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Recommending the Art of Francis Upritchard

FU-Portrait2forweb1Fig 1: A recent portrait of the artist in question, Francis Upritchard

I first became aware of the work of Francis Upritchard when I was reviewing the Simon Starling curated show at the Camden Arts Centre, Never the Same River (Possible Futures, Probable Pasts) in late 2010. A ‘concept’ driven exhibition which included works from a comparatively divergent range of around 30 artists; from the likes of Francis Bacon, Sean Lynch, Katja Strunz and Susan Hiller. An excellently conceived show, which brought established and renowned artists together with some of the ‘contemporary art world’s’ most promising young(er) practitioners.

189b404e1cbecfe34e6292aec1397965_XLFig 2: An image of Mike Nelson’s installation, taken at the Camden Art Centre in 2010-11, for Starling’s show Never the Same River (Possible Futures, Probable Pasts). The work’s Full title is, A studio apparatus for Camden Arts Centre; an introductory structure: Introduction, a lexicon of phenomena and information association, futurobjectics, (in three sections), mysterious island*, or Temporary monument; (1998)

As is often the case, Starling’s show is now a somewhat hazy memory. However I do remember it enough to say that it was ‘remembered’. In fact details of it are a lot clearer than is often the case with past shows. On second thoughts, I will deviate a little and say that my overriding recollection of the exhibition is my enjoyment of it. Francis Upritchard’s piece within the show (and Sean Lynch’s too, but my account of his contribution will have to wait for another occasion), has without doubt stuck with me in a far more meaningful way than some of the other works did. Starling chose to display her piece Sloth with Roman Plastics from 2005. The style of this work’s intriguing presentation, with its elongated wholly familiar, yet strangely alien creature being placed in a classically staged Victorian style vitrine, gives the odd sense of a historical artefact stolen from the Natural History Museum. I was especially struck by the way she was able to reference both traditional representations of ‘nature’s history’, as constructed by western centric colonialism, and in addition our modern and equally recognisable culturally symbolic past. I say this because the piece seems just as synonymous with movie history as it does with the ‘natural’ variety. It appears as a sort of relic to a Jim ‘Hensonified’ model. Referencing ‘the artefact’ and archaic aspects of human history - I was to discover - remains a constant in Upritchard’s work.

FrancisUpritchardSlothwithRomanPlasticsFig 3: Uprithchard’s Sloth with Roman Plastics (2005), taken in situ at the Camden Arts Centre (2010-11)

Upritchard was born in 1976 in Plymouth, New Zealand and she is represented in the UK by Kate McGarry Gallery. At just 30 she represented New Zealand in 2009 Venice Biennale. As well as this grand achievement, three years prior to it she received New Zealand’s most distinguished accolade for a contemporary artist: The Walter Prize. Although in the typical sense she is a relatively young artist; however when considering her noteworthy successes already, one could hardly refer to her as ‘up and coming’.

02-dscf4787-fu-group_intro-smFig 4: Save Yourself (2003), Uprithchard’s piece displayed at 2009 Venice Biennale

In this next section I will attempt to give a personal analysis of Upritchard’s work. I have formulated my response through a combination of my own investigations, individual thoughts on the matter and from Francis Upritchard’s own sentiments related to her practice.

An initial and seemingly obvious observation is the constant presence of the figure in this artist’s work. For me these figures refer to the notion of the archetype, but in various respects they play around with this notion. These themes are prevalent in one of her most recent bodies of work, A Hand of Cards (2012) and in the previous Save Yourself piece; of which she was invited to Venice’s Biennale to exhibit. The figures she creates in these artworks give a kind of familiar, yet subtlety distorted ‘view’ of human history. Naked or partly clothed, quite often male figures appear in a confused, disorientated and in some instances even deranged conditions. Giving the appearance of a ‘Hippie aesthetic’, through the use of bright colour schemes and other appropriate signifiers like long hair, caftans and shades; they suggest a kind of psychedelic ‘Beckettian’ vision. The absurdity of this vision creates an uncanny revelation of human history. I say this as they appear to denote aspects of our known past, i.e. festival culture, the significance of LSD in our socio-cultural past, utopian ideals and counter culture movements. But at the same time this historical illusion is carefully distorted and altered. By playing around with the familiar Upritchard creates a sense of unease. She has said of these obvious references that “all the things that the hippies hoped would happen, or felt might happen, didn’t”. This failure as she sees it, has resulted in her critique of 60s idealistic fantasies and culminates in a condemnation of the commercialised gaudy aftermath, which most of these movements have now been left with. Having recognised that most of these sculptures are of male forms, I now understand better her position on this and the possible reasons for this aspect within her work. When discussing A Hand of Cards she talks of the “experience of wanting war not to happen, but being helpless to affect it”. She has said of war that it very much “feels like a man’s game”. From this I can’t help but think therefore, that her rather senseless, moronic, shamanistic, little naked colourful men, are intended to be a kind of metaphor for the tyrannical nature of masculine empiricism, which exists within globalised power structures.

