Opening times: 9.30am – 5.30pm
Admission: £4.00; children free
near Brecon, Powys
Wales LD3 8EU
tel: 01874 636202
11 – 18 October 2009
Working estates such as Penpont were traditionally at the centre of rural life but fell into disrepair during the 20th century due to socio-economic forces. In the early 21st century, Penpont is attempting in its current initiatives to maintain and develop a creative and positive relationship with its locality against the backdrop of economic and environmental uncertainty. Is the early 21st century a watershed for Penpont as a microcosm of both rural life and wider society? What relationships between the traditional and the technological are emerging and yet to emerge? What dialogues, relationships and processes might be revealed and developed by artists’ responses?
For Stad yr Ystad – State of the Estate, nineteen artists have created original work in response to the location and these themes. During the exhibition, the artworks are sited throughout the main house and gardens and in the recently converted stable block. The exhibition also includes work by Celf o Gwmpas participants.
Reviewed by Lyndon Davies
The State of the Estate exhibition at Penpont, a beautiful 17century house near Brecon, set out chiefly to provide a platform for artists to make work in response to the house, its gardens and environment.
Penpont is a working rural estate, which like many institutions of the kind, declined during the 20th century, but has now, in difficult economic circumstances, embarked on a programme of restoration and recontextualisation within the locality.
It has to be said, from the purely aesthetic point of view, that this complex and intriguing matrix of buildings and grounds, the constantly surprising articulation of internal and external spaces, with all the varying textures which nature and craft, decrepitude and regeneration, lend to a site of this kind, provide an enchanting and inexhaustible source of settings for site-specific work. But such a place is also bristling with cultural, social and political associations, raising, for instance, questions of ownership and power, the imaginary and the real, nostalgia and brute historical reality, which many of the artists showcased here make reference to in fascinatingly varied ways.
Not even out of the carparking field we came across a settee standing by the footbridge. Not one you could sit on, however: across its back Ivor Davies had painted a naive but accurate portrayal of the Dower House, which stood behind it just through the trees, and on its seat-cushion, in front of the painted building were arranged a little group of figures and animals around a toy settee not dissimilar to the one on which they were arranged. Another of these settees stood in front of the main house, nailing it down, as it were, into its function of picturesque cynosure, generator of comfortable pastoral emotions, whilst simultaneously refusing accommodation.
Across the huge lawn approaching the front of the house Kate Raggett had laid out coppiced hazel branches into a streaming multi-branched form suggestive of shifting energy streams flowing out of the landscape to the house and back again and squandering off into nothingness or perhaps plunging into the ground. It’s interesting to see the photographs of this work, how the whippy energy of its shapes and the rough-and-ready physicality of the saplings both emphasize the crafted solidity of the house, its rational appropriation and transformation of natural materials and place it in a slightly nervous relation to the forces she evokes.
In the house itself, there were little startling gems to be discovered scattered through alluringly cosy rooms. I particularly liked Helen Sear’s heroic portraits of vegetables against apocalyptic skies, which managed to be at once sly travesties of the country house portrait, absurdist gestures and genuinely beautiful and mysterious portraits of common-or-garden vegetables.
In another part of the same room it was difficult to ignore the stuffed goose sticking out of a drawer. This was the goose that Simon Whitehead carried with him on his journey from North Pembrokeshire to Smithfield market, in 2002, following the old drovers’ roads, and filming for two minutes each day with a camera mounted in the cart. His cheerfully jerky and disorientating video of this journey played, somewhat incongruously, in an open cupboard.
The exhibition flowed out of the house and around into various outbuildings and yards. In the old stable-stalls Tessa Waite, in one of the most resonantly atmospheric works in the show, had set up a series of transparent screens lit from behind. Onto these, a mysterious shadow-play of figures and vegetation were projected, creating, with its imagery of childhood, secret garden-like places and half-glimpsed scraps of romantic rural landscapes a kind of lyric fantasy on a theme of loss and yearning. Particularly apt in the setting of a house which itself cherishes the vestiges of many lost and haunting eras.
Across the courtyard with Frances Carlile’s charming multi-coloured magic apple tree, was a little cobbled shed where an altogether different kind of haunting was being conjured up. Stefhan Caddick had filled it with a small copse of rough placards bearing time-honoured anti-establishment slogans, such as “All Property is Theft”, “No Taxation Without Representation”, “More Pigs Less Parsons”, not forgetting that portmanteau symbol of revolutionary resistance - the clenched fist. I loved this work’s air of slightly apologetic subversiveness. It made me think of those little scruffy dens where seditions against the kind of social order symbolised by houses such as Penpont were once fomented. But it also made me think of a lumber-room into which such energies had been unceremoniously tidied away, forever perhaps or perhaps only for the time-being - who knows? Huge social movements become tiny gestures of art, under the patronage of the very institution they once rose against. Still bristling, though, in a hole-and-corner way.
Even the orchards and the walled garden had their surprises. Of these, the most seductive, to me, was undoubtedly Morag Colquhoun’s “Dark Room”, an ordinary wooden shed converted into a darkroom, powered by solar panels, in which photographs of the creation of the darkroom are developed as the chemicals are activated by the absorbed heat. A perfect cybernetic system (and metaphor, by the way, for the ideal estate economy), into which nature and technology, earth and sky, past, present and future, flow into, balance and complete one another.
I couldn’t finish this brief survey without mentioning Niel Bally’s elegant illustration, on the wall of the new, luxuriously beamed and appointed conference hall, of the stark facts of man’s appropriation of and manipulation of nature. A highly sexual conker, an axe, a tree stump, a buzz saw, a give-away pair of naked human feet. What more could there be to say?
Well plenty actually. Certainly plenty of interesting exhibits which I haven’t got space to mention here. This was a really satisfying and thought-provoking exhibition, and I hope there are many more of its kind to come at Penpont.