Hairnets and barbed wire transformed into art
Millfield School in Street is pretty amazing. It not only produces more Olympians than any other school in the UK (six went to Rio with Team GB, which was more than the entire Pakistan delegation apparently) but it also boasts the nationally recognised Atkinson Gallery, which holds major contemporary art exhibitions open to the public. Andy Warhol, Sir Antony Caro and Dame Elisabeth Frink have all exhibited here. It’s your archetypal white cube gallery, all high ceilings and big expanses of white, white walls. On a school campus. In rural Somerset.
The latest in the illustrious line up is British conceptual artist Susie MacMurray, whose drawings, sculpture and installations are on show at the gallery until 10 December. I went along to meet her and to have a look at the show.
Susie MacMurray had a successful career as a classical bassoonist before retraining as an artist and graduating in 2001, and she now exhibits regularly in the US, Europe and around the UK. She says that just as playing music can be immersive, she’s been drawn towards making big, immersive installations. I’d say her work has a real sense of drama or performance, too. ‘Here come the Girls’ (shown here as it was originally commissioned and hung in Manchester Art Gallery, her home town) is a huge, frothy concoction made up of hundreds of lipstick-stained wine glasses that could have been collected after a night out on the town. The piece is about female empowerment and what women choose to do with that power, including, it would seem, binge drinking (me? never).
Here’s a close up of the tip of the slightly smaller version at the Atkinson Gallery. Each glass has been rimmed in lipstick by the artist’s lips (did she drink all the wine? She’s not saying).
There’s smaller scale work here too. Rusty military barbed wire salvaged from the Aldershot army base is set into a base of composite Portland stone, like a war memorial, to become a palisade – or is it the remains of a forest in a no-man’s land? More reclaimed barbed wire goes to make what could be skeletal soldiers in ‘Hold the line’.
She transforms ordinary things into beautiful yet unsettling pieces of work. So household clingfilm is tightly wrapped to become a cluster of lustrous, pearly globules or pods suspended on cotton thread from a steel ring. They look look almost edible (the piece is called ‘Feast’). They reminded US customs officers of something else entirely – Susie told me that they cut through each of the pods in a similar piece to inspect the contents.
Finely detailed pen and ink drawings of gossamer fine hairnets and gauze bandages have a delicate dreamlike, ephemeral, quality. Making a drawing like this, she says, is almost a form of meditation.
This sculpture is ‘Medusa’. Remember her? The gorgon with the head made of snakes, only this time the snakes spread out from the feet, like rivers of blood (or am I being too ghoulish?). Unlike classical sculptures carved out of unyielding stone, the sculpture is sinuous, flexible and made of raw copper chain mail,which will gradually tarnish over time. Each link is individually made – a twist on the traditional knitting bee – and it’s a bit magic-realism-Angela Carter-ish (who alongside Marina Warner and Louise Bourgeois, is an influence).
In this work – nearly a metre across – masses of opulent goldside pheasant feathers are made into a huge autumnal dome. It’s sumptuous.
Go along and see for yourself. I’d be interested to know what you think of it. The exhibition runs from Monday 31 October-Saturday 10 December. The gallery is open Monday to Saturday, 9.30am-5pm. You get to the gallery through the gatehouse on Butleigh Road, right opposite the school car park. Free admission.
Atkinson Gallery, Millfield School, Street, BA16 0YD. Tel 01458 444322. atkinsongallery.co.uk