'Something Invisible and powerful and totally uncontrollable'
A solo exhibition by Lucy Wright
5--28 May, 2023
South Square, Bradford
Lichens are remarkable. They are a composite. Two things in the same space at the same time. A symbiosis.
Despite being often referred to as mosses, lichen are formed of algae living in fungal filaments. They are not plants at all.
It’s estimated that they cover around 7% of the surface of the Earth, which is fortunate, because they are what we refer to as ‘pioneer species’.
They can grow on almost any surface… barren rock, trees, mosses, and they can be found from sea level to high alpine altitudes. They’ve been found in the middle of hot, dry, deserts, arctic tundra and even the asbestos roofs and toxic slag heaps left behind after industry has long moved on.
Lichens can even live inside rock, growing between the grains.
And once there, they go about their business of living, and dying, repeatedly. Each time leaving a little more of themselves behind, creating soils for other organisms, and food and shelter. And soon, where once where only lichen could grow, we find a place that supports a myriad of life.
They are outstandingly beautiful too. They come in different patterns, textures and colours. They trace shapes and designs on otherwise desolate landscapes.
Right now I am looking at such a place. It is a bare slab of stone, warm in the sunlight. There is no life on it, nor under it. It is a gravestone.
“These works take as their starting point Renaissance images misattributed to Mary Magdalene (but actually depicting Mary of Egypt), in which the protagonist is covered head to toe in thick, curling body hair. Legend suggests that after Jesus’s death, Mary Magdalene lived alone in the desert for many years, praying and fasting until her clothes became ragged.
When they eventually fell away , she grew thick body hair to protect her from the elements. The story has become a potent symbol of my recent bereavement, speaking to women’s hair as adaptation, defence and sanctuary, as well as to the reflective, potentially cathartic power of time spent in natural landscapes and in solitude.”
– Lucy Wright, 2023
Another, perhaps more Christian interpretation of the fable of Mary in the desert suggests not that her hair grew to protect her from the elements, the harsh sun and blistering cold of the desert, or even the elemental force of grief itself, but that it grew to protect her modesty.
Antonio del Pollaiuolo’s, Assumption of Mary Magdalene, ca. 1460, sees Mary Magdalene raised by angels and we see her not covered in body hair, but artfully wrapped in tressels sprouting from her scalp in a typical rewriting presented by late Renaissance works.
It does raise the question, ‘who exactly is the modesty for?’. Being a hermit in the desert it’s unlikely that Mary was subjected to the gaze of visitors. Perhaps, instead it is for the modesty of the angels that surround her, as they too are clothed in flowing robes.
Maybe the modesty is for God, a god that seems uncomfortable looking at the same naked creation he wrought from bones and dirt.
The truth is likely more terrestrial. The modesty is entirely at the behest of the viewer of the painting, a tasteful editing for a contemporary set of morals. It should be noted that these morals are not universal. The nude (as opposed to nakedness) proliferated during the Renaissance in part due to humanism of classical revival, seen in such works as Apollo and Daphnis by Perugino.
But in these cases the female nude is there for the viewing gaze. It is not a disinterested view of form, but one informed by contemporary eroticism, which is in itself an attempt to root the female form in an object-viewer relationship.
There’s a contradiction here. A demand for narrative modesty played off against a visual desire for eroticism.
Pollaiuolo’s attempt to render both required a selective interpretation of a hair-covered body, but in the Winterfel Diptych Mary Magdalene is shown in a more traditional form of body hair.
The context that is important here is that body hair was often conflated with sinfulness, specifically the sin of wildness. And what is wildness if not a specific commune with nature?
It seems like a singular and unusual punishment, for Mary Magdalene to be conflated with Mary of Egypt, a ready-made template that fits a specific narrative. Is this a punishment for her sexual past, or perhaps even punishment for being close to Jesus whilst being a woman? At any length it is the erasing of the narratives of two women in order to create a singular narrative that conforms to aesthetic ideals.
There’s evidence that these two women were also the composites of hundreds of women from folklore. That they are, if anything, archetypes to be subverted and that Mary Magdalene is ultimately a woman whose image has been incessantly conflated, contorted and contradicted.
