Artist : David Thorpe
Title : A Rare Beast
Date(s) : 2012
Dimensions : 244 x 282 x 87 cm
Material : oak, sand, clay, hair, dung, slake lime, pigment, rabbit skin glue, split hazel branches, with sound component
Website : www.maureenpaley.com
Credit : courtesy Maureen Paley, London
8 June – 22 July 2012
Review by Henry Little
Libidinous, bulbous plants, groaning patterned monoliths, crafted vertebrae and a fleshy length of oak: David Thorpe’s exhibition marries Victorian artisanal creed with the science-fiction, fantasy landscapes of previous years. Earlier works from the middle of the last decade depicted precarious architecture and emblematic civilisations in the wilderness, alone, but romantic and picturesque. Here, we see this peculiar world up close.
A monument on eight wooden legs, just tall enough to make you feel small, occasionally asserts itself with a low groan. This seems strange, emanating from a rustic, ornate wall facsimile, devotedly inlaid with looping foliage patterns and constructed in antiquated wattle and daub. Its near neighbour, an upright screen with domestic dark brown tiles with a white foliage pattern, is comparably emphatic in its love of Victorian design.
Like the highly influential nineteenth-century writer and critic John Ruskin (1819 – 1900), Thorpe’s current body of work foregrounds a fascination with the relationship between art and nature. And, more specifically, the tension and difference between imitating and recording nature. Ruskin was a keen advocate of botanical illustration, in fact championing these humble craftsmen as artists, not merely ‘illustrators’, and was an avid water-colourist himself. In Thorpe’s botanical watercolours, we see this same impetus to record accurately, but instead of known plants we are presented with fantastical specimens derived, as we may suppose, from the artist’s own universe. These works, if you are so inclined, are truly exceptional. ‘Ecstatic Hangings’ (2012) bears the erotic fruit of the work’s title. A long, fibrous plant, it’s as alien to my eyes as most exotic plants, but clearly imagined by Thorpe. At its tip, a delicate blue flower atop a spiked central limb, with small blue berries distributed in pairs along its length. Finally, a circle of white orbs about its base, followed by a cluster of suggestive vegetal sacks - the ‘ecstatic hangings’ of the work’s title.
Upstairs the biological and anatomical associations are drawn out in greater detail. In the middle of the gallery ‘Gangraena’ (2012) is a complicated proposition, although of simple appearance. A lengthy section of ancient oak has the warm colouring of flesh, painted using a medieval technique with countless layers worked up from a dark purple, to give the convincing illusion of human warmth under the surface. Here then we have a means of imitating nature applied to a found natural object: nature and its image conflated to produce an uncanny artefact. The title of the work is also steeped in historical meaning. Gangraena is the name of a heresiographic tome (i.e. a chronicle of heresy and blasphemy incidents) written by the zealous puritan Thomas Edwards (c. 1599 - 1648). Crucially, this account has a distinct reputation for adversarial tone and hard line puritanical doctrine – as you might imagine from a title which equates heresy with the deathly sores of gangrene. If, as the press release states, this body of work was conceived in opposition to Thomas Edwards, then Thorpe’s lively oak celebrates Ruskin’s vigorous identification of humanity with nature, and rejects Edwards’ denial of our natural urges towards a freedom of emotive and religious conscience.