fu21Fig 5: One of Francis’s Hippy Shamans (these are my words not hers), titled Believer (2012); from her body of work A Hand of Cards

e3f5c3a45e79c12defea9a06d Fig 6: Richard (2006), from the cover of the publication for the Save Yourself seriesNamed due to it’s ‘uncanny’ similarity to the sculptor Richard Wentworth. As I have said, humour plays an important role in Uprithchard’s art

Although having never heard Uprithchard site the American artist Paul Thek (1933-1988) as any sort of influence on her work; I do feel both in terms of treatment and subject matter, her work is more than a little reminiscent of his. Nonetheless, like all good artists, she certainly manages to adapt aspects of other artworks; but still fashions a style and approach which is strikingly her own. Having heard her explain some of the influences on her practice, I do know of her particular interest in certain historical artists. Three important examples of this are the 16th century Flemish renaissance painter Pieter Bruegel (1525-1569); The 15th century German sculptor Erasmus Grasser (1450-1515) and the Dutch religious painter of the same period Hieronymus Bosch (1450-1516). Similarly to Thek, I can see these artist’s works in much of her sculptures but she unquestionably is able to channel any such influences into her own recognisable style. Therefore I simply conclude by expressing, that other relevant works have just helped her create a thoroughly contemporary style which is very much of her own design.

Peterpaul2Fig 7: Paul Thek working on Hippie in his studio, for his now famous installation piece Death of a Hippie (1967)

Pieter-Bruegel-the-Elder--001Fig 8: Bruegel’s enthralling painting The Hunters in the Snow (1565)

The use of the artefact in her work is worth mentioning also. Being from one of the most important Commonwealth countries and one which still recognises The British Monarch as their head of state; Upritchard uses humour to suggest that many of these objects could have come from the ‘acquired loot’ of an ‘Empire’. This aspect of the work is mainly implied through the manner of its presentation, as it adapts a type of ‘museum-chic’. The camel headed, old ceramic jugs of Warm Table are displayed like an Aztec treasure and certainly appropriate a little silliness through their apparent peculiar appearances. Again, I can’t help but feel that a large amount of ridicule is being applied to the work. The idea of the stupid ‘White Man’ going around the world stealing the most precious goods they can find from native and indigenous communities; then using them for their own means and adapting these commodities to their own inane tastes – are some of the sentiments expressed and parodied in this series. This clever satirical take on colonial behavioural patterns is a prevailing theme and a most interesting aspect of Uprithchard’s artwork.

tumblr_ltmpitMe2z1qgl98no1_1280 Fig 9: “The camel headed” Warm Table (2011)

hieronymus-bosch-christ-carrying-the-cross-a-photo-on-flickriver-1347533956_bFig 10: A detail from Hieronymus Bosch’s painting Christ Carry the Cross (1490)

grasserstatueFig 11: Erasmus Grasser’s The Champion of the Moors (its believed title in German is der Meister der Mauren(?)) (from around 1480)

The archaic dimension of Francis Uprithchard’s sculptural forms is wholly apparent. However this is intentionally combined with a similarly strong contemporary feel. Appearing as a dichotomy, these characteristics add to the unsettling nature of work which is both strangely familiar and at the same moment alien. Her figures bizarre colour schemes, unsettling demeanours, relationship with each other and the objects which surround them and their very specific layouts; help to create this uncanny sensation. In general terms what this achieves is that it leaves the viewer with artefacts that give clues to possible meanings without claiming any sort of specificity.

