Simon Jenner reviews the opening of a Together! exhibition in Canning Town on 22 October - a welcoming place and a fine bright gallery space, currently exhibiting Colin Hambrook and Bruchina Arts' artwork until 15 November at The Hub
Hambrook’s work was both on display and integrated into a talk, projected vividly, prepared especially for the not-so-private-view. Photographs of Bruchina Arts' largely three-dimensional artwork were miraculously mounted and introduced by the artist.
Bruchina works with objets trouvés, recycled discarded beauty and sometimes simply as a recorder of natural phenomena as a photographer. Most of her work is constructed using everyday disjecta-membra, for instance ‘Capitalism is Outdated’ is a wall hanging with a heart-shaped girdle of threepence pieces – themselves now defunct – around a piece of slate. Or ‘Jaded’ which looks like a handbag but is in fact a large slice of quarried blue slate embroidered with ‘trinkets’ – a favourite word and avowed part of her commissioning style – to resemble anything from a disappointed usage to Maggie Thatcher.
‘Pixie Party’ is a close-up of bark from a Cyprus tree. ‘Branches beautified’ is its opposite: a found natural tree adorned. The work oscillates through the tensions between leaving alone and striking an artistic delicacy of assertion.
‘Cave Dwelling Elder’, ‘Native Elder’ both with shamanistic overtones, and ‘Through the Rabbit Hole’ with its cut-in steps signal abandoned human enterprises reclaimed perhaps by hobbits. ‘Gifts From the Gods’ is a most striking arrangement of items, including tree resin, frankincense and a conch shell, very sparing on a slate-blue backdrop. ‘The Knight’ has a humourous, montage-led element including a chequerboard floor reminiscent of Dutch interiors.
More beautiful than these attractive pieces are for instance two sets of ‘Smudge Wands’ constructed items set side by side on branches. These again reference Reiki and indeed other invocations of natural power. ‘Smoke and Mirrors’ dresses a white model head with feather and fine-threaded scarlet frippery, referencing the gentle naturalistic surrealism we’ve come to expect.
Greatest of all however is ’Aura’ which shows a wine bottle blent with successive lariat meltings in vivid contrasting wax. The supreme delicacy and colour application is beautifully applied and sustained and makes for the most single individual image of all as well as encompassing all the artist’s themes.
Those who know Hambrook’s work through the Knitting Time sequence of poems and illustrations will possibly know the remarkably harrowing journey through the psychiatric system it describes.
He objectifies his subjective states, to a commentary on former selves, former tragedies and an astonishing surge of affirmation. The paintings’ crisply-worked symbolism converse with vividly-imaged poems: each comment on the other.
Both Colin’s mother and his son are referenced here, the former oppressed with psychiatric 'treatment', leading to her early death brought on by Largactil. In ‘Dream of an Impossible Knitter’ she weaves a web for the world in one of the most touching images, to prevent the harm coming to her child that has come for her.
In ‘Joys of Fatherhood’ a giant baby son buzzed by birds has the father contemplating him as he leaves his own pot of concerns to boil. One of Hambrook's earliest, best-known images, ‘Where the Sins of the Fathers Begin to Fade’ a head compartmentalised like a house, memorialises his own sense of helplessness towards his son.
Hambrook’s bitter privileging of corvids replacing sparrows (celebrated in ‘Bird Song’) runs a Hughes-like Crow motif through one transformative theme: trees morphing into people and vice-versa. Other poets like Ellen Link provide themes: ‘In the Woods Crow will Blast your Courage, to tell you, you are not a Tree’.
‘Blue Black Feather’, recalls a time Hambrook was on the tube in his pyjamas and he unwittingly showed a Jay's feather to an off-duty policewoman. Luckily, he evaded escort to a nearby mental hospital.
It’s all etched with the draughtmanship reminiscent of some early 20th century British masters (like Johns, Wyndham Lewis, and Spencer) as well as Burra-like surrealism and more emphatically Cecil Collins (1908-89) whose mysticism permeates Hambrook’s work. Both were at Dartington School of Art, and some of the holistic multi-platforming art is evinced here in the way the poems support the pictures but never derived entirely from them.
They in turn interact with the projected content, bright colours, a brilliantly worked faux-naïve perspective as Blakean as it is neo-Romantic (often yoked) as post-modern as it is precise, ensure the images remain unnervingly sharp.
Most of all though, unlike some artists who adopt such stances, these images are founded upon the very real psychic experiences Hambrook has written of and here spoke of with supreme, subdued eloquence. His capacities for premonition or piercing psychological insight remind one of a Blakean son who’s earned his place without seeking it, rather than even a Blake follower like Samuel Palmer.
Hambrook might demur his visionary powers, but he’s of the visionary company in Walter Pater’s and Hart Crane’s phrase. We’re very lucky he’s now merely approaching the height of his powers.