Artists of Course Are a Completely Foreign Species
Elizabeth Neilson views the work of Henry Coombes, an artist flirting with class, family ties and narrative on the boundary between mainstream and artist films
On 1 October 1873 England slipped into the then fashionable pursuit of mourning, flags were flown at half mast and the lions of Trafalgar Square festooned with funereal wreaths for the death of their creator, Sir Edwin Henry Landseer RA (1802–1873).
On 1 October 2009, 1300 people came together for the opening screenings of the Sitges Fantasy Film Festival in Spain. One of the two films they watched featured a Zombie having its head blown off by a firework, the other re-enacted an episode in the life of the man whose death, 136 years previously led to the aforementioned memorial ritual.
Zombies and a Victorian artist linked across time and space. This anecdotal slippage in synchronicity is a regular occurrence in the work of Henry Coombes, born 1977. The more one inspects his artistic output, the more disturbing and undeniable the surreal connections become. In 2007 at the age of 29, the same age at which Landseer became a Royal Academician, Coombes was chosen to co-represent Scotland at the 52nd Venice Biennale.
Coombes’s fascination with Landseer appears to stem from two points; both share a position as an artistic Englishman working in Scotland, Landseer’s work though being most appreciated south of the border. They also have an interest in representing relationships between humans and animals, the latter presenting at opposing ends of the emotional spectrum—either as hunter/prey or entwined as best of friends.
Since Coombes’ graduation from Glasgow School of Art in 2002, he has consistently occupied himself with the representation of British class and family politics. His recent film ‘The Bedfords’, 2009, imagines an affair between the Victorian landscape and animal painter Landseer and the wife of his great patron, the 6th Duke of Bedford. The narrative of the film is concerned with a commission of a family portrait and alternates oppressive and erotically charged indoor scenes with surreal and violent episodes in striking Scottish landscapes.
Landseer was most famous for his paintings of dogs obediently listening to their masters, saving drowning babies or merely woefully sitting by windows. In all these scenarios human characteristics are implied. Coombes’ interest is a more macabre development. In ‘Laddy and the Lady’, 2007, two dogs—or rather people in preposterous and somewhat frightening dog outfits constructed by Coombes—vie for the attention of their masters. The dogs compete with one another but are unfairly treated by their owners causing them to suffer flashbacks to emotional events in their subconscious. Britishness is something Coombes seems to find equally as troubling. Aristocratic social stereotypes are played out to cruel and sphincter-tightening effect. At points ‘The Bedfords’ takes on an atmosphere akin to the BBC’s The Office, the tension is almost unbearable as the characters sit in heavy silence, the audience wait for the next terse double entendre to break the scene and instigate another full body wince.
Coombes has worked with film throughout his career, often using the camera as a sketching tool, literally constructing short, often comedic sketches in David Shrigley or Mighty Boosh manner. Sometimes adopting a voyeuristic position on the world and conflicting a voice-over with the documented action being filmed (‘In Da Club’, or ‘Hey Kid What You Doing, Dad chasing Mum through the Woods at Night on a Quad Bike’, both 2005); or composing surreal moments or scenarios with costumes and props adding to the farcical action. (‘Morning Chorus’, ‘Twins’ or ‘Two Tailors’, all 2005). These short digital notations seem to act as tests and playthings in the development of ‘The Bedfords’, which, at 19 minutes, is Coombes’s longest film to date.
In a further development, Coombes plans to make the shift from short to feature film – art gallery to cinema, Venice to Cannes. The Sitges Film Festival is the first point in making this ambition a reality. Screening ‘The Bedfords’ to an audience geed up for a much awaited Zombie sequel [REC] 2, was an audacious move masterminded by Brocken Spectre, a young Glasgow-based production company specialising in both artists’ films and more mainstream features. ‘The Bedfords’ was produced with the assistance of Sorcha Dallas and Scottish Screen, a situation that benefits the work by positioning it in both camps, rather than drawing a line under either. Coombes received a Creative Scotland Award in March 2007 and is taking a script-writing course in order to develop and research his planned feature length work Little Dog Boy. The title makes reference to Landseer’s nickname, given to him by Henry Fuseli (1741–1825), an Academician when Landseer first exhibited at the Royal Academy at the age of 13.
