Review by Angela Darby
The affordable Penguin paperback book, now in its 76th year of production, was originally created to bring literature to the masses, simultaneously crossing all age and class divides. Unlike any other publishing company of it’s time Penguin’s emphasis was on the brand, visually reassuring the reader that their choice was a quality purchase by packaging their books in distinctively designed covers. Neil Shawcross’ exhibition Penguins in The Naughton Gallery at Queen’s University, Belfast has been programmed to celebrate the company’s remarkable achievement. The artist has documented and re-interpreted his own private collection of Penguin publications in bright acrylic paint and hand written text, focusing on the classic three, horizontal band design created by Edward Young who also drew the first version of the Penguin logo.
Shawcross’ project is extensive and has been ongoing for the past two decades. His restricted palette is tied directly to the traditional colour codes that differentiate between the literary genres: green for crime, orange for fiction, dark blue for biography and so on. The gallery showcases eighteen large-scale paintings and one mono-print from this series. Executed in bold washes of royal marine, vermillion orange, sunset yellow and cerise, Shawcross defies the formal constraints of the original cover’s design. In a physical act of carefree abandonment a charcoal pencil scrawls the text in spindly writing and the famous logo is rendered with a quirky naivety.
This style of applying paint and text is the artist’s trademark, as instantly recognizable as Young’s logo. Through this distinctive reinterpretation Shawcross claims ownership of his own collection whilst at the same time paying homage to a literary champion. Working wet on wet, Shawcross encourages the pigments to bleed out of Young’s golden-section containers in an act of Modernist assertion. This is not an act of defilement however, simply a personal reframing. One of the paintings in particular, an autobiography of the English Impressionist painter Dame Laura Knight entitled Oil Paint and Grease Paint Volumes I II & III (pictured), captures the distinctive qualities of the exhibition and Penguins output. Not many books on female artists would have been freely available in the 1940s. Three volumes are quite extraordinary – even for someone who would become the official war artist at the Nuremberg Trials. This triptych forms a library of attractive surfaces that are devoid of their literary content, a mute beauty that intrigues and entices the viewer to search out the original publication. Just as a successful poster campaign can coax us to buy a product, the subliminal nature of the work encourages you to share Shawcross’ love for his collection. A majority of the paintings in The Naughton Gallery, eleven in total, are vermillion indicating that the artist’s reading habits may lean towards the fictional genre.
One of the paintings from the orange series entitled The Brontës Went to Woolworths by the author Rachel Ferguson intrigues with its play on two iconic names and the fact that, with the demise of one of the named institutions, it could not be written today. At a time when the physical is being superseded by the virtual, this exhibition both celebrates the materiality of existing books and the transcendental immaterial worlds they contain encouraging readers to seek out the books that have been highlighted.
Neil Shawcross Penguins The Naughton Gallery at Queen’s University Belfast runs until 28 August.
We hope you enjoying reading the Aesthetica Blog, if you want to explore more of the best in contemporary arts and culture you should read us in print too. In the spirit of celebration, Issue 41 includes a piece on Guggenheimn Bilbao where the Luminous Interval features internationally acclaimed artists such as Louise Bourgeois, Kiki Smith and Damien Hirst, ArtAngel’s new commission at MIF, Bruce Nauman’s retrospective at The Kunsthalle Mannheim and Cory Arcangel’s Pro Tools at the Whitney in NYC. You can buy it today by calling +44(0)1904 479 168. Even better, subscribe to Aesthetica and save 20%. Go on, enjoy!
Oil Paint and Grease Paint Volumes I, II & III(2004)
Courtesy the artist and The Naughton Gallery