Dan pulls the van up alongside the curb opposite the square. Everything is supposed to open at 10am, and we are a little early. Still, unstill, there’s plenty of activity. People are making their way between the various doors that line the unassuming U-shaped courtyard. There’s a wonderful smell of freshly brewed coffee in the air.
This one is on me, I claim, as if it is ample payment for the detour.
Fortunately Dan has a singular aspect of always being up for an adventure. And he’s heading over before I can even grab my notebook from the van.
Just last week he took a detour between gigs to visit stonehenge. There’s a photo of him pulling a rope attached to a massive monolith, and I don’t doubt for a second that if he was charged with erecting the entire henge on his own it would have been completed before lunch.
We sit in the courtyard and I tell him that they once had a giant replica of the Eiffel tower here. It was built to celebrate ‘Paris Thornton’ an event that coincided with the release of ‘Paris Texas’. They also transformed the place into the Titanic, I mention.
South Square was originally built as workers cottages in the earlier part of the 19th century, , but like most industry-adjacent enterprises in the north, decline struck and it was left derelict until a rebirth in the 1980s when the Thornton and Allerton Community Association was formed and with the aid of students and 30 formerly unemployed workers, the square was restored and transformed into the studios, galleries and kitchen.
We finish up our drinks in the pale sunlight that filters down into the sheltered square, protected from the unseasonal harshness of a bright spring morning, and I head into the gallery.
I’d like to posit that you can’t be alone in a gallery. It’s a grand statement, but it is one borne of experience.
As a young man I would frequently ditch school. It’s not as exciting as it sounds. I spent a lot of time wandering the less popular places of the town to avoid detection. It was a lonely pursuit. However, I quickly realised that I tended towards galleries and libraries as a perfect refuge, at first as a protection from the elements, but eventually as a protection from loneliness.
As I stared at the images I was listening to the conversations of the artists. I was sitting not just with their work, but with their thoughts and opinions, their beliefs and their insecurities.
Often, people confuse being alone with being lonely, yet most instinctively understand the feeling of being lonely when present in a large crowd.
Loneliness is not the proximity you share with other humans in physical space. It is the proximity you share with them in a more spiritual sense. It is feeling adrift of connection.
I think that is why grief and loneliness sit so close to each other. Grief is the loss of a connection, whilst loneliness is the yearning for one.
Galleries are context, or often, the deliberate lack of it.
A white, featureless space that gives each work ample space to stand on its own. It creates an environment of intimacy between the viewer and the work. Both adrift in a void. I’m a big fan of the white void.
The opposite of this is the black void. The one provided by theatre that affords the viewer the ability to dissociate from their body and enter a space as an ethereal observer. I rather like this void too.
You are never alone in the void. Rather there is a singular guide. It feels very comfortable for the ego. However, this is easy to fetishise and that lack of external context can be to the detriment of a body of work as opposed to each individual piece.
The gallery at South Square is not a white void. It is reassuringly small, and features the building itself. There are worn window sills, trees flecking shadows through the glass, the aroma of coffee and shaved wood percolates in the air.
And the walls are satisfyingly dense with work, allowing the feeling of a body being presented instead of individual instances or images. The cross-context is dense, with threads and strands connecting the work in a way that interplay of images and themes arise.
The floor is also punctuated with sculpture, standing totemic, not unlike the remnants of an arcane ritual, or an offering.
There’s also a disquieting, but not unpleasant, sense of being surrounded. Every time I turn a new work has crept up on me. I can feel a watchful gaze, not dissimilar to the one you experience when walking through feral woodland.
I turn around and encounter a horned figure (One is One, 2022). They look like the horned follower of Bacchus from Jean-Leon Gerome’s ‘The Bacchante’, but rather than averting their gaze, this one stares out directly at me.
Sat at the kitchen table one Sunday and my niece is painting an egg. She handles it delicately, spinning it around between her fingers, taking care to avoid touching the wet paint as she adds another line around the circumference.
She asks, in all innocence, ‘What have eggs got to do with Jesus?’.
I explain that they are often a potent symbol of life, and potential and maybe even rebirth. She looks satisfied and adds some star shapes to the shell.
