Installation visit to the Catlin Art Prize Exhibition

The Catlin Art Prize is now in its eighth year and provides a valuable showcase for graduates of UK art schools a year on from their degree shows. PMSA was lucky enough to visit the Londonewcastle Project Space while the artists were putting the finishing touches to their work two days before the exhibition opened.

The eight artists had been selected from a larger group of 41 graduates who are featured in the Catlin Art Guide. Curator, Justin Hammond, spends much of June touring degree shows around the country, to make his shortlist of artists for the Guide. In the early years logistics could mean a day trip to visit the art schools of Sheffield, Manchester, Glasgow and Edinburgh before getting the late train to London. With proper funding in place from Catlin Art Insurers the initial selection process is less restricted.

For the artists featured, the exhibition provided a large and flexible space, enabling them to effectively produce a series of solo shows. In addition to their own space the artists had the luxury of a team of professional technicians and a small production budget. ‘It is an opportunity for the artists to show what they can do without commercial restraints,’ explains Justin. The only constraint was that the artists have to make new work for the show, and the work had to demonstrate a development of their practice beyond their degree show.

This year the exhibition worked as a series of rooms, which the visitor moved through, from dark enclosed spaces to brightly lit open areas, along a pre-defined path, experiencing the very different environments the individual artists had developed. Each artist had approached their space as an installation, making works which cross the disciplinary boundaries, and which push against the limits that traditionally define an artist as a painter or a sculptor.

Dennis J Reinmüller lives in Glasgow and graduated from Edinburgh School of Art. He specialized in sculpture but his work reaches well beyond that, combining sculpture with collage, drawing, performance, photography and film, to create an extreme version of his own experience of life as an artist. For this exhibition he has taken it to another level creating an all-encompassing installation, entitled Echo Chamber.

Repeated forms of his own image are multiplied onto a dark wallpaper with fluorescent highlights, to frame a life-size model of a falling human figure. The figure is the artist himself, wearing a grey suit and shoes previously worn by Reinmüller. Its fabric cartoon head is fixed in a permanent grin as its body recoils back from being shot at by a phaser set to ‘eternal happiness’, while red liquid pools at its footless legs. Humour is essential to Reinmüller’s work, but tempered with his sense of life as a desperate pursuit.

Key to his installation was a telephone. Literally a hotline to the artist who, thanks to BT if the engineer finally made it work, will be available to any caller for the duration of the show. An edition of three mobile phones is available, set up so that the caller will have a permanent hotline to the artist, to ask him anything they wish. ‘It will be worthless after my death,’ Reinmüller cheerfully informed PMSA. Reinmüller is interested in a sense of history collapsing as much as his own collapse, referring to the demolition of the Berlin Wall 25 years ago, but he also has an optimistic sense of ego overcoming an impending doom. 

When PMSA visited, Virgile Ittah’s space was a centre of concentrated activity. The entire wall surface and part of the ceiling were being covered in her trademark wax and marble dust to create a soft grey womb for two iron beds, and two supine female figures. Wax was still melting in a cooking pot outside and various irons and heating implements were being used to perfect the finish of the figures, but Virgile still had time to speak eloquently about her work.

Virgile explained that the wax and marble dust she uses is similar to the material used by the Venetian Jews to imitate Carrara marble. The Jewish population was not allowed to use Carrara marble, which was tightly controlled by the Office of Marble during the Renaissance. The experience of the Jews in Venice is reflected in Virgile’s own family history of exile and wandering, which has led her to explore the effects of this experience using the human body as territory. The historical resonances of the material, combined with a sense of the impermanence of physical appearance, create works which are intriguing and unsettling. Although very definitely a sculptor, and having graduated last year from the Royal College of Art with a Masters in Sculpture, it is interesting to note that Virgile Ittah’s strong visual sense was developed during a Masters in Photography.

The Londonewcastle Project Space has given Virgile Ittah the opportunity to create an entire installation surrounding the viewer in soft wax. The two life-size figures are a mirrored pair. Their faces have perfectly modelled youthful features similar to the artist’s own, but below the neck their bodies are deformed into twisted tendons of melted wax suggesting something beyond the ravages of old age. The iron beds offer no support and no comfort. The title, in Echoué au seuil de la raison, roughly translates as failed or stranded at the threshold of reason. This is literally reflected in the merging of physical boundaries as the wax creating the figures melts into the ground.

In contrast to the previous installations, Sarah Fortais’s room seemed dazzlingly white, and surreal, with a drum kit on the wall and a coffin shaped pod hanging from the ceiling. 1 2 3 (Unfinished)started with a performance, which led to a video, and developed into the installation at the Catlin. As the title suggests part 4 may be yet to come, there is a live performance scheduled for 17th May. This open-ended approach is part of what Fortais enjoys about being an artist. Her practice is based in bricolage, creating works by taking apart things that interest her, and reconstructing them using a variety of available materials.

This piece explores early missions into space, but Fortais is more interested in the idea expressed by astronaut, Jim Lovell, ‘We learned a lot about the Moon, but what we really learned was about the Earth.’ Fortais recreates the sound of a rocket taking off in a performance using five drum kits. One of the drum kits was magically stuck to an old style fringed rug on the wall. The drum kit was still held in place with ropes when we saw it, but the artist herself admitted they were merely an insurance policy until the opening night.

