culture.

Lanyon's work at Goldfish was infinitely slower and more deliberate and multilayered. And his exhibition, which required viewers to completely switch modes and slow down, belonged to a completely different time and place.

RW 22/12/07