I realise my complicity in the myth, but struggle to regain ground.
‘The thing is,’ I say, repeating what I had learnt at Sunday school decades previously, ‘we use the egg at Easter because it represents the boulder of his tomb, the one that rolled away to reveal that he had risen’.
I’ve gone too far, my niece eyes me with suspicion. I’ve inadvertently trained her not to believe a word I say since that time I convinced her that the full name for tiramisu was Tiramisusan.
‘OK, what about the Easter Bunny…’
I’d like to tell you that I didn’t just make an excuse to leave the table and shuffled off to examine the growing stack of washing up. I’d like to tell you that I entered into a sound explanation of how Christianity has repeatedly used the structures of folk belief as a palimpsest, pillaging rituals and beliefs and contorting them to a singular myth that doesn’t really make much sense when you think about it. Or about how many of these appropriations strip the role women play in our lives, beliefs and rituals, casting them out, naked in a desert.
I mean to say, when he was first born, Jesus was born to a virgin, and his rebirth didn’t involve a woman at all. They’ve been removed from that equation and replaced with an egg covered in acrylic that may, or may not, be also a giant boulder.
Or that I’d pointed out that eggs were just one of many foods forbidden during lent, starting in the Mediaeval period, during which time people, many of them impoverished, donated them to the church as offerings where they were totally not eaten by the Bishops, arch-bishops and clergy.
And that same time era marked the point of icon appropriation of folklore in Christian imagery, recasting traditional figures as saints and sinners, or as satan himself, and depicting them in gilded frames and painted with sanctioned colours.
I’d like to tell you that, I really would.
[One can’t begin to imagine their weight, 2022]
A rectangle in the centre of the image shows a closely cropped scene.
A hand grips the skin of the stomach a short distance from a belly button, not aggressively but instead insinuating an exploration or examination.
This image is framed in a slight golden border, behind which we see the bark of a tree.
The juxtaposition echoes the notion of ‘outer’.
The skin that protects and weathers, but also the surface that protects the internal.
There’s also an interesting play in the differences between the two textures, smooth pink skin against the cracked, greening surface of bark. However, rather than setting the two forms apart, the composition brings them together, setting them both within another frame of dark pink and purple, adorned with diamond shapes.
Weight, as in the title, can be assumed in the bodily sense, but perhaps, more obliquely, importance. The skin is the dividing line between the internal and the external, or more specifically, between what we consider ourselves and what we consider ‘other’. Here we see a combination, a confluence of the human body and nature, within the skin of the frame they effectively become the same.
[Against your bones knowing, 2022]
Similar to ‘One can’t begin to imagine their weight’, this work features concentric rectangles, with the inner being framed in gold and the outer framed in a lighter pink. However, here the source of the images is inverted. The central image depicts a seemingly dense coniferous woodland landscape from a high vantage, whilst the outer frame contains a wavy hair-like texture
This inversion redefines the body as landscape and places that landscape as internal, or protected. It’s hard not to see these images together as highlighting the symbiosis of the two realms and the reciprocal nature of concealment.
In a more fanciful reading, I’m reminded of the curtains of Lynch’s Black lodge, and the pines of Twin Peaks. There is an eerie displacement of spaces that highlights an unknowable landscape that seems both natural and unsettling at the same time as if unseen forces lurk, hidden but present.
As previously mentioned, lichens can grow pretty much anywhere.
One species, a map lichen (Rhizocarpon geographicum), lives in the arctic and also happens to be a candidate for the world’s oldest living organism at around 8,600 years old.
There are even cases where they will grow on the surface of stable sand dunes. It is a process that takes many years, but eventually leads to the creation of a thin layer of soil that can support other, more substantial, life.
One substrate is particularly unique though. Lichens can grow on other living things. In these cases the lichen does not act as a parasite, or even a symbiote, but a passenger of sorts, a companion.
I bring this up again, because I’m looking at a group of paintings that seem to feature similar relationships between the artist and other living forms. ‘Balancing the earth’, ‘The old body goes on’ and ‘One thousand unbreakable links’ all feature self portraits in conjunction with fungi, and the remnants of an animal.
