A Green and Pleasant Land – British Landscape and the Imagination: 1970s to Now / Reviewed by Miranda Gavin / 28.11.17
A Green and Pleasant Land—British Landscape and the Imagination: 1970s to Now is an ambitious exhibition that presents photography, film and sculpture depicting artists’ perceptions of landscape. Over 100 works by 50 artists are featured, the majority of whose work is on loan from the Arts Council Collection of nearly 8,000 works. The exhibition’s title suggests an idyllic, rather nostalgic view of the landscape, but all is not quite what it seems. The varied responses embrace and intersect with social, political, economic, spiritual and emotional perspectives revealing the British landscape to be a dynamic, often highly charged, space that has been revered as well as contested.
Indeed, the act of strolling through the exhibition becomes its own journey through recent photographic history. Modest-sized, selenium-toned prints sit alongside large-format colour photographs and where text is integral to, and part of, the image; it is deployed using varied strategies—handwritten, typed, and stencilled—pointing to a politicised era in the late 1970-80s when image and text were often closely allied conceptually and visually. Black and white photography features prominently and many prints are beautifully crafted.
Thomas Joshua Cooper’s gelatin silver prints (1976-9) and Fay Goodwin’s brooding depictions of rural ancient sites (1976) provide counterpoints to Graham Smith’s post-industrial documentary images of Teesside (1976-80), Jo Spence’s collaborative staged interventions (1980-3) and Anna Fox’s outsider point of view in The Village (1991). Susan Derges’ camera-less works (2017) are dreamlike, evoking the elemental and illusory, while Keith Arnatt’s Pictures from a Rubbish Tip (1988-9) become sculptural objects of detritus. It is a little puzzling as to why so few works in different media are included. There is only one sculpture, one painting and two artist’s films—of which, Ben Rivers’ cinematic essay Ah, Liberty! evokes the spirit of Ralph Eugene Meatyard’s photographs.
Stopping to survey the different views presented in each room, the potential cross-pollination of ideas is intriguing. However, as with many walks, part of the experience is finding a resting spot from which to contemplate the scenery. The space occupied by Theo Simpson and Craig Barker’s steel structure would have been ideal as a seated area from which to gaze upon the landscape of the exhibition. The U-shaped path through the show, with its entry and exit points in the same corridor, is indicative of the human desire to manage and impose order on nature, yet playfulness also punctuates the exhibition, as John Stezaker’s recent works (2014-16), using appropriated black and white film stills overlaid with colour-tinted vintage postcards of typical landscapes, conclude the exhibition.
Taken as a whole, the works in A Green and Pleasant Land emit as much information about the changing nature of photography and its transition from analogue to digital technology, as of transitions in the intensive management of rural and urban landscapes and the growth of edgelands, a terrain lying between countryside and city. The exhibition is sensitively curated by Greg Hobson and Towner’s Head of Exhibitions, Brian Cass, and the visual path articulated through the space is engaging, subtle and, at times, bold—associations and dialogues converge and diverge, allowing for shifts in perception and revealing the flexibility of the term ‘landscape’ as viewed through the prism of art.
Go see, go view, go survey.
– reviewed by Miranda Gavin
A Green and Pleasant Land—British Landscape and the Imagination: 1970s to Now continues to 21 January 2018 at The Towner Gallery, Eastbourne
Susan Derges, ‘Luna’, 2006 © Susan Derges, courtesy of Purdy Hicks Gallery.