Liz Edwards & Mary-Ann Constantine
It’s been some 18 months in the making, but our exhibition of artistic responses to Thomas Pennant’s Tour in Wales – ‘Movement, Landscape, Art’ – opens shortly. Here’s a brief preview of some of the works that will be on show at Oriel Sycharth, Glyndŵr University, and some reflections on the ideas and processes that lie behind them.
The works comprising ‘Movement, Landscape, Art’ are striking, eclectic, moving, and thought-provoking. We had no idea how the thirteen artists would reply to Pennant, but the works inspired by him in the exhibition couldn’t range more widely – from painting and pottery to sound and film art. We’ve recently been working on the artists’ statements accompanying their work, and these have been no less a revelation to us than the works themselves. Key themes thread through these accounts: the slipperiness of the past, always just over that hill, disappearing from view. The thrill, nonetheless, of glimpsing hidden stories, places, scenes. The responsibility (obligation even) for telling forgotten histories of hardship and suffering. Or the enduring quality of the past – not necessarily lost, but sometimes only veiled. And always comprehensible, in one way or another, from a twenty-first-century perspective.
It’s been wonderful to see, in private conversations as well as in the works themselves, or the blogs that chart the process of creating them, how deeply Pennant has sunk into the thoughts and practice of some of the artists. Engaging with his travel writing has taken them to new places – geographically and conceptually – or else inspired them to see familiar ones with fresh eyes.
Every piece within the exhibition embodies these discoveries: here are just a few examples from the many within the show. Ali Lochhead’s prints, based on pigments ground from rock collected at Parys Mountain, evoke the traumatic history of mining, in highly dramatic (but natural) colours very different from her previous work on lead mines. Helen Pugh’s embroidery delicately captures Pennant the naturalist in springtime, in bright green thread and ash seedpods. Barbara Matthew’s shallow-space installations in slate and paint record, and confront, the changing nature of one particular landscape, now far less accessible than it was when Pennant travelled through it. Thomas Pennant himself peers out in miniature from a battered travelling case, surrounded (trapped?) by found objects – broken china, a feather – in the work of Stuart Evans.
These pieces, along with those of nine other exhibiting artists, are beautiful, and unsettling, as they overlay past and present, text and image. Created over the course of 2016, they bring history to life at an uncertain moment in our own time.