Mark Neville’s solo show, Fancy Pictures, the result of a six-month residency on the Mount Stuart estate, hangs on its title well. A powerful little word, fancy—its many definitions being intricately connected—imagination in a capricious manner, a conception, an artistic ability to create whimsical imagery, decorative detail, an illusion, a whim, a liking, a taste, breeding of animals to develop points of beauty, much too costly, mild surprise.
Though Neville chose the phrase ‘fancy pictures’ to connect with a genre of 18th century paintings of rural life given a fantasy twist by Mercier and Gainsborough, his work lightly touches all these definitions.
This three-part, three-room installation—one film, one slide show, one group of photographs—occupies two screening rooms of the visitor centre and a master bedroom in the main house.
Mount Stuart is an excitingly gaudy pile, built by a man who reputedly spoke 21 languages. It is filled with his obsessions—marble, astrology, flora and fauna, art, the orient—this was a man with strong, sometimes wild ideas. His descendants still own a choice collection of aristocratic paintings (Titians, Ramsays, magnificent Raeburns) and an upper hall radient with eccentric stained glass windows illustrating the signs of the zodiac.
Neville focuses on the art and culture of this extravagant house in his eponymous film ‘Fancy Pictures’, 2008. Treating wildlife photography and filmmaking as the landscape painting of our time, he borrows swatches of composition from both present and past, pasting them together in slow motion. Distortions of time, location and meaning, at once nostalgic and unfashionably beautiful, filter through short, collected scenarios. The animals in these mini-dramas are real, but related to their painted descendants—a lurcher, glamorous poultry, brown rabbits, a white horse moving in front of backdrops made to imitate paintings from the collection.
The percussive slide show next door, ‘Tula Fancies’, 2008, brings Neville’s view of rural island activity to life as another distortion of reality, on this occasion with a technicolour gloss, creating a heightened, Hollywood perspective. Accompanying the 21 images, a soundtrack composed by pupils of the local academy, was commissioned by Neville, who instructed the students that the photographs were shot in Tula, Russia. Their belief in this misinformation results in a version of island life which is both true and false.
Attempting to break away from the literal perceptions attached to documentary photography, a genre he is clearly fluent in, Neville examines the potential for consciously subverting images and discovering new truths and lies behind their surface. On this island, a place where a postmodern version of early 20th century estate life is tucked away and thriving, Neville’s residency finds aesthetic and economic conflicts and connections, in the art, nature and people who live there.
Alice Bain is editor of MAP