Ffresh 3

23 February 2002 - 0 January 0000

‘I think I'm dumb, or maybe just happy. Think I'm just happy’.
Dumb, Kurt Cobain, 1993.

The open submission group show is a dangerous beast. It roams the streets, charging artists to enter, then devours them and spits them out in a lurid, confusing mess. However, Ffresh3 has evolved into a much more sophisticated creature. There was no submission fee, and the selectors have picked out work that, although diverse, shares themes and concerns that recommend the group to a larger audience and highlight a fresh perspective on contemporary art practice from Wales.

Wales provides the obvious connection between the artists. Some are Welsh, some studied here, some have lived here for ages and some have only just arrived. The two galleries are equally important. Chapter is now well established in the UK and internationally, while the artist-run g39 is a more recent and essential addition to the gallery scene, being one of the only remaining galleries in the city centre.

The art scene in Wales has been hopelessly optimistic in the last decade, though setbacks and trials have only served to increase and consolidate the ambition of artists. The art scene in Wales has the potential to emulate Scotland’s recent successes. As well as being distanced both physically and mentally from London both countries have new parliaments that bring with them a new optimism - with a healthy dose of scepticism thrown in. This feeling could be said to run through the work of the artists in Ffresh 3.

The artists involved are also of a certain age - with all of them born roughly between 1965 and 1975. This can be both a positive and a negative thing, but is important in the respect that they all share cultural references, experiences, and aspirations. Collectively they have lived through swift changes, having a memory of late 60s early 70s, they will have all had a whiff of Punk before suffering the adolescent excesses of Heavy Metal or the New Romantics. An obsession with the melancholic mutterings of The Smiths will have kept them in their bedrooms until dance culture got them out again.

For the last decade they will have lived through a retro tour of each movement. Through the appalling (but addictive) I Love 1970s, 80s, 90s, etc, they have been bombarded with a national nostalgia trip and it would be easy to feel that the best is behind them. As artists they have to make do with what they have, to try and make it better. Like splitting up with a girlfriend / boyfriend, they’re not sure what they’ve lost, and even more unsure of what they are looking for. But they are looking.

Richard Higlett’s work is a case in point. He has reproduced a community notice board in the gallery at Chapter. However, all of the leaflets and information have been blurred, rendering the board useless. The faded ‘lost cat’ that you can just about make out will never be returned because you can’t read the number and that spiritual healing you were after is totally unobtainable as you can’t decipher where the class is being held. You are trapped in a nowhere land, having to rely on your own resources.

You are in a similar position (albeit underground) with Christopher Brown. His projection onto the ceiling of the gallery at Chapter shows pedestrians, prams and cyclists passing over a pavement grille. How you got down there is not important, you’re just dumped there by the artist. There is a foreboding sense of claustrophobia as you stand there watching life carry on without you.

The potential death or loss of the Welsh language is explored eloquently by Sion Dafydd and Alwyn Thomas' video projection at g39. This shows the artists repeatedly inscribing a crumbling building with the phrase mae’n rhaid tawelu’r iaith Gymraeg (The Welsh language must be silenced). This references written records of Welsh people being imprisoned for speaking Welsh and children being punished by school authorities for speaking their native tongue. As the artists rightly point out, this issue is not a racial one, it is a linguistic one, and should concern all Welsh people, whatever their political colour.

Meriel Herbert’s Born and Bred in Wales acts as a natural compliment to Dafydd and Thomas. Her video shows the artist attempting to sing along to the Welsh national anthem that she is listening to on headphones. The artist is Welsh but unable to speak the language. Does the artist’s lack of knowledge show a lack of pride in her heritage, or are her attempts a sign of dedication and respect? A female soloist performing the anthem also provides another context, with the piece normally being performed by male voice choirs, or large groups in rugby stadiums.

Jennie Savage also places us in a traditionally male environment - that of the ‘Old Man’s Pub.’ For the duration of the exhibition Savage has transformed Chapter’s stark and simple bar space into something far more comfortable and full of memories. However the traditional pub relics, such as a beer stained carpet, dusty curtains, brass ornaments and stuffed animals, have all been acquired through a company that supplies furniture for pubs. This is fake authenticity that cleverly verges on cliché.

The work of Gordon Dalton also uses cliché in exploring real and fictional spaces. For ‘Ffresh3’ he has fast-forwarded through over 100 movies, searching for tumbleweed blowing across the screen. However, even though everyone claims to have seen it, Dalton found it hardly appears anywhere. Looping the footage he did find, Dalton teases the viewer in their expectations of seeing it. Meanwhile, on the floor sit three actual pieces bought on the Internet, proving it exists for real. This protracted romantic search has a deeply melancholic and slightly embarrassing edge, which is echoed by the real tumbleweeds watching their ‘friends’ blow across the screen.

