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Reasons to be cheerful: Two exhibitions at Hweg, Penzance

Martin Holman


The progress of Hweg is the best story to come out of the west Cornwall art scene in the past year. This small venue has quickly established itself as a place for good encounters with interesting artists. One reason is that Joe Lyward, whose gallery it is, applies sensitivity to his selection of work to show and people to work with. A bold intelligence informs how he presents that work: for a location of its size, Lyward packs a lot in. That does not mean an overabundance of individual items; usually it is the opposite. Instead each piece deserves attention in a hang that includes the luxury of spaciousness. So artworks have the chance to speak for themselves - seldom loudly, which is an integral part of the experience - and visitors the opportunity for thought. The invitation to look, consider and remember is powerful and rewarding.

The two most recent exhibitions exemplify these attractive qualities. The first, ‘In Flower Beds’, involved nine artists from at least three continents who have the presence of mind to locate their activity in the quietest, most productive and restorative corner of nature, the garden. As well as images, text was a factor in the show: one of the works was an essay, another a poem and a third a bookmark. ‘A Painter’s Garden’, specially commissioned from Dutch painter Anke Roder and printed in the show’s exquisite publication, provides a delicate and well-phrased accompaniment to the subtle interweaving of colour, line and space across the walls. Both the words and the booklet reflected the tone of profundity in simplicity that characterised the show.

Mana Yamamoto was represented by the suite of cyanotypes reframing branch and leaf forms that set lines of poetry in Japanese against a background of evening blue (pictured below). Together, these prints measured only a fraction of the area covered by Ben Sanderson’s garden-like multiple plantings in a double-sided collage drape: fabrics, processes and media coalesced into the visual event he calls 08/07/2022, the title assuming the temporal record of making and completion. Between these two extremes of size was a delicate watercolour plant study on handmade paper by Jatinder Singh Durhallay. A framed C-type photograph, the camera lens delves into a cluster of grassland flowers which fill the image area until the point of focus is passed. The composition approaches the tactility of being nose deep into the fragrant spikiness and sensual rapture of growing things.

The collaboration between scale, surface, image and idea once again benefited from the space the works were given on the walls, both within the room and against the light filtering through front front window and back door. By its very being, Sanderson’s piece was free-hanging, partitioning the space into impromptu front and back areas. On first meeting it inside the doorway no distraction on the wall detracted from the gentle beauty of its tones and the robust, concentric, sewn linear elements that fold the visitor’s attention into its introverted core. The one piece in its sightline at the doorway was so small that it felt like a migrant on its untroubled journey to settle in Sanderson’s refuge of an hortus conclusus. This was a woodcut print on thin paper, the dimensions of a bookmark (its most likely original purpose in the world) by an unknown maker. Lyward saw it, liked it and bought it in Japan. The miniature object (because Lyward’s choice has made it so) somehow imported the far-eastern spirit of great aesthetic significance in the smallest peaceful intention that this gallerist so admired during his time in that country. It also bracketed the show with humility, being quiety visible on arrival and more apparent on leaving, once mind and eye had been aligned with Lyward’s well-honed sensibility.

A subtle distinction between the works, in a show of subtleties, was the disparity between being overtly made and occupying an imaginative dimension so that the piece felt as if it had wandered into the category of art from another existence altogether. Sanderson’s hanging shows off its making with barely suppressed eagerness through processes of dyeing, cutting, stitching, printing and edging. And although the most art-historically grounded item here, Winifred Nicholson’s painting 'Two Nosegays' (c. 1945-51) assumed no primacy amongst its younger and living co-exhibitors. It hung in the back part of the gallery and, behind the Sanderson work swaying lethargically in a draft, probably relished being on equal terms with the others. The canvas depicts two jugs on a sill, each filled with the small bunches in its title set against a vague, hazy far horizon in a landscape gently modelled in light. The drawing, paintwork and contrived composition spoke of artistic construction.

But not so Robyn Graham’s 'Holding' (like everything except Nicholson’s painting, made post-pandemic in 2022-23). An unevenly shaped object with a decorated surface standing out from the wall on a base of pronounced depth, it looks as if it has come fully-formed from another use. The front plane has a floral design which is not easy to make out (pictured above). Visible spots of green acquire context in this company as leaves, to which patches of washed-out red make sense as flower heads. But any form they might have had appears dissolved into the surface by time, sunlight or some other force to break through now only like blushes on a flushed complexion.

