By Gareth Stevens 

It is perhaps apt that, in the year in which Hastings Contemporary celebrates the 10-year anniversary of the building it inhabits, it chose to host an exhibition entitled Seafaring. Situated but a stone’s throw from the Hastings’ shore launched fishing fleet, it is inarguably a good site-specific theme to focus on.

Featuring the work of over fifty mainly British Artists, the show provides an interesting insight into the diversity of possible approaches to what is the central concept of the relationship between humans and the sea. Whilst it is illuminating to ponder the wealth of ways that the featured artists interpret this theme – also because the artworks span a timeline of nearly three hundred years and therefore give the visitor a one stop shop for seeing how the language of visual arts has developed and changed over this time – the exhibition falters slightly in that it only features one sculpture and mainly consists of paintings and prints.

A key element of the exhibition is Lost at Sea, a room that features three large oil paintings by renowned contemporary artist Cecily Brown. These paintings combine a figurative approach with a more abstract aesthetic
and definitely owe a debt to the tradition of abstract expressionism. Brown has become widely known for a painterly
style suggestive of Willem de Kooning and Oskar Kokoschka.

Shipwreck (Papillon), one of these three works, shows Brown’s almost inimitable skill of fusing a concern for tight compositional structure with wild, almost chaotic, brushwork. At first glance it looks almost completely abstract, but then you notice the recognisable form of a beleaguered sailor chest deep in sea water in the foreground. He is the painting’s datum, and as he looks on helplessly (yet calmly) onto the unfolding scene of tragedy we realise that we are gazing alongside him. By contrast, the rest of the composition is a swirling vortex of colour and water which forcefully expresses the emotion and despair of this maritime calamity.

(Right) Géricault’s The Raft of Medusa

Another of Brown’s paintings, entitled Oinops, takes us closer to the melee of seafarers scrabbling for their lives. Recalling  Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa – a 19th century mezzotint of this painting can be seen elsewhere in the exhibition alongside lithographs based on this painting by Martin Kippenberger – Oinops doesn’t merely depict the shipwreck, it takes us to the core of such an experience. It is visceral and emotional – it powerfully conveys the chaos, movement, fear and noise of the storm-torn scene.

By contrast, Survivors from a Torpedoed Ship by Richard Eurich deals with a similar theme in a much more sombre and reflective way. Three exhausted seamen cling to the upturned hull of a ship’s lifeboat. Semi-conscious, they are adrift in an empty expanse of ocean that is filled with menace and power. A seagull stands in its element at the other end of the boat’s hull; by including this seabird, Eurich points out the fact that the shipwrecked men the bird surveys are out of their element. Turning to more formal elements, the colour in this painting is beguiling and beautiful. So much so that it lends a benignity to what is clearly a desperate event. And so, a pattern emerges – a central underlying idea to this show is the futility of human attempts to have dominion over the sea. More than that, many of the works use seafaring as a metaphor for existential angst and the precariousness of life itself.

Another highlight of the show is a series of drawings of submariners by Eric Ravilious. He spent a few weeks aboard training submarines in Portsmouth in 1940. Usually preoccupied with depicting rural landscapes and open vistas, Ravilious responded to the cramped conditions by lovingly drawing the men who crewed these vessels and did so with a tenderness and compassion that is deeply moving.

To protect some of the more fragile prints, the lighting levels in Seafaring are disappointingly low. This really affected my ability to truly appreciate some of the works. At times, the rather prescriptive and didactic labels helped. Happily, the overly descriptive text tells you what is happening in the work even when you can’t see it that clearly.

Unsurprisingly, most of the mariners pictured are men. A refreshing reprieve from this inevitability is William Dring’s pastel drawing: Portrait of Patricia Turner 1942. Turner was a ‘Wren’. Her oily hands and uniform suggest that she was an engineer or worked on a ship’s maintenance. A dispassionate yet strong painting, this portrait bears testimony to women’s admirable work towards the war effort.

Although focussing on the dangers of life at sea, on loss and the pain of parting with loved ones – there is little joy in this exhibition – Seafaring is a solid vehicle for reflecting on life in the round. This, coupled with the lack of any daylight (not to mention the absence of any examples of alternative media such as film, installations or sculpture), means that the exhibition has a rather solemn and traditional flavour.

Lakwena Maciver’s Jump exhibition

As a refreshing counterpoint, Lakwena Maciver’s Jump exhibition on the gallery’s ground floor is full of light, hope and exuberant colour. This is a fully immersive experience. As you walk into the space, the whole exhibition hits you in its entirety and is brought together by a huge piece which all but takes up the whole floorspace. 

Each of Maciver’s works are abstract portraits of some of the world’s most inspiring basketball players. They brim with a joyous gaudiness that would perhaps be more at home on a Manila Jeepney. These very large acrylic paintings are substantial objects. Each one has been produced on 20mm marine plywood, which quite literally gives them weight. The luxurious coating of polyurethane gives the works a bright and impregnable surface which makes the colours sing. 

Maciver says that she likes “the notion of the basketball court as a platform or stage where the players become almost like superheroes. I’m interested in what brings us together so for me these paintings are about being aspirational, dreaming, and the connection between people, but also about the link between heaven and earth and ourselves as individuals in relation to a higher power.”

It is clear that Maciver sees basketball as a physical mani-festation of black power and self-expression. The game was banned in 1967 for ten years at the height of the civil rights movement as an inane attempt to stem the force behind the campaign for racial equality.

As Maciver points out “Sign-writing and all those types of things interest me, but at the beginning I was thinking about African street signs that I’d seen when I was growing up, which were very clearly handmade and immediate – they evoked a sense of agency because the people who made them were saying exactly what they wanted to say.”

There is little doubt in my mind that currently it is the stark contrast between these two exhibitions that makes a visit to Hastings Contemporary an added pleasure. Each is so different from the other and this adds value to the experience enjoyed by visiting either. Get along there.

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