Taking its title from a line in a book on Victorian utopias, is Muddy Eden brings together two ostensibly figurative artists, Hannah Brown and Christopher Orr, who both draw from and play with conventions of art history.
Christopher Orr’s small paintings of ethereal landscapes, often populated by gures, draw stylistic influence from the likes of Turner and Casper David Friedrich yet seek to blur the distinction between reality and illusion. Images in Orr’s work are regularly taken from old books or magazines from the 1950’s and 60’s. Pages from the National Geographic are positioned next to children’s illustrations and frequently retain their actual size, creating extraordinary, surreal juxtapositions and an abandonment of scale all suggesting a meaning that could lie beyond the experience of the viewer, or allow them to create their own narrative. Orr explores our need to analyse and interpret images by using loaded and speci cally nostalgic motifs, yet offers us no conclusion.
Hannah Brown’s canvases also appear embedded in the legacy of traditional English landscape painting yet, here again, there is a twist. These are not the grand vistas one might expect to see in landscapes of this size but rather quiet, forgotten corners of parkland in London or Devon. Nor are they literal depictions as Brown will add and remove elements to ensure no obvious signs of human life remain. This absence of humanity creates a foreboding silence for the viewer. Brown’s sculptural work will shift your interpretations further from the traditional whilst still toying with its conventions. Made to appear ceramic, these organically shaped abstract works also incorporate elements such as liberty print or curtain tassels and, especially when coupled with her canvases, they comment on our desire to bring the illusion of nature into our homes.
Given how accomplished both artists work appears I thought it important to include a selection of studies and sketches in the exhibition, hopefully giving visitors a chance to see how their ‘ nished’ paintings develop over time. What is not shown, however, is the artists use of photography and even photoshop in the very early stages of their process but I think it’s important to mention how they both merge contemporary methods with traditional practice.
I’d like to thank HDM Gallery, Dalla Rosa, Union Gallery and Bo Lee Gallery for their assistance with this exhibition.
Kris Day Curator
Another Muddy Eden - Chris Fite-Wassilak
The search for calm has been a constant in human culture: the incessant quest for the ideal just beyond our every day – a paradise, an oasis, a heaven. Much of this desire is poured into the notion of nature, where encounters with landscape are seen as a way to get outside ourselves, to exist more in equilibrium, more active and productive.
The idea of an ideal place, of a utopia, exists in a vacuum, as if it hovers just above or outside reality. But where these ideas touch with reality, where they get dirty in the soil, might be more telling. The Garden City was a Victorian dream to strive towards a new balance with nature after the churning upheavals of the industrial revolution, a dream that found its beating heart in a pioneer mentality – Ebenezer Howard was inspired towards his vision after spending a year in the plains of Nebraska in the US living as a homesteader in the 1870s. The American homestead, a self-sufficient farmhouse, was itself a way of living enabled by laws that permitted anyone to claim land by simply building on it: the expanse of the West cast under the pretence of being empty, unused, free for the taking. The organisation formed in 1902 responsible for finding a site for what became Letchworth was the Garden City Pioneer Company Ltd, the underlying question being: where, on what, do you build a utopia?
Our contemporary answer seems to be: temporarily, in fragments. We balm the rush of incessant work and attention with short hurried walks through the park, trips to the museum, the former school hall turned temporary yoga studio, mindfulness apps. Here, in ‘This Muddy Eden’ is another apparent break, a quiet moment of reflection and serenity. Though spending time with Hannah Brown and Christopher Orr’s hazy green visions also slowly fractures; beneath the bucolic is the strange and melancholic. The yearning Romanticism of their imagery can give way, through the gaps in the carefully poised branches and expectant leaves, to considerations of how we control and use the natural world.
The crowded plant scenes of Brown’s work appear as an escape, getting away from the concrete to immerse in the organic. But the ferns and vines are curiously aligned, arranged as if on a stage, with the occasional gap giving a glimpse of other worlds close by. These aren’t as enclosed as they initially feel, but micro-urban moments, frozen glances from walks in the spaces between buildings. These are the places of modern reverie – the thin strip of overgrowth that separates the path from the parking lot, the hum of the motorway just beneath the rustling of the leaves.
Orr’s paintings take us more internally into this reverie – spaces where sole figures look longingly into a murky distance. These are hovering visions of solitary dreams, distilled into details that then refuse to disclose their significance. The moments of contemplation, focusing on puzzling specifics, seem to enact the attempt to become oriented, to try and figure out where and what we find ourselves at, before then giving over to a quiet vertigo. The search for calm, it seems, is itself an illusion.
The history of Letchworth, with its founding organising principles facing continued testing and probing from market principles over the past century, provides evidence: any utopia brings with it the troubles of those who dreamed it up; and no utopia is ever without a place. Ingrained in the mud is soot, grease, and bone, churned with the crumbled aggregates of yesterday’s architecture and industry. Eden is the dream, Brown and Orr suggest, that sprouts and spreads wild on the hard shoulders, verges and byways, an Eden might be imaginary; but that doesn’t mean it can’t be real.
Chris Fite-Wassilak is a writer and critic based in London. His books include Ha-Ha Crystal (Copy Press, 2016) and The Artist in Time (Bloomsbury, 2020).