francis_upritchard_roman_plasticsFig 12: The colonial referenced ‘museum-chic’ of Francis Upritchard’s Roman Plastics (2006-2008)

Uprithchard has said on the subject of subverting certain historical associations and details that, “I don’t want to get it right”. “That’s for historians and artists need to talk about now.” She sites the writing of Hilary Mantel as being paramount to her in this regard. When discussing Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell character from her novel Bringing up the Bodies (2012) and the way she adapts historical facts in a fictive way; Uprithchard remarks that “She has brilliant detail in her books, but then it is just all her subjectivity”. It therefore becomes “your take on it and what you will it to be”. In my view she could be speaking of her own work when describing Mantel’s writing here. This referential treatment, which excludes anything definitively signifiable, facilitates a greater intrigue in her work I believe.

Francis-Upritchard-1Fig 13: Francis Upritchard's Plastic People (2007)

02-img_689-dancer-in-mirror-sm2Fig 14: Yellow Dancer (2009) by Francis Upritchard, from her Save Yourself body of work, photographed at the Venice Biennale 2009

As I have described previously, humour plays a particularly important part in this work. The use of traditional craft techniques is also interesting in this respect; as she often appears to playfully parody such sculpting methods. The spontaneity and subversion of these forms, adds to their very modern feel. In doing so she questions a lot of the conventions and the conservatism often associated with these sculptural techniques.

On the subject of the vibrant and garish colours, which Uprithchard paints her shamanistic type figures in - she explains her need for the work to somehow appear both contemporary and almost futuristic. She decided that by using such vivacious colours this could be achieved. She subsequently choose to use some of here least favourite colours such as yellow or purple, in order to accomplish this sensation. Her reasons for this choice were, that by utilising such a palette it might come across as being progressively different or ‘otherworldly’. Therefore this would give her a good chance of successfully conveying a suggestion of the ‘future’. Her use of certain shapes like the triangle, were adapted for similar reasons. This mystification of the work, appearing archaic but also strangely ‘sci-fi-esque’ is in my view, markedly well balanced. By painting her sculptures in this way, she has attained the desired affect through the use of this method.

venice-install-te-papa_024 Fig 15: Save Yourself installation view (2009)

20110911101813-1369_mFig 16: A recent work entitled Breathe (2011)

Her intent at encouraging the spectator to experience her work in their own way is another key element here. By intentionally making a big body of work intuitively and not overly conceiving a certain outcome, she has developed a process where she tries to work with her “body rather than with the mind”. Of course this work is carefully conceived in many ways. But by keeping a lucid feel to it and by granting the viewer a greater freedom of perception when experiencing it, this allows those who view the work a sense of intellectual space in order to connect with these sculptures on their own terms.

When discussing the work for A Hand of Cards, Francis explained how she had grown up around Hippies and other such types and how this had radically influenced her practice. One can’t help but assume she regards many of these figures from her past as somewhat ridiculous and now views them with a certain amount of distain. Her awareness of old fashioned techniques such as carving encouraged her to look at religious art like church carvings. To her these seem so powerful and full of symbolism and iconographic imagery. In response to such powerful forms - and coupled with her attitudes towards the utopian stance of the Hippy – this has encouraged her to create works which she states are “totally bereft of meaning” and “they have no purpose”. She also describes these futuristic ‘Hippies’ as being like “holy fools”, which appear as “shells, tusk”, that have “no life”. The evidently cold way that Upritchard feels about these figures allows them to be treated as artefacts. They are therefore, used to subtly conveying a particular sense of ‘meaningless’. On this she has also explained how these figures “sit apart from her seriously and emotionally.” I am struck by this reflective attitude and believe it has strongly impacted on my reading of her work.

Uprithchard’s work is interesting because it manages to embrace the traditional skill and craft of the artist but still appears wholly contemporary. It is not totally ‘bogged down’ in its ‘idea’ or ‘concept’, like many other contemporary works. Instead it refers, implies and suggests but still allows for a good deal of the viewer’s own will in perceiving the work in their own way. Without being overly self-conscious of any definitive meaning, it still maintains a subject matter and a context which prevents it from becoming too vague. For these reasons, and undoubtedly many more, I deem Francis Uprithchard to be one of the most interesting practitioners working in the art world today.

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