The Art of Relationship | Matthew Clegg

Cherry Tree Nigel GrimmerNigel Grimmer’s Minor Monuments offers us relationships between text, photography and sculpture. On entering the gallery you are greeted by one triptych and three pairings. The texts seem to offer oblique context or counterpoint to the visual field, whilst steering clear of anything as crude as explanation or closure. As a whole, we are offered a chemical compound that mixes memory, kitsch, fantasy and pastiche – all spiked with a playful sense of humour.

Whilst being shown around by the artist I was also offered glimpses of his natural storytelling gifts, and it’s hard for me, now, to factor out the extra dimension his anecdotes brought to my viewing experience. This is another level of relationship, one taken a step further when I allowed myself the indulgence of relating certain of his images to enduring memories of my own: a broken cherry tree, and a 1970s garden doubling as domestic playground – both of them possessing iconic or symbolic life, and no doubt part of the collective psyche of many working class or lower middle class kids of the 70s.

Several years ago I was set an exercise at a creative writing workshop: imagine a scene from your life that you wish you had a photo of, but don’t possess. Describe the photo. Nigel goes several stages further in Minor Monuments, as his own disclosures reveal. I’m especially interested in the way he plays with embodying certain of his parents’ expectations for him, as he does in ‘Graduation’ and ‘Wedding’. What strikes me about his use of photo image here is the way he plays with the idea of mask.

The Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa is said to have created many distinct mutilations of his own personality which he called heteronyms, all of whom seemed to manifest perverse complexities Pessoa would suppress from his own public face. ‘Graduation’ offers that process in reverse. This portrait of the artist deliberately offers us two levels of psyche-flattening kitsch: first, man is rendered doll, then doll is fixed in generic (even clichéd) graduation pose.

The triptych ‘Art Drag Album’ appears, at first sight, to offer us the mask as window into camp self-projection fantasy. The whole business is saved from cliché when we discover that the mask paintings in the photos could be described as ‘detritus’, or ‘charity shop fodder’ – rejects, not windows into the soul. Cultural detritus and personal history seem to relate, but the actual psyche eludes the album, as, arguably, it always must.

The natural pairing with ‘Graduation’ is the sculpture ‘Wedding’. This is another piece of ‘false evidence’: a figuring of an event that never happened to the artist; or a projection of how his life might have, but did not, conform to domestic cliché. The case and gilt frame is another splendid piece of charity shop kitsch, and yet some trace of the object’s original halo of sentiment is traceable beneath the irony. It’s hard to disentangle detached pastiche from a hard-to-define pathos.

For me, the sculptures are the heart of this exhibition, saving it from disappearing entirely into tail-eating irony. Although ‘You’ and ‘Me’ might comprise a fairly cool metaphor for psychic distances that cannot be bridged, ‘Garden’ and ‘Cherry Tree’ are nuanced with details that invite sharing and correspondence, despite the artist’s reservation that they might only be significant to him.

Firstly, ‘Garden’ is so obviously an act of care: imagine the effort invested into simply tracking down and assembling all the 70s kitsch that makes up the particulars of the sculpture. Consider the focus and intent. Notice how the artist has employed significant detail in the arrangement of the scene: adult Nigel Doll cricks his neck to look at his child self playing in the wigwam, a variation on a by now classical poetic motif.

Nigel told me a fascinating anecdote about the cherry tree. In his home town the council had a surplus of cherry trees, which they planted in domestic gardens, including his parents’ garden. This cherry tree became a centrepiece in his memory map of home, and yet time and events rendered that tree vulnerable to acts of vandalism. The breaking of its trunk, here, expresses a threat, or already enacted violence to that map, as well as his sense of family, or domestic continuity. The art of relationship adopts a metaphorical dimension and a melancholy tone.

It’s precisely here that Minor Monuments takes on poetic life, and resonates beyond the chilly confines of gallery concept. It’s also where it relates most to my own memory map of home.

Cherry Tree 2 Nigel GrimmerEpilogue: Cherry Blossom, 1986.

