Calke Abbey

Profusion is curated by John Plowman and Sotiris Kyriacou for Beacon Art Project, an organisation that seeks to site contemporary art in rural spaces. This project is comprised of an exhibition and programme of events produced in collaboration with the National Trust and is sited at Calke Abbey in Derbyshire.

Calke Abbey itself is a large Baroque house stuffed to the brim with the collections and obsessions of one family over a number of generations. Objects include hundreds upon hundreds of hoarded books, natural history specimens, tools and pieces of equipment, with each forming part of a public display designed to present “the decline of the great country house.” As well as the house, the site also features a collection of outbuildings including a deer shelter, stable block, ice house and chapel set among extensive grounds. It is the eccentric and surprising presentation of these buildings and objects that has informed the curatorial framework of Profusion and the specific selection of works. For the fittingly titled exhibition, fourteen artists were invited to make and show work which responded directly to the site. The results encompass every contemporary art form and are as diverse as Calke Abbey itself. Amongst the most remarkable pieces in the exhibition are those by Lucy Clout, Clem Crosby and Mark Fairnington, which have formed an intrinsic dialogue with their specific site and with the viewer.

Lucy Clout’s work Untitled (Eyebrows) is located in the former riding school of the Calke Abbey estate and is in some ways totally unremarkable. The piece is a long flat grey rectangle suspended at eye level in front of a doorway. It is like a censorship bar which blocks the view beyond the work to the outside world. In doing so, Clout’s object demands attention, pulling the line of sight both into the object and pushing the line of sight out beyond the open doors. The eye is therefore in constant relationship with the work, the structure in which it is held and the wider context of its setting. This optical effect is heightened through the framing of both the view and the work by the arched doorway and the title of the work becomes a humorous reference to the way our own viewpoint is framed by and limited by our own physical bodies.

Clem Crosby’s 6 Paintings are at once both ephemeral and monumental. The six works are positioned against the wall of separate horse stalls in the stable block in the grounds. The floor they rest upon is sloped, and this both raises them up and angles the works towards the viewer slightly. The effect is to make them appear off balance and perhaps a little threatening. The colours and forms of Crosby’s paintings echo those of the stable walls, reinforcing some of the most powerful and poignant ideas that make Calke Abbey interesting: themes of decay and neglect. The paintings are made through a process of making, erasing and shifting marks on a glossy surface, and they exhibit a kind of restless energy which befits their display in a stable block.

The journey through the Calke Abbey house itself is a bizarre one: room after room packed full of history. This is the site for Mark Fairnington’s painting Griffon Vulture Surrounded by Moths. Fairnington’s painting is hung within a nursery and the room directly follows a very grand space filled with taxidermy birds and animals. The subject matter of the work holds an interesting tension in itself and chosen site reinforces the ‘unheimlich’ feeling which one experiences within the building. The positioning of the works allows it to be held in dialogue with the collected objects of the house and the positioning of the painting within the nursery itself is also significant. The cabinet beneath the painting is a specimen cabinet, with a single painted moth or butterfly depicted on the top drawer and the echo of this motif is a poignant detail.

Overall the pieces shown within the main house are less successful than those shown in the various outbuildings on the estate. This is largely because the works have difficulty establishing relationships with the clutter of objects inside, whilst the outbuildings allow the work a little more space to breathe. For instance Karla Black’s fragile paper sculpture Don’t Attach Delay was a little conspicuous in the dark wood panelled stairway. Whilst the chalky surfaces of the paper did echo the texture of the walls in some of the disused areas of the building, it sat uncomfortably within this confined and claustrophobic space.

In terms of the curatorial framework, the concept of Profusion is quite broad: quite literally a plethora of objects and ideas which respond to the Calke Abbey site and its key attributes. These include the deterioration and preservation of material and of memory, the notion of collecting and of display and sheer diversity, which many of the artists alluded to. The exhibition is spread over a wide area and the concerns of the artists are very individual and particular to their chosen position on the site. This means that the exhibition is disjointed and at times a little puzzling, particularly the Jimmy Durham film Smashing which is shown in an underground ice-house. The list of participating artists is formiddable but but several of the pieces lack an essential connection with the viewer, such as the Roger Hiorns installation Untitled. However, generally the works shown are fitting: they suit the eccentric character of Calke Abbey, and are largely both sensitive and responsive to the location of the exhibition. The exhibition offers the viewer a set of unsettling and surprising experiences which unfold as one explores the various aspects of this expansive site.