The recording of the simulated take off is heard through headphones in a dark soundproofed room. Lit only by a single button made from spare car parts, when pressed it starts a short film of a rocket launch. Fortais combines bricolage with an interest in Cargo Cults. The term initially referred to islanders in the South Pacific who believed that rituals referencing aspects of more high tech societies would bring them material wealth. The Melanesians created life-size replicas of grass aeroplanes and bamboo runways, while mimicking aeroplane sounds in the hope that precious cargo would be dropped. Fortais has re-imagined this thought process with space missions, yet her coffin-shaped rocket launch pod is more suggestive of earthly existence than wealth from the moon.

Lara Morrell thinks of her work, Christ Stopped at Novoli, as ‘lens-based sculpture’. The title is a play on Carlo Levi’s memoir, Christ stopped at Eboli, published in 1945. The work started life as sculptures of the 12 apostles, made from carta pesta, a traditional Italian technique similar to papier mâché, but using hay and string over a wire skeleton. The technique has ancient Roman pagan roots but is used to create the statues of saints, which adorn southern Italian churches local to the village of Novoli where Morrell has a studio. Morrell deliberately rejected the aesthetic finish of painted clay, to keep the raw hay and string moulded forms.

For each apostle Morrell staged a set, carefully sculpting and positioning her models with the symbols of their martyrdom, before taking atmospheric photographs of them. After they attracted suspicious looks from the local Catholics, Morrell decided she had to burn them, a process she recorded on film, and integrated into her work. ‘Subsequently burning them into mounds of ash was surprisingly enlightening and quite apt …. On ash we project finality, irrevocability, what has gone cold after creativity has been extinguished. Ash is also associated with the sacred and the essential, ash as fertilizer …’.

Morrell’s room at the Catlin was installed as a small chapel, or temple, with the elaborately framed photographs of the saints printed on wood or metal, and hanging, as if in niches, around the room. The installation reflects the importance of religious symbolism in the life of the local farmers. Every January Novoli holds the festival of fire. Originally a pagan celebration to mark the end of winter, it now celebrates the village’s patron saint. Each farmer brings a bundle of vine cuttings to create an enormous bonfire of 90,000 bundles. Morrell has represented one of these bundles in the centre of her room, referring to both ancient customs and her interest in Arte Povera.

Mr and Mrs Philip Cath work as a performance couple, and a real life couple. The subject matter for the work exhibited, Eve’s Progress, is feminism, a recurring theme in their production. They take an interdisciplinary approach to creating their large-scale paintings by constructing still life tableaux using clear balloons to stand in for figures. These scenes are then painted from life without the intervention of photography. The balloons give the final painted figures a sculptural quality that the Caths spent some time searching for.

In a video interview made for the Catlin exhibition, Mrs Cath explained why she finds it tricky to define their work. ‘Sculpture, installation, collaboration, still-life, portraiture. It has so many different things bound up in it that it is quite difficult to define it as one particular medium. That is probably one of the best things about being an artist now, not being bound to medium and working interdisciplinarily.’ The tableaux take more time to set up than the canvases take to be painted. Mr Cath described the paintings as a ‘documentation of the sculptural’. The still life tableaux have to be right or the paintings won’t work, but getting them right is tricky when balloons suddenly burst or move with a life of their own. 

The final artist we encountered, Neil Raitt, was busy mixing pigment the old-fashioned way, but instead of linseed oil, he uses a pungent pine resin. Viewers would gradually become aware of the pine scent as they moved into Neil’s space and contemplate two all encompassing landscape paintings. The scented paint is intended to cover a giant 3d replica of a car air freshener tree hanging from the ceiling. The final position of the tree, he decided upon, however, was slumped against a pillar. Although Raitt’s practice is rooted in painting, and his Royal College MA was in painting, he too is interested in experimenting with the boundaries of space. 

One theme uniting all of these recent graduates is their multidisciplinary, and layered approach to making art. While some are more purely sculptural, and others based on painting and film, they all combine elements of more than one discipline, and they all play with space and the way it can be manipulated and encountered. Process is an essential factor contributing to the final piece.

The Catlin Prize culminates in an award ceremony announcing the winner selected by a panel including artist Mark Wallinger, critic Coline Milliard, and previous Catlin nominee, now director of The Sunday Painter, Will Jarvis. A second prize is given based on visitors’ votes. Votes are valid only if the viewer also leaves a message for the artist. This year Neil Raitt won the Catlin Prize, an award of £5,000, and Lara Morrell won the Visitors Vote award of £2,000. Justin’s advice to recent art graduates is unequivocal, ‘It’s tough’. At least with projects like Catlin there are platforms to help get new work seen and talked about.

The Catlin Art Prize, 2 – 24 May 2014,Londonewcastle Project Space,28 Redchurch Street, London E2 7DP

Main image: Neil Raitt, Alpine, 2014, installation view (photo: Peter Hope)

Aurora Corio