Wit, Fear and Sarcasm: Rowena Hughes, Ann-Marie James, Dodda Maggy, Mariana Mauricio and Robert Nicol

10 August - 15 September 2011

This exhibition drew together the work of five artists whose practice presents a discourse with historicity. Through their engagement with the past, each practitioner offers the viewer an identifiable root into his/ her work. Yet through subtle subversions and contortions, they twist and challenge our perceptions, presenting us with cryptic, complex and often dark narratives that speak about the underlying tensions of contemporary life.

A graduate of the Slade MFA, Rowena Hughes screenprints onto black and white found imagery from old, discarded books, using a recurring vocabulary of geometric form often based on Roger Penrose's non-repeating patterns. The effect is one of layering - of media, form and ultimately meaning. Toying with the dualistic readings of the works as abstract or figurative, arbitrary or rational, aesthetic or academic, obscuration or revelation, Hughes plays complex puzzles with the viewer.

Ann-Marie James’s practice presents us with a dialogue with Art History. Her interest in anatomy takes its precision from the Renaissance, she then contorts it like the Baroque and extracts the simplified abstract forms, rendering her work at once strange and familiar, abstract and figurative. Playfully quoting from the past and drawing on the Grotesque, James depicts limbs wrapped around limbs, deliberately leaving an ambiguity as to whether the embrace is amorous or violent, a beautiful monster of a sort.

Central to the work of video artist, Dodda Maggy, are questions about the body, voyeurism and subjecthood. In her work Stella, we are presented with two narratives, portraying two seemingly oppositional facets of a persona, played by the artist herself. From the alluring young woman in the first part whose self-confidence turns to fearful self-consciousness to the playful innocence of the bouncing girls, Maggy explores the role of women in film past and present. Also composing and performing the accompanying music, Maggy places equal importance on the audio as a device for conveying meaning.

Using found photographs of Brazil in the 1960s and 1970s, Mariana Mauricio’s process is both additive and reductive, even verging on the destructive in her most recent body of work. The original photographs selected by the artist depict respectable family life - an unsettlingly ‘happy’ quotidian, in stark contrast to the reality of Brazil during the years of the dictatorship. Mauricio, through her interventions, unveils this underlying tension and by playing with the scale of the original photograph as she transforms it to giclee print, attributes it with new darker significance.

Drawing on multiple references as diverse as French Classicism, American Folk Art, Dutch Genre painting and popular culture, Robert Nicol creates fantastical narratives littered with improbable characters. The non-specific contexts of grand architectural settings, landscapes or interiors root the work in the familiar but the surreal juxtapositions and caustic detail present the viewer with witty parodies of our own world.