In these images, the body acts as a support structure for these elements. Antlers rest upon the artist’s back, or between their legs. Fungi grows upon their skin. They don’t appear predatory, nor specifically symbiotic, they are just there, together, in the same space.
Lichens are pioneer species, they arrive in potentially hostile environments and slowly, through their natural business of living and dying, make them more habitable for other organisms.
I once stated that artists were pioneer species, performing a similar role in communities. They often inhabit derelict spaces and unpalatable or empoverished areas, making them nicer places to live through the very process of living their themselves. This is distinct from gentrification, as there is no predatory aspect or displacement, rather an addition.
Here, stood in a gallery, in what was once derelict former workers cottages, the cycle is very apparent.
['The doors into the temple' & 'In the lonely country 3', 2022]
Together, although not explicitly, these two works form a diptych.
They share a similar framing, like three circles overlapping to form a Reuleaux triangle, that re-appropriates Renaissance geometry, where the circle is seen as perfect and various intersections are used to illustrate relationships, such as those of the Holy Trinity.
‘The doors to the temple’ features a central rectangular frame that holds a human form, seemingly in a foetal-like position with a foot against the stomach. Behind this is a feather-like texture. There is a softness, of comfort and solitude. A child in the womb or a chick in the nest. This is a solitude unlike loneliness, but adjacent to it. It protects as much as it isolates.
Meanwhile, ‘In the lonely country’ inverts this. The human figure provides the backdrop to a central rectangle of a wheat field. Here the body is similarly folded, a leg brough close to the torso, and held in place with a hand, but this is less about fitting into a space as it is about holding something in.
You are invited to think about the significance of the wheat. Is it a rumination on harvest, of cyclical life that depends as much upon death for rebirth as it does for care and growth?
They say that hair continues to grow after death.
Hair as a landscape.
Hair in the landscape.
Anchored at one end and free at the other.
Growing and receding like tides.
Receding like lichen on a rock.
[‘The orderliness of the world’ & ‘I have not done a thousand things’, 2022]
As with other works, these two images act as inversions of each other.
Again, I don’t think this is made explicit, but arises from exploration of the relationship between the body and the landscape. Saying the body is like a landscape is not the same as saying the landscape is like the body.
Furthermore, neither is like saying the landscape is the body.
In ‘I have not done a thousand things’, a central self-portrait of pink flesh, cropped close to show from just above the belly button down to the top of the thighs, reveals pale red pubic hair, with a single tuft forming a curl. In turn, this image is framed by a dense background of grass.
Meanwhile, in ‘The orderliness of the world’, The central image depicts an extensive field of wheat, bordered by a wooded area in the distance. The outer image comprises curled tressels of glossy reddish hair.
In both cases, gilt framing and muted colours become the final border, containing the images within.
There’s something at play with the concentric framing. It raises questions of interiority. Does the landscape contain the body or is it the other way around. It becomes an ouroburos, a snake that eats itself, an endless pursuit.
With fertility comes death, ripening brings harvest. The cyclical nature is inevitable.
There is a process of reclamation at work.
The gilded edges of the images feel like the stolen frames of Christian iconography, once used to constrain folkloric ideas and images, now used to liberate and venerate them.
Similarly, the hues of reds and blues that have been used to highlight saints are reconnected with the earth and its varying landscapes.
Here the female form has been reinstated, not as a supporting role in mythology, but as a central figure, and not opposed to the wildness or the landscape, but as a fundamental union with it.
To take a Christian story and alter it for my own ends, I’d suggest another possible reading, that Mary Magdalene was not adrift in the desert, but was the desert itself, and that her grief and her body were part of the same landscape, much like how, in traditional folk beliefs, there is no separation between human and nature, between the body and the landscape.
I realise that here, I’m just another man making a supposition on the narrative of another woman. I’m aware of that, which is why I urge you to remember that it is always far more important to see work for yourself rather than rely on such an unreliable narrator.
[Self-portrait as the Earl of Rone (4 weeks since my father died), 2021]
I find this one of the most striking images in this exhibition.
The Hunting of the Earl of Rone is a folk tradition unique to the village of Combe Martin on the North Devon Coast. It’s a four day event that features repeated processions and then the hunting and death of the Earl of Rone.