In a similar way, Stuart Lee uses the conventions of wildlife documentary photography, heightening narrative expectation through the use of slow motion and soundtrack. His projection of a seal in a zoo is without the expected documentary voiceover, leaving you to muse over the life of a seal trapped in a constructed fake environment (like Savage’s pub). This leaves the viewer in the uncomfortable position of privileged spectator - and the seal is reduced to dumb entertainment.

Animals feature rather differently in the paintings of Paul Becker. Acting as a kind of cuddly Trojan horse, his animals are outwardly sentimental but contain something much more dark and mysterious. Becker’s paintings are a strange mix of horror and heartbreak, where The Evil Dead meets Brief Encounter. What are we to make of a painting where foxes perform oral sex on humans, or of hedgehogs protectively wrapped around a child. Becker’s paintings cleverly use nightmare-like imagery in negotiating relationships, or the lack of them.

There is also a creepy, unnerving aspect to the interventions of Philippa Lawrence. Her Swarm is a mass of steely blue carpet tacks that mimic insects drawn to light. The everyday nature of the pins is enchanted with both horror and beauty as they creep around overlooked spaces at both galleries.

Andy Fung’s work also occupies an often-overlooked space - the stairwell. His wall paintings, although hand-painted, look as if produced by a bizarre pop art cyborg. Painted in a two-week period before the show opened, his work organically grows up the stairwell from the first to third floor at g39. His works is at once organic and slick, a controlled messiness where even splashes and blobs have stylish contours. A fusion of painting and the spray can graffiti of American subways.

This contrasts with the sprawling mass of scratchy writing in Neale Howell's work. His graffiti inspired paintings and drawings seem to reference TV, overheard conversations or snippets of information heard whilst tuning the radio. What we are left with is a mass of arguing mark making that leaves the viewer unsure of how and when to proceed. Like Lawrence and Fung, Howells work seems a sprawling living ‘thing’ that has a life of its own.

Whilst the above three artists work grows, David Cushway's work seems to disappear into nothing. In previous work Cushway has built clay heads or pots and immersed them in water. He then videos them disintegrating to nothing. For Ffresh3, Cushway (who trained as a ceramist) has made casts of his own teeth from bone china. By continually recasting them they get smaller and smaller until they start to look like a single tooth, and then become virtually unrecognisable.

Angharad Pearce Jones’ piece for Ffresh3 plunders a ‘male’ environment. Jones has worked in the heavy industries where she witnessed one too many naked pin-up calendar. She has taken one of these pictures (a naked torso with tool belt) and enlarged it to a monumental scale. This is surrounded by a rather impotent looking scaffold structure that is decorated with wallpaper. Jones works with the shifting image of female nudity in the workplace from pin-ups to men’s magazines and the modern day equivalent of computer-screen titillation.

Men are also the main subjects of Rachelle Viader KnowlesNomads Land. A three-monitor installation shows slow motion clips from World War II movies. More specifically, it shows the film’s ‘hero’ being endlessly walked towards his death, accompanied only by his executioner. The centre screen shows a repeated clip from Saving Private Ryan where the young soldier merges with his old soldier self. Knowles’ work is concerned with how fiction acts as a last witness to the past, as family connections and memories are lost.

On a lighter note, the subjects of Michael Cousin’s work are persuaded to get lost on a rather stranger journey. Using bird feed, Cousin acted as the Pied Piper of Cardiff and led a collection of pigeons around the town centre. Tragicomic in nature, Cousin took the ‘vermin’ sightseeing and shopping before leading them to the National Museum of Wales, where they have said to prefer Van Gogh to Chagall. Cousin then unceremoniously left them there.

There are many visual connections between the artists in Ffresh3. Certainly we see a lot of animals - with sad seals, frisky foxes and imaginary insects popping up liberally; real and fictional spaces - dust-blown landscapes, dustier pubs, underground cellars and scenes from WW II movies; images of identity such as the written word, national anthems and not forgetting the teeth. The work is extremely tender and romantic, unafraid to be nostalgic and sentimental, whilst keeping an eye on the future.

Those pesky pigeons could be the artists in Ffresh 3, being led around feeding on the crumbs of popular culture, whilst taking in a bit of shopping and sightseeing before being left to their own devices at the museum. It sounds dumb, but I think they’re just happy.