Yet again it seems as if the Contemporary have taken a courageous plunge in bringing art that separated by centuries but tethered by a curio or challenge that’s held on through the ages. However, Alfred Kubin and Francis Upritchard’s separation between the mortal coil feels apt in what turns out be an unnerving if exciting exploration into our angst towards what lies beyond the light at the end of the tunnel.
Galleries 1 and 2 belong to Upritchard, who envisaged the collection with Nottingham in mind, taking a little of our Medieval past, mixing it with a Bayeux tapestry base and garnishing the entire concoction with a burst of colour and the flash of a smile.
Models on plinths are cast in frozen martial arts poses, warriors without weapons, eyes swollen shut and faces distorted in pain and contemplation.. The individual plinths give each figure an unworldly poise and as each faces in a different direction they seem totally disconnected from the actions of the others. The attention to detail, even down to fingernails and hair strands, gives both life and death to these static creations reminiscent of those ancient sculptures of dead knights above their graves - dead but frozen in the last moments of life, audibly groaning into the hereafter.
Gallery 2 an evolution of the theme, in part a tribute to the bohemian sentiments of Upritchard's native New Zealand, transforms the simple palates of the first gallery into every colour of the rainbow, the poses of the figures brighter as well as a little saucier. The second part of Upritchard's production seems to draw together all the life that was missing from the first. Jugs, jars and a giant carpet also take their place among the people of Upritchard’s second world, garishly patterned like a madman’s curtains.
Two figures sharing one plinth perform an ancient ritual, one bowing, the other kneeling, worshipping and prostrating themselves in front of each other. However the mummified faces remain and the life brought through by the colour is constrained by the lifelessness of the figures themselves. Even the attempts at humour such as the blue woman in a pair of comic sunglasses seem to echo hollowly. So while the introduction represents something of a stoic, dreamy mortuary of animation what follows is an altogether more vibrant if quietly unsettling environment.
Blended, it shows how Upritchard has the ability to capture that odd feeling we all get interacting with sculpture, where what is lifeless comes alive through the relationship and meaning we place in its physicality. His work is less about the realism of the sculpts themselves, more a metaphysical study of the emotional investment we pour into their interpretation and the psychology of engaging with the dead.
And then, as the saying goes, opposites are usually totally different to each other. Galleries 3 & 4 house the work of Alfred Kubin, Austrian symbolist and flag-bearer of darkness, metaphor and depth psychology. The influence of Freud, whose Interpretation of Dreams was published around the same time as Kubin was working in the early 1900s, stands out in pictures that swim through death, desire and domination. The beauty inherent in many of the pictures, The Swamp for example, is chewed at the corners by the looming figures of supra-human force that loom in the background, often anthropomorphised into slugs, tigers and seals.
At the far end of the exhibition are the most extreme examples of Kubin's ultra-neurotic artwork, sealed off like the dirty films in a DVD rental shop and prefaced with a sign warning children. In here are fairly impressive examples of total artistic honesty and it's enlightening to see that a hundred years ago an artists like Kubin were illustrating profanity with such rigour and rebellion.
Some of the pieces are admittedly childish, the artist himself makes an appearance as a cartoon figure wrestling with his demons, a queen sits with a crown of thorns on top of her head, and some of the work betrays a fear of the new empowered, sexual female, depicted as sitting on a rocking horse that slices the men in its pathway.
All the chains of analysis are present and correct; dominance and slavery, sexual anxiety, psychic foreboding and a disdain towards the political figures of the day. Kubin's work is largely monochrome although dashes of colour appear in some of the later pieces. It can be difficult to deal with so much negativity occasionally and the small ant-like people scurrying towards annihilation bring to mind the darkest work of Lowry or Gerald Scarfe.
The titles given to the works are also perhaps deliberately, grandiose: War Game, Suspicion, Power etc. However there is also a sense of humour that saves Kubin from boredom, with The Kiss (something worse than you even might find in the alleys behind ‘spoons on a Saturday) and a charming ribaldry working here built between sex and death.
Most interestingly, Upritchard has contributed a few pieces into Kubin's space, and rather than being an unnecessary accoutrement these feel like worthy comrades to such dark work. There’s an elongated sloth and the magnificent facial lampshades from where light stares through cut eye holes give a feeling of dialogue and collaboration.
There is so much to see and each of these artists could carry the Contemporary's space by themselves and would be worthy tenants for the exhibitions two month run. For the depth of impression Kubin comes out on top, but this is no competition. Rather it is an intelligently compiled stage show for two important, relevant artists, who are joined more than torn apart by a feeling for the difficulties of human life as well as its joys.
Alfred Kubin & Francis Upritchard runs until 30 September
Margin image credits - Alfred Kubin, The Lord of the World, 1900. Courtesy of Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, Munich © Eberhard Spangenberg / DACS, 2012.
Thumbnail image credits - Alfred Kubin, Mythical Creature, 1903. Courtesy of Oberösterreichische Landesmuseen, Munich © Eberhard Spangenberg / DACS, 2012.