There are stories that are written in fading italics and stories written in bold type. When parents separate, some kids keep a diary. I didn’t. Typically, a father will leave, or get thrown out. It wasn’t that way for Joanne and me. We came home from school one spring day and Mum wasn’t there. A letter arrived in the post a few days later. She was living in a caravan in Huddersfield with a man she’d met at Great Clothes Warehouse, Leeds. I wasn’t angry. She had her reasons. That’s another story. Her story. Not the one I’m telling now.

I was 17 and messing up my A-levels by slow neglect. Joanne was 15, getting bullied at school by a girl who seemed to have no other means of passing the time. This story took place on an ordinary evening. Cherry blossom settled into the calm of my parents’ separation. I was resting my eyes after too long playing Tim Love’s Cricket on my computer, squinting out of my box room window in an effort to retrain their focus on the distant placard of Austhorpe Lane. Unlike some of my swotty mates, I prided myself on 20/20 vision.

It was the time of shopping trips with Dad. Of embarrassing slogs to and from Asda. We took our furtive turns with the shopping-bag-on-wheels, dragging the weight of baked beans and frozen pizzas. At school, Mrs Duthie had assured us that the secret of good exam prep was getting into a stable routine. Mum should have our dinner on the table at a fixed hour every night of the week, thus optimising our time for revision. These were the days of writing history essays on the morning of hand-in. Of Cobbold making Clegg versus Clegg jibes at school.

All this was passing me by. It was another evening outside time and place. I was escaping, not seizing the day – wrapped up in a distracted spell of computer graphics and Hounds of Love. I turned music up loud, as if to overpower life, which was as out of my ken as Mum’s new address, or what Dad thought of it. This was the lull before I took anyone’s side, or had to make a stand on one side of truth. It was last days of innocence, as impartial as only those cocooned in their own thoughts can be.

I want to close in on the moment of change. There was only me in the house. Dad had popped out to pick up my sister from some life I couldn’t fathom, now that she could style her own hair and choose the posters for her bedroom walls. They shone from their deep-sunk drawing pins like a bright and tacky gallery of all Mum had disapproved of: Harrison Ford, Michael J Fox, and Wham! were the stars she steered by. They were beyond the reach of big brother’s putdowns. She’d even stand by the talents of Andrew Ridgeley.

Our rusting gate squeaked once as Dad closed it. Joanne had slipped into some blind spot in my vision as a burly bloke with a tidy haircut hustled up behind Dad and let him have it, ready or not. Dad was caught on the turn and knocked off balance. This bloke hit him – once, twice – so at ease with the act he could’ve been working out down the gym. Dad must still have been reeling as I skidded down the stairs in my socks, clumsy with panic. What was I expecting to do – seventeen, nine stone and five feet seven?

It put life into a new perspective; planted a red flag in time. This bloke and his four mates had shadowed Dad with provocation since he’d encountered them – laddish and bolshie – outside The Devon. He’d asked them, irately, to mind their tongues in front of children. Had I been by his side, would I have winced as he stood his ground and steeled his modest, circumspect voice against the blab of their derision? Or would I have walked on ahead – only concerned with how he was showing me up? I’m still in no position to know.

At that moment my gaze was refocusing on my freshly-oiled Slazenger cricket bat. It had been a surprise gift from Dave Clarkson – the best and most stylish batsman at Crossgates. I’d oiled and polished and treasured it – wouldn’t lend it to anyone in case it got nicked or scratched. Now it was merely the nearest weapon to hand. I charged outside, hoiking it like a club. But I only had to study Dad’s assailant – the uncertain glaze of his booze-dimmed eyes, the suet-like swelling of his belly – to realise I couldn’t make his head a target ugly enough to crack open.

Was he just some pissed-up lad with hurt pride? As I yelled and circled, yelled and circled, could he tell I wouldn’t – or couldn’t – follow through? Time and doubt seemed to open up a gulf between us, and I was moving further out of the frame. The factor that changed his point of view came from a blind spot in everyone’s vision. Try to imagine my surprise, and Dad’s, when the force that finally repelled him – sent him and his crew packing like scolded dogs – was Joanne finding a new voice, and hissing something I won’t reproduce here.

Essay commissioned by Bloc Projects to accompany Nigel Grimmer‘s Minor Monuments exhibition, April 2013.

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