One fascinating feature of this work is the call it makes on the viewer who wants to account for its appearance. Inferring a history in its elusive coloration and unusual shape is natural, enjoyable and only ever speculative. Was this remnant once wallpaper from a demolished house, its walls knocked violently apart by a wrecking ball? Do only portable shards remain of an interior once called home, where a pattern of flowers brought the consolation of nature into an urban sitting room? And even that is on the precipice of disappearance - yet it holds its presence: it is not done yet. ‘Perhaps the appearance of flowers in a home,’ writes Lyward in his foreword, ‘printed on fabrics, is to put us in flower beds, to nurture and heal us while we rest.’

The second exhibition continues until 19 August and comprises ceramics by Elena Gileva who works in London but grew up and first attended art school in Russia. Around the walls and flat surfaces are objects on a domestic scale that suit the interior of Hweg. Gileva calls the show ‘Vocabulary of tactile language’ and she is true to her title. The work has a homespun feel about it by association with its visible making directed towards function or decoration, or both, and from which Gileva has extracted its formal clarity to take on an entirely aesthetic dimension. There are cultural and, conceivably, historical journeys, latent for an English audience to conjecture in her use of weaving and basic ceramic forms. Those forms are mostly built up from clay rolled in a manoeuvre of making that has been part of ceramic’s history for thousands of years and emerged independently as an intuitive method in different parts of the globe. These rolls are conventionally a prelude to coiling the still pliable material and adding layers to construct the walls of vessels in an efficient process that does not need slip for the object to cohere into a firm structure before firing.

Gileva builds tall vessel forms in this way, although not in this show since the earthenware pillars and sugar mountain-like obelisks that result are above waist-high to the viewer and beyond the scope of what she wants to achieve here. Yet she carries many of their characteristics over into these smaller objects, such as their organic silhouettes implying handling and shaping; their bright colouring, applied as slips and glazes; and the socialising of different shapes into active combinations or tableaux. One of these is the small-scale ‘landscape’ of clay objects set out on the counter top just inside the gallery door. The basic material is rolled or somehow extruded, and then folded or looped, bent or creased. One roll steps over another, like a worm crossing an obstacle by arching itself over. Others have coiled up like sea creatures in defensive mode, biding their time before unfurling and moving on, while another has curled tensely upwards on its back as if exercising its ligaments. Some resemble a length of plasticine, still ridged and monochrome as if from the wrapper; one polygonal stretch of clay is creased along its length in a manner that resembles piping. So identities are pleasingly masked, as with the circles of braided ropes of ceramic that glisten like enlarged microbial organisms, primitive life forms or something unsettlingly intestinal.

That is one arrangement. On the walls more shapes intermingle at different heights between floor level and just about overhead, as if gravitating towards each other at a networking event from which one or two might stand back shyly. The materials mix, too, between lattices of clay rolls to patches of woven threads that boast the coarse edges the ceramics cannot aspire to. Here and there tablets with modulated, glazed finishes infiltrate the community of weaved elements, appearing more solid with their brazen displays of extended area. Slabs appear and also twisted aspects, some plaited and others dropped like a splat that is then glazed and fired. Some are matt, others glossy, and the colours are celebratory oranges, gold, purples, greens, blues and yellows. Do they have meaning? Has the viewer walked into a party or, maybe, a festival that the absent makers (there are enough variations to suggest multiple minds if we wanted to prolong the fantasy and the wondering) always mark this way to respect their culture or beliefs? We feel welcome.

Hweg is not seeking comparisons with other galleries in Penzance or the wider area of West Penwith. Lyward’s intention is to provide a calm space for art that invites a careful encounter. He is achieving the promise of the gallery’s name, the equivalent in English for this Cornish adjective being ‘kind’, ‘pleasing’, ‘gentle’, in the positive sense of a mutually arrived-at encounter that fosters well-being. Nonetheless, and in pursuit of that aim, Hweg’s value exceeds its modest footing and should give much larger, longer established and even publicly financed venues pause for searching reflection.


‘In Flower Beds’ took place between in June 2023 and ‘Elena Gileva: Vocabulary of tactile language’ runs from 15 July to 19 August 2023, both at Hweg, 34 Causewayhead, Penzance TR18 2SP. Also see interview with Joe Lyward in 'interviews'.

© Martin Holman 2023