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Exhibition News

The paintings that make this exhibition are windows through which an alternative look at Venice is offered. These exclusively front-facing works present an exaggerated two-dimensional aspect and feature no glimpse of sky, nor do they describe grand façades. Many are paintings upon paintings — their previous brushwork, marks and details evident under the surface — echoing the actual textures of the city’s layered hide. The majority of the pieces aim to reflect what is most fittingly labelled ‘everyday’ Venice.

Historian Fernand Braudel describes a city’s history as ‘often present in a detail’. These oil paintings (many of which are painted upon aged papers, pasted onto board) examine a complex city through a lens that focusses on the smallest elements and components. For it is by way of the minutiae — the fragments of Venice’s skin — that the city’s story might be told and the layers of life revealed (as illustrations of doorplates, shop-signs, and buzzers demonstrate). Bricked-up doors, signs upon signs, nameplates over nameplates, an erosion spreading from the water up, and salt-assaulted bricks: “Venetian houses as we see them today are the product of countless transformations, reflecting the cultural, social and historical mutations of The Serenissima” [Giulia Foscari: Elements of Venice]. What period in the history of Venice are we witnessing now, as Venetians rapidly leave their home city?

Many of these works look down, becoming isolated examinations of the zone in which canal meets building (home). Venice is a reptile struggling to shed: while its upper skin has no chance of renewal, thanks to increasingly inelegant pastings designed principally to direct tourists, its lower parts rely on restless rising water to help loosen an uncomfortable outer crust.

Venice has been (and is being) ill-treated on all fronts. Italy (and Venice, specifically) is regarded the world over as a place of tremendous cultural importance. We have witnessed just how quickly and catastrophically Italian towns — and the myriad architectural pearls they are made of — can ‘disappear’, as in the case of the 2016 earthquake destruction in the centre of the country. Venice is today being destroyed not only by its age and the weight of all it has lived through, upon its plunged wooden-pile foundations, but also by the inundation of visitors, water taxis and giant cruise liners that visit each and every day. On top of that, Venice is also a direct and vulnerable victim of rising sea levels: it is fact that global sea rise is impacting the Adriatic. In February 2017 (mere days after the completion of this exhibition) UNESCO will decide whether or not to place Venice on its list of endangered heritage sites. Then, there’s no turning back.

I am aware that as a visitor, I have little right to comment or speak on behalf of the city’s inhabitants. But as an environmentally conscious artist, I consider it my responsibility to mention the various stages of research that go into each body of work. In a recent Pulitzer Centre podcast, many Venetians who remain claim to feel that their city no longer belongs to them. One describes Venice as a “dying city amongst the waves of the Adriatic”. Venetians are concerned that they will soon end up being seen as an embarrassment in the eyes of the world, if government does not right its wrongs and atone for ignoring (often in the most despicable of ways) these issues, if residents do not stop leaving their homes, if the city succumbs absolutely to its celebrity status.

Street names and directional signs (often vandalised so as to mislead tourists) are sprayed gracelessly to buildings in oversized stencilled font; harsh stabilising chemicals are injected into mortar; anchors are stapled through stone to grab hold of subsiding walls; agitated water eats away at the city’s ground floors. Venice’s skin therefore — the surface that we see — is in a constant state of transformation, and almost all of today’s modifications are negative and irreversible. Contemporary artists can either ignore the reality of the Venice of today and nostalgically recreate a past that no longer exists, or meet it. And though the paintings assembled here inadvertently celebrate a certain brand of crumbling aesthetic charm (the style to which I am most drawn), at their core lies a more serious message. The paintings that form ‘Pełàda’ are observations: they celebrate the joy of the everyday through the most mundane of functional and often overlooked elements.  At the same time, many of the pieces — in particular, those that illustrate the waterline — aim to establish themselves within the consciousness of the viewer, jolting the brain and asking for reconsideration as something more than a decorative outer coat of pastel-shaded skin.

A Fragile Sense of Place

Two Thames Barrier studies (each approx 11 x 8 cm unframed: gouache on card)

If not for the Thames Barrier, during periods of extreme high tide and severe weather, London would look very different. The Royal Watercolour Society - for its Autumn exhibition 2016 - has briefed members to create artworks that explore the notion of a sense of place, specifically within the location of London. To me, a sense of place is something sensed and not usually identifiable, it's something intangible, a culmination of emotional and sensorial reactions to a physical environment to which I am connected. But taken literally, the event of physical inundation - a flood for example - can completely destroy one's sense of place within a location they [once] understood. 

When a river bursts its banks, its 'wetted perimeter' is no longer where it should be. As water travels upward and outward, the map of the city changes dramatically. A rise in water level even of only a few inches can mean the difference between ground level, and the invasion of someone's house. Worryingly, the Thames Barrier has been in 'record' use in recent years (from early December 2013 to the end of February 2015, its steel gates were closed "a record-shattering 50 times, preventing the river from running riot. Previously, the barrier had closed only 124 times since it began operating in 1982" - The Guardian).

As we are witnessing ever more frequently, in locations around the world, London is not alone in being vulnerable to flooding. A storm surge generated by low pressure