In the meantime, Coombes continues to show paintings and sculptural work and films together in art galleries. ‘The Bedfords’ recently screened at KadE in Amersfoort, The Netherlands, and at 176/ Zabludowicz Collection in London, alongside a series of new and existing works in painting and sculpture. This combination seems essential in understanding the development of ‘The Bedfords’, but may not continue to be necessary in the future, when it seems likely that his cinematic vision will wholeheartedly include and indeed, eclipse, his sculptural and painterly abilities.
The move from contemporary art to art-house cinema is a familiar journey made throughout modern and contemporary art history. Miranda July and Steve McQueen both made the transition smoothly in recent years, albeit with very different results. Whilst July’s more mainstream full length Me and You and Everyone We Know, 2005, made for an accessible cinematic debut in keeping with the notion of cinema as entertainment, McQueen’s unsettling vision of the Maze Prison in Hunger, 2008, grows most certainly from an art-house demeanor.
Like McQueen, Coombes could be viewed as somewhat of an art world outsider, constantly aware of his position within the contemporary art scene, yet not involved in perpetuating it. He delicately draws parallels between his own art practice now, and Landseer’s over 200 years ago. In some way, perhaps it could be said that he consciously occupies unfashionable territory, his references are not the masters of modernism. His sketchy, scrap assemblages owe more to Rauschenberg than to Bauhaus or the Martel brothers.
And Coombes’s sculpture most certainly veers away from the ‘Glasgow’ school. Perhaps ‘Sarah Stone’, 2006, is one of the most amusing renderings of this moment of separation and reference. Made of a thin structure, reminiscent of an internal support for a concrete cast, it is paired with a bird-woman who perches on the edge of the sculpture wearing gold earrings. The combination of visual intensity and humour relates directly to the work of Terry Gilliam and the Monty Python team, and when extended into film, is also complimented by the influence of Ken Loach and David Lynch.
Edging closer to ever more ambitious projects, Coombes has already collaborated with world-class professionals on the making of ‘The Bedfords’. The haunting soundtrack was performed and produced by already legendary (at only 50) jazz vocalist, Cleveland Watkiss. Glasgow’s renowned painter and novelist Alistair Gray plays the eccentric, bumbling father-in-law. Both bring charismatic resonance to the table in support of Coombes’s aspiration. Low sub-bass, almost inaudible, rumbles affect the viewer physically, viscerally, rather than consciously. Watkiss’s use of aural collage, looping and recording his own voice to produce unearthly sounds, creates an undercurrent of bizarre unease and dread throughout the film.
Creating a scenario that sustains its audience in silence for over an hour is not an easy, or cheap, undertaking. The challenges are multiple and very visible. Coombes is a relative unknown but his ambition is fervent. The plotline for Little Dog Boy is certainly captivating, involving historical fact and artistic fantasy along with prostitutes, horses, sex, murderous plots and gentleman’s clubs. To hear Coombes recite the treatment is to descend into a passionate mind solely occupied by one goal. Perhaps Lynch is a good fit for the paternity of Coombes the polymath. Lynch’s dislike for audience pleasing narrative simplicity and his consistent merging of ‘real’ and imagined action, spaces and how these are communicated temporally seems close to Coombes’s ambitious cinematic objective.
Elizabeth Neilson is curator and head of collection at 176 / Zabludowicz Collection, London
Henry Coombes: ‘The Bedfords’ is touring national and international film festivals. Also screened 21 October, Dean Gallery, Edinburgh as part of Running Time: Artist Films in Scotland 1960 to Now, 17 October-22 November.