To visit Joanna Whittle’s new show Lost Islands at the Cupola Gallery is to enter a world of otherworlds – all fleetingly familiar, half-formed memories of childhood adventures into places you were not supposed to go, or of strange, tea-time cartoons.
All the work is small, some of it almost miniature, so the viewing experience becomes an acutely intimate one, as we are drawn in to closely examine the exquisite detail. Three drawings lead us into the gallery space, in which we are presented with a range of objects, not least in the form of Natural History, a museum-style, curio cabinet of personal artefacts and artworks. Unlike a museum, however, the artist has not offered any information, encouraging us to form our own stories and trigger our own memories.
Elsewhere, there is an opulent, ornamental gold jug and a range of ‘Pastijware’, plates, plaques and ceramic pasties, each with a unique motif – seemingly idyllic glades and tents of various sizes, rendered in a style reminiscent of Claude Lorrain with added Baroque detailing. Pottery is useful and ornamental, traditionally decorated with scenes of pastoral bliss. These, however, are curious objects, at once desirable and psychologically weighty.
Joanna’s signature motif is the tent, a temporary structure offering shelter and refuge. The terrain in which they sit becomes increasingly disconcerting, the sky threatening, even the foliage begins to look hostile around the isolated, slightly grotesque fairground marquees. Formerly formal gardens are overgrown and proud, old buildings have fallen into disrepair. So why is there a light on in the tent? Who would live in a place like this, out here in what has become the middle of nowhere? This is 2019.
In the paintings, the brushwork is meticulous, and the colouring exquisite and luscious. Occasionally, highly-coloured underpainting is allowed to show through and forms, lit like a film set, are painstakingly built with thin layers of oil paint. The folds in the tent’s canvas material look like Velázquez’s drapery, perfectly capturing its texture.
The drawings in the gallery are looser, enhancing the feeling that the tents could blow away at any moment.
As a whole, these works could be seen as a pointed metaphor for current, general uncertainty; yet there is lightness too. Look out for the tiny, colourful container ships sailing past an urn. Life is weird, but can be light – it is rarely one thing, and this stunning exhibition is rich in so many ways.
Artists' talk – 2nd November, 2pm, free
- Words by
- Sean Williams