House Plants 2012

Payne Shurvell is pleased to announce ‘House Plants’, the second solo show of Andrew Curtis with the gallery.

‘House Plants’ offers an incisive look at the nature of taste and judgement, exploring how these touchstones of western art are expressed and applied in suburban and domestic environments. The show consists of two bodies of work. In the first group of prints, Curtis adapts photographs from architectural magazines, reprinting images of suburban homes with each of their windows subtly and carefully blacked out. The artist applies a similar process in the second set of prints, taking photographs of domestic setting that feature house plants, masking all background and context to set ferns and flowers against a field of black.

Curtis derives his motifs and subject matter from books and manuals that not so long ago informed the taste, habits and methods that middle class Britons used to shape the internal and external environment they inhabited. He reprocesses these images as digital prints before masking the windows in the houses, or all background and context of the house plant images, with Rotring ink or exterior enamel paint.The context and purpose of the photographs are thus transformed to ask questions about popular taste and visual pleasure.

The windows of these mundane homes offer the artist a set of structures that conceal as much as they reveal, and by applying a black monochrome surface the window itself becomes a mask, a void and a radically open-ended signifier. The window no longer offers a transition between inside and out, but becomes its own medium, addressing the surface of the photographic object and the facade of suburban experience, asking about the nature of this surface and how it communicates to a mass audience. The windows also take on the form of a modernist abstraction, as if the spirit of Malevich and Mondrian had stealthily moved into the British suburbs.

Traditional debates about beauty often begin with questions about nature and natural forms – the shape and colour of a flower, the droop or silhouette of a tree, the green and pleasant surfaces of a pastoral landscape. Curtis recuperates a humble house plant to create a microcosm of that debate, asking whether natural forms retain their beauty when cut off from their context or purpose. A fern takes on the form of a universal plant, a flower becomes isolated and grotesque, a cactus a strange excrescence: without their familiar setting, the plants take on a new form, a strange melancholy beauty that elevates them from their mundane origins. The opposite of the black void is the particular, living thing, and here Curtis opens up a conversation about the absence of form and detail in depiction. How much information can you eliminate before the picture ceases to function as an objective image? Do we appreciate the shapes and colours in themselves, or is it because they promise something else that we find them attractive?

Text by Craig Burnett


Wild England 2010

‘Suburban life is a big strain, you know… To maintain this fabric of absolute normality requires powerful repressive forces — all these double glazing and patio doors are sustained by a huge effort of will.’

J G Ballard

Andrew Curtis lives in the suburbs. ‘Wild England’ depicts the façade of his – and our – physical and psychological landscape. Curtis peers behind the comforting veneer of suburban life to reveal the signs and traces of our attempts to understand, display or control difference.

Curtis’s work combines the techniques of photomechanical and digital reproduction with autographic marks. They are a hybrid aesthetic of ‘Arts and Crafts’ and urban planning. His images of suburban dissonance introduce the well manicured and the idealistic to the dysfunctional and the accidental.

‘Wild England’ presents a series of sterile and imperfect compositions – a diminished concern for content accentuating the formal construction of the image. In a complementary process, a supplementary layer of black paint disrupts the illusion of pictorial depth, emphasizing the materiality of the photographic object. Against the simulacra of the digitized image, Curtis uses photography as a medium to interrogate the construction of identity.

Acting directly on our ‘optical unconscious’, these images create a peculiar sense of displacement. The content of the images echo the techniques of formal disruption. In a nod to Warhol’s disaster series, an image of an upturned Ford Focus, in an otherwise unremarkable suburban garden, is reproduced from the pages of a local newspaper. Deprived of context and curiously devoid of narrative, the car crash image represents how ‘perfection’ can be all too fragile.

‘Wild England’ suggests the lurking menace of unresolved trauma – implicit in the treatment of common suburban tropes. The Monkey Puzzle Tree and the Torbay Palm, now universal signs of domestic conformity, were once the exotic decoration of the new Victorian suburbs. Replaced by painted counterparts, they return as anachronistic signs of cultural appropriation and unsettling reminders of our colonial past. Deconstructing the suburban ideal, Curtis reveals the cracks and fissures on which it was founded. Glancing through these gaps we find the disquieting image of our own world, a hidden dystopia, familiar but unaccountably alien.

Shadows, reflections and opaque doubles populate his world, and become, in this Wild England, the oblique signifiers of a nascent violence.

Text by Dan Cox