Text by Daniel Potts
Cartwright Hall sits in the award-winning Lister Park – an appropriate venue in terms of its relatively close proximity to the birthplace of the artist. The survey of the work of this son of Ilkley is housed modestly in one room of this grand edifice, which, for its aging, schoolroom-like aromas evokes the surrealistic mental muddles of childhood. Perhaps such early confusions, with all their cross-wired connotations, form the basis of our appreciation of the surreal. The dream-like associations, projected by us on to whatever form of surrealist media, when they are contrived to be invoked by artists betoken profound insight. When it is executed most effectively it is impossible to tell whether the work has a philosophical basis in the works of Freud, or if it proceeds from pure instinct. Here is such work. Although Surrealism proper ended with the Second World War, its spirit continued. In this survey of Earnshaw’s work, it is seen to act as a vehicle for the most delicious oblique and multi-connotative humour.
Such humour is to be found in the early paintings from the 1940s. Untitled (Knight) (1945) and The End of a Perfect Day (1946) capture that confused sense of amnesia coupled with near paranoia of the dream-like, not only with the overwhelming multiplicity of connotations in the representation, but stylistically. The same is true of, what seems to be the pastel drawings, and the oil paintings involving dogs, buildings and ropes. Such an oil depicts, with a distinct and alarming style, a dog apparently escaping from the upper storey of a house with the use of a rope. The humour is amplified by the title: The Future of Pets: Whatever Became of Rin Tin Tin (1966). It becomes clear that the title is key to the overall effect of many of the works. This is evinced emphatically with the use of titular captions in the examples of the famous boxed assemblages, which in many cases, are hilarious and unforgettable. The Last Supper (1999), with all the connotations of that title, involves a wall-mounted, glass-fronted box with hand mirror as the plate in a table setting. The knife of the cutlery is a flick-knife. The connotations of Christian communion along with the violence of the Passion flood over the visitor. Extra meaning is added for the visitor when he/she views his/her own face in the mirror. The inclusion of a bowtie below the mirror, along with the commonplace modesty of the other objets trouve, tips the wink to humour, and laughter ensues. A similar response might issue from many visitors to the boxed assemblage, The Bride with her Bachelors Again: After Marcel Duchamp (1991). Here, in a connotative nod to one reading of the original Duchamp work, the objets trouve seem to connote Christian symbolism. In this case it seems to be the lion lying down with the lamb with marital undertones. Three children’s toy lions surround a toy lamb which stands on the cushion of an open jewellery ring box. The backdrop is a section of door with a large doorknocker. The “again” of the title throws up further connotations.
Christian symbolism seems to have been important to the artist as something which is treated lightly. In this way, the formidable seriousness, rather than ideas represented, is satirised in a way that, for many, provides relief. Such relief can be derived from the works executed in a distinct somewhat Blakean style using, what seems to be, crayon on paper, of angels and Adam and Eve. Earnshaw described himself as an “armchair anarchist”. The light relief from and rebellion against severe authority in these works would seem commensurate with this description. Similarly, the armchair anarchist’s frustration with the inequities of social class stratification can be read in Four-Square and True (1986). Here, in pen and ink, an aggressive-looking rat stands each claw on four top hats: the symbol of privelege and capitalism supports verminous bellicosity. The year of the work puts this in context. Yet, the title lends humour. Many of the works, for example, the twenty-eight, small, square pictures in pen and ink, in distinct style, on the right-hand wall as one enters, contain light philosophical tautologies and paradoxes. The surrealist, multi-connotative humour is conveyed with great and unfathomable skill here. Fans, young and old, of Monty Python, Reeves and Mortimer, and, perhaps, The Mighty Boosh would enjoy this survey. A number of documentaries about the artist and his work are shown on a television in one corner of the exhibition space providing context and biographical information. This completes a highly intriguing and humourous journey.
Anthony Earnshaw: The Imp of Surrealism, 17/03/2012 – 08/07/2012, Cartwright Hall Art Gallery, Lister Park, Bradford, BD9 4NS. www.bradfordmuseums.org
Anthony Earnshaw: The French Connection (2001)
Copyright of The Estate of Anthony Earnshaw. Courtesy Flowers Gallery, London.