Researching the late David Burton, the little known British ‘pavement artist’ at the centre of this small group exhibition, I find myself scanning a Wikipedia entry on moonrakers, the subject of one of his paintings. A red cross hovers at the bottom of the page alerting the reader to the fact that this is an ‘England-related stub’. The contemporary mental images this symbol evokes, of footy fans, red tops on caff tables, are a far cry from the yokel lore on Wiltshire smugglers outlined in the box above. At Sutton Lane, a similar sense of fracture—between the past and the present, image, context and meaning—brings Burton into temporary alignment with artists Ruth Ewan and Brian Moran, despite the 80-odd years that separate them.
Rob Tufnell appears at pains not to tie these three very different practices into a theme, opting instead to discuss each artist on an individual basis in the press release. It’s a decision that once inside the exhibition makes sense, for the simple poetry of the arrangement is promise enough. And many possible connections can be found in this selection of borrowed images and objects variably altered to make sense of, or to reconsider, the histories they are associated with. In each case, the seductive, painterly re-manufacture, or means of appropriation, delivers one between local-personal and wider-political perspectives on key events, cultural signifiers and tropes: from the fall of Napoleon to 20th century flags and agrarianism. Just as the works offer more than one route around a subject, the contrasting positions these artists occupy in the process of discovery/critique (copyist, facilitator, appropriationist), bring one back to the edges of engagement and the conditions that shape the encounter.
The works have been hung around the gallery in no-nonsense blocks; Burton’s colour-saturated paintings on the end walls of the space punctuating Ewan’s orderly snowstorm of doctored colonial-era postcards, and Munro’s portrait variations on a pastoral theme. Taking in Burton’s highly expressive poster-paint renditions of famous battle scenes and figures from reference books (he apparently taught himself to paint by copying from a book on the Indian mutiny of 1857) the question ‘Why Burton?’ answers itself. The Londoner’s small place in art history is largely as a result of his connection to dealer and collector Lucy Wertheim, who played a significant role in the promotion of other British ‘primitive’ painters such as Alfred Wallis and Henry Stockley in the 1930s. The story goes that Wertheim discovered Burton during the time of WWI; the toy-like depiction of American Civil War soldiers informed by recollections of a childhood game. But the question of how much the viewer brings to this (or any) picture is an interesting one, especially in the context of Ewan’s and Moran’s ideological framing of the past. For one might easily presume, for example, that Ewan has personally decorated the collection of postcards here featuring the ‘Flags of the World’, as they were at the turn of the last century, with white paint. But this objet trouvé dynamic is radically altered by the fact that the house with meandering intestinal path hovering over the Japanese sun disc, the hearts, arrows and cyclonic scribbles obscuring the libertarian symbology of Belgium and America, have been applied by Bolivian children, the inheritors of a painful colonial legacy. The compositions, that the Scottish artist invited them to make, are disarmingly sophisticated; even the most violent of these defacements appear to have been executed with an image in mind.
The majority of works here, with the exception of Moran’s version of a Jackson Pollock action painting, make immediate aesthetic sense together, belting the central portion of the space like a family of images about to kick off. The American artist’s simulated topographical splatter, however, appears the odd one out amongst several kinds of pastoral-art fakes designed, perhaps, to test one’s historical knowledge. The careful reconstruction, as opposed to unbridled demonstration of the trademark drips and dribbles, brings certain deceptions to light: this is no homage to abstract expressionism, rather an acknowledgement of the ironies that separate Pollock the poster boy of the ‘Cultural Cold War’ and country boy (and Communist) from Wyoming. In Moran’s beautifully produced constellation of Courbet-style farmers, cartoonified maidens, and made-over Sunday-school subjects, social realism is forced to rub shoulders with Disney, environmentalism with religion, as if suspects of the same crime. Here, as elsewhere in the room, a sense of old world propriety, of an operational logic at work, is implied only to be subtly but devastatingly undermined.
Rebecca Geldard is a writer based in London