Review by Paul Hardman
Window Paintings: Gareth Cadwallader
The new Gareth Cadwallader exhibition at the Hannah Barry Gallery, Peckham gathers much of its resonance not only from its content but also from its context in this location. The stark contrast between the environs of the gallery, the gallery itself and the idyllic scenes depicted in Cadwallader’s large scale photographs cannot help but have an effect on how the work is experienced.
To visit the show it is necessary to make your way along Rye Lane, past yam stalls, halal butchers, and through the multicultural crowds that give this part of London the nickname ‘Little Lagos’. I mention this because the photographs Cadwallader has chosen to exhibit in this space depict a world that couldn’t be more different from the urbanity of South London, floor to ceiling on the walls of the gallery are three idealised, peaceful, rural, and classically European scenes. However Cadwallader has not been plucked from a traditional and conservative bubble and placed unknowingly in South London, he is very much a part of the cultural continuity of Peckham, and has previously both curated and shown in group exhibitions in the warehouses and squats of Peckham with the !WOWOW! collective. Presumably then, the juxtaposition of this collection of work with its location should be read as deliberate. The gallery itself, with it’s distinctly grunge aesthetic of exposed beams, peeling paint work, and location in a crumbling industrial estate forms is seemingly incompatible with the milieu in Cadwallader’s scenes.
The first of the enormous photographs, Picnic, depicts three young women wearing straw hats, sat on a beach among hamper and food while three middle aged musicians play a violin, cello and guitar. The light is fading as if around 9pm on a summers evening. The clothes of the figures indicate warm weather, there is still food to be eaten, and all are smiling and contented. Pond depicts a lily filled lake surrounded by woodland where two young women are enjoying a trip in a rowing boat. In Cyclist, a cyclist reaches down to grab an apple from a pile as he passes by, again in a rural setting unmarked by any signs of development. These are arranged on three of the walls, and are separated by two abstract paintings of radically different sizes. One, seven metres tall is shaped like a giant surfboard stood upright in the sand, the other, only 40cms high, is more like a small window, or a panel in a medieval religious painting.
The paintings share a seamless fade from near white at the base up to a mid blue at the tip in a manner reminiscent of a clear but pale sky. Cadwallader is known for his expertly executed oil paintings, and usually these are figurative, but here he has used all his skill in perfecting this subtle gradient. Sven Münder’s text that accompanies the exhibition describes the paintings as ‘macho, sexualised objects’, but the extremely mild, pale blended surface of these, diffuses any aggressive effect, and instead they provide a kind of complementary dream space, or additional sky, should any of the scenes require it. The combination of the photographic with the abstract does provide a dimension of uncertainty to the exhibition, and demand that the photographs should not be taken at face value. The scale of both the photographs and the large paintings has the effect of submerging the viewer into each scene. The positioning of Picnic in particular provokes an uncanny sensation, as the sea in the background seems to relate to a large damp area on the concrete floor that spans the width of the picture and reaches out towards the centre of the gallery. It is as though Cadwallader is using these photographs to bring a near perfect world, one that owes its conception to the tradition of painting, particularly impressionism, into the more ambiguous and fallible realm of reality.
Ultimately, Cadwallader has set up an exhibition that has the sense of a riddle about it. As if by examining the details in the photographs, and contemplating their relation to the featureless surface of the paintings a message could be found. In fact, he has provided one element that stands out as if it were a clue, the jersey of the cyclist reads ‘Look Mum, no hands’, a detail that suggests something childish. Would Cadwallader have us believe his art is there simply for him to show off? Perhaps he is making a comment on contemporary art in general, that it may often be childish, and fails to connect with everyday real life. After stepping briefly into this mild world, the reality outside the gallery felt all the more tangible.
The show continues until 3 March. www.hannahbarry.com