In the middle of a busy freshers week, I managed to get a few minutes for a quick visit to the art gallery on the campus of the University of Surrey.
In 2 years of working with the Christian Union at Surrey, I’d never been into the gallery, but it was well worth a visit. The exhibition rounded off a year for Sheila Wallis as Artist in Residence at Watts Gallery, Compton. (Watts Gallery is closed for refurbishment at the moment, so I guess that’s why the exhibition was held at the University). Wallis is also a graduate from one of the other Universities I visit, UCA Farnham. She’s won various awards, including the Threadneedle Prize last year. So, all in all, it was a pretty interesting exhibition to happen upon…
All of Wallis’s work involved people, and several of the pictures were of herself. Apparently she likes to focus on people, and particularly on their “creatureliness”, a term used by Ernst Becker to describe the sense that we are all creatures. It is a sense we try to suppress and to hide from, but Wallis chooses to look at this idea head on.
There were two aspects of the exhibition I really enjoyed. One was the variety of materials she used charcoal and pencil on paper, oil on canvas, and even watercolour. I particularly loved the series of paintings of bruised and bleeding boxers she painted, which explored this idea of “creatureliness” in really interesting ways. Is boxing a way of expressing our violent animal instincts in a civilised and sanitised way? And she painted a few in watercolour, saying, “Why can’t the violence of the boxing spectacle be explored through the use of the Sunday painter’s favourite medium (of watercolour)?” Indeed, I think the fact that she takes an artform which is more easily associated with gentle landscapes and polite still-life, and then uses it to capture something so raw and violent, digs away really effectively at the idea that we’re infact just like animals. While I fundamentally disagree with the explanation, that we all know we’re creatures, I think we do try to cover up the less-pleasant aspects of our sin-distorted human nature, and Wallis begins to uncover some of that in her work.
I also really liked her self-portraits. In painting herself, Wallis was able to capture a sense of vulnerability that she might have had trouble seeing in a model. And I guess this is the other side of what Becker would call our creatureliness – our vulnerability and our fragility. Just like our violent tendancies, we try to cover these up and to hide from them. And, just like our violent tendancies, they are a result of our human fallenness, and they are part of the reality of living in a broken world.