Roger Hiorns, Untitled, 2008
An undulating field of dust resembling an arid aerial landscape, makes compelling viewing in physical terms alone. The eye wanders and the imagination roams across the shadowy terrain, taking in subtle gradations of infinite shades of grey or zooming in to focus on minute details of painterly, Richter-esque smudged edges. Mysterious fine lines look like meandering roads, but are more likely the tracks of an interloping insect.
The experience shifts dramatically into a different register when you learn that this sandy expanse is in fact the pulverized engine of a passenger jet (on show at the Ikon Gallery). Hiorns is brilliant at destabilizing our expectations of objects and materials and forcing them to take on a new and often profoundly unsettling life of their own. One of the 42-year old artist’s most renowned works was Seizure, 2008, when he turned a derelict 1960s social housing apartment in south London into an eerie and magical cavern of blue copper sulphate crystals covering every surface of every room. The work was relocated to Yorkshire Sculpture Park in 2011 before the block in which it was housed was demolished.
Engines and planes occur often in Hiorns’ work, and he has a longstanding fascination with the anthropomorphism of machinery. Other works on show include a US military aircraft engine, this time intact but injected with anti-depressants. There is a Toyota engine into which he has (invisibly) inserted ‘brain matter’, and he has plans to bury a decommissioned Boeing 737 airliner in wasteland outside his native city of Birmingham.
Knowing that this atomized engine once helped keep hundreds of people airborne calls into question our faith in technology—apparently the artist has a fear of flying—and it underlines the inevitable entropy of all things. Hiorns has created a contemporary memento mori and a disturbingly literal reminder that all of us, and our achievements, will end up as dust.
Paul Nash, Swanage, 1936
One of the stars of his current survey at Tate Britain (until 5 March), Nash made this strange and striking mixture of painting and photomontage at the peak of his involvement with the emerging British Surrealist group. Now best known as the most quintessentially British of landscape painters, who produced some of the most damning images of the First World War, Nash was also an ardent internationalist who was well- connected with the European avant-garde.
In Swanage (named after the Dorset seaside town where he was living), Nash presents a personal take on Surrealism, combining a lifelong, almost mystical engagement with the ancient places and natural forms of southern England with an enthusiasm for disquietingly surreal found objects.
In the mid-1930s Nash was helping to organize the International Surrealist Exhibition in London, which brought the movement to Britain with a vengeance. Almost 23,000 people visited the show, which included major works by Dali, Ernst, Magritte, Miro et al, along with art by Nash and hastily recruited British compadres such as Henry Moore and Graham Sutherland.
All these elements, local and international, feed into this work, filtered through his particular sensibility. Nash believed that the suggestively-shaped pieces of driftwood, bone and stone—which he found, photographed and placed in an imaginary scenario within the collaged landscape of a pebbly beach with a view of the Dorset coast—were much more than provocative objets trouvés. They were animated personages in their own right, imbued with a mysterious innate life of their own. He even christened the wooden root Lon Gom Paa after the legendary running monks of Tibet.
Although Nash’s official affiliation with the Surrealist movement only lasted a few years, it reverberated through his work until his death in 1946. As he put it: “Surrealism found me.”
William Hogarth, Captain Thomas Coram, 1740
Captain Thomas Coram was by all accounts an exceptional man. A Devon-born sea captain and shipwright who established a business in North America, he returned to London in the early 18th-century, where he was horrified to see babies left to die in the streets between his home in Rotherhithe and the City of London. He would spend nearly 20 years campaigning to create a charity to save these “exposed and deserted” children. Eventually King George II granted a royal charter in 1739 to London’s first and only Foundling Hospital.
When the first 60 children entered the hospital the following year, William Hogarth—himself a self-made man of humble origin—was so passionate about his friend’s vision that he donated £120 as well as his painting of Coram. The work now hangs in the Foundling Museum in Bloomsbury, near the site of the original hospital.
Full-length portraits were typically reserved for nobility, so by devoting such a grand portrayal to a sea captain from the merchant class, Hogarth was paying tribute to his philanthropic friend.
Although portrayed in the grand manner, the strength of this portrait lies in its honest, non-idealized depiction of Coram. Though seated on a dais and proclaimed by a flourish of drapery, Coram’s legs are spread, his unbuttoned waistcoat gapes and he’s dropped his hat. Dressed in plain clothes, he has the gnarled hands of a seafaring man and is depicted with his own greying hair, rather than a wig. Captain Coram is very much a real person and his ruddy face exudes a genial, if impatient, energy.
Hogarth donated many more works to the hospital and encouraged other leading artists such as Thomas Gainsborough and Joshua Reynolds to do likewise. Another major supporter was George Frederic Handel, who conducted annual benefit concerts of his Messiah in the hospital’s chapel.
Of all the great works he produced, Hogarth said that the portrait he “painted with the most pleasure and in which I particularly wished to excel was that of Captain Coram”.