Published: LONDON CONFIDENTIAL, 8th November 2011
"Barry Flannigan at Tate Britain Review. Thalia Allington-Wood's interest is sparked by the artist's early works."
Never much of a fan of Barry Flanagan’s famous bronze Hares (the large-eared leaping creatures of his later work that provided the artist with financial security and public popularity), I held slight trepidation attending this exhibition. Yet Flanagan’s ‘Early Works’ from 1965 – 1982 are a delight: subtle, but incredibly powerful.
If unaccustomed to the objects of Flanagan’s early years, Tate chucks you right in at the deep end. Walk through the entrance of this exhibition and before you stands ‘Aaing j gni aa’, an abstract, somewhat ridiculous sculpture of bulging shapes made from different coloured fabric packed tight with sand, one with a singular flower poking out of the top. It is an object that would sit well in a contortion of Serge Danot’s wonderful children’s TV show The Magic Roundabout.
Needless to say, it is not advised to search for a particular meaning behind such work. Flanagan’s art is precisely about confuting such cultural practice. His work playfully scrambles codes and alters perception.
Take ‘4 casb 2 '67’, in which towering monoliths in brilliant blue stand solidly rising from the ground, a large thick rope winding between them. These trunks provide all the expectations of traditional sculptural columns: they are weighty, overbearing and solid. Yet step closer and these qualities are suddenly undermined. Made from canvas filled with sand, their form is malleable; the tubes stretch at the seams, struggling to contain the grains within. The columns are, in fact, tentative and vulnerable.
Likewise ‘June 2’ 69’, a large work in room three, sticks two fingers up at standard artistic language. A large rectangle of fabric, thick and roughly cut with frayed edges, is propped up by knarled hazel braches. The materials used to create a traditional painting are presented and fulfill their usual functions – the wood still holds up the canvas as would a frame, and the canvas is still stretched by the wood to be visible to the viewer. Yet the supporting wood, normally hidden behind a painted surface, is now the focus, becoming drawn lines dividing the image.
In similar vein, and a favourite of mine, ‘untitled (carving no. 13/81)’ makes hard lime wood look like soft clay squeezed by a human hand. Flanagan’s work subverts what one expects from the sculptural form.
Hugely influential upon his work was author Alfred Jarry (1873-1907), who wrote ‘Ubu Roi’, later championed later by the Dadaists and Surrealists as the first absurdist drama. The word ‘absurd’ befits the work of Barry Flanagan quite aptly.
In ‘Ubu Roi’, provocative Papa Turd wipes a soiled toilet cloth over his guests’ dinner in the first act. ‘Heap 4’, a smaller piece by Flanagan consisting of long, flaccid, fabric tubes in green, purple and yellow draped over each other in a pile, resembles something not far from the name of Jarry’s farcical character.
Despite complementary colours, ‘Heap 4’ made me rather nauseous, and it is this feeling of stomach turning which gets to the heart of Flanagan’s brilliance. His work holds a wonderful tactility that is a force to be reckoned with.
Hessian, rough wood, sand, rope and unpolished stone: all the materials Flanagan uses are raw and sensory. When rope digs into tight sacks, as with several of the pieces on show, images of bound flesh are evoked and ones hairs crawl. A pale washed canvas with a delicate spiral cut from the center and hanging down loosely like an apple peel, conjured images of flayed skin.
There are moments of wonderful humor too. Such as ‘Poem for the Lips’, a work on paper whose stream of letters make ones mouth contort in pouts, goldfish like, when read out loud; and ‘A Nose in Repose’, a carved stone loosely resembling the human snout, resting proudly on a Jenga formation of wooden blocks.
When I entered Tate Britain on a recent windswept Sunday to see this show, the entrance of John Martin’s apocalyptic paintings was clustered with hubbub and bustle. However, Flanagan’s work should not be missed. It is a truly wonderful exhibition, full of evocative work, and deserves to be far more populated with curious visitors. Martin’s fire and brimstone there might not be, but sometimes slow-burners are all the more rewarding.