The Earl appears as a strangely padded burlap figure with a distinctive red, white and black mask. He’s thought to be a representation of Hugh O’Neill, the second Earl of Tyron who hid in Glenconkeyne Wood toward the end of the Nine Years war.
Here, however, the artist takes his place, dressed in a hooded sweatshirt and jogging pants, shoeless, and donning the red, black and white mask.
Again, the work is framed as an illuminated mediaeval manuscript, and contains inserts that highlight images of different objects that the artist has determined to have represented portents.
The title provides an enormous amount of context that is hard to avoid when looking at the work, but one that was present before I encountered it. The Earl looks beaten, alone and lost. The clothing looks ill-prepared for the outside world. The mask creates an expression of sadness with a straight mouth and mournful, downcast eyes.
Lucy talks about the reappropriation of folklore characters that are almost entirely traditionally male, but I find it hard not to wonder at other reasons for picking this very singular figure as a study for a self portrait and one at a such a time of what I can only imagine as highly complex and immediate emotions.
A figure that found temporary respite hiding among the trees of the forest, sheltered by the landscape only to be dragged into public. The Earl of Rone is, at one point during the festivities, temporarily restored. The respite is given by a Fool and a hobby horse.
The Fool traditionally represents a character that departs from social norms, and can often be a figure of ridicule, however they can also symbolise the beginning of a journey that ends with enlightenment. A blank slate with everything ahead of them. The hobbyhorse is similarly complex and contradictory, being both a fertility symbol and a symbol of sacrifice, furthermore, it gives rise to a modern expression that intimates fixation.
Ultimately, the Earl is captured, killed and cast into the sea.
A return to the landscape, perhaps not entirely willing, but with the knowledge that, as with most customs, he will be resurrected the following year to repeat the cycle.
Mary’s grief, Lucy’s grief.
A lonely desert.
[‘Witch Bottles’, 2023 ‘Morris dancer’s coat’ 2013-2023 ‘Witch Cakes’, 2023]
Alongside the works on the walls are several sculptural elements that punctuate the space.
I include them here together, not because they are less important than the paintings, but because I think they are saying a similar thing that works best when it is said together.
The exhibition, taken as a whole represents the wrestling of traditional folklore from dogma. A theme that runs through the images, in form, if not content, is the re-appropriation of form and narrative. There is a re-situating of femininity in wildness, in the landscape and the narratives that accompany it. There is the use of colours and techniques associated with mediaeval christianity, and the attempts to set right their appropriations of narrative.
However, these physical works do something just as necessary. They create a symbolic link with the past by bringing it into the space, not as ideas, but as objects.
The presence of the Morris Dancer’s Coat on the wall, directly opposite the entrance to the gallery acts as an immediate confrontation. It’s a tattered ghost, pinned to a wall. It looks like an ancient taxidermied beast, of feathers and air.
Similarly, the Witch Cakes litter the space, hanging from ribbons at the portals to the outside world. These glazed ceramic objects mimic a traditional custom where similarly shaped cakes were made to repel witches. The witch bottles were a defence against witchcraft too. They would contain, often, bits of the human body… nail clippings, hair, urine alongside needles, pins and wine.
In combination, these objects intonate a whispered ritual in the space. This is not just an exhibition of works about folklore, but an evocation in its own right.
“Something Invisible and powerful and totally uncontrollable” is a title that becomes infinitely more complex the longer I think about it, yet remains apt in every case.
Are we talking about grief or some unknown force of belief, the emotional weight of loneliness, or perhaps more simply the act of an artist recognising the power of their own creativity?
I end up feeling that I’m not qualified to answer that question, and that perhaps it is more apt to find solace in the acceptance of the unknowable. I mean to say, that needing everything wrapped up in a neat narrative only ever suits the person telling the story, and inevitably edits out important facts.
Nature isn’t neat and uncomplicated, or trimmed like a lawn. It is a sprawling, complex weaving of millions of strands that grow to bind and protect. And it is our need for narrative simplicity that often blinds us to the true forces at work in any given situation.
It’s easy to look at a gravestone and see death, rather than the very living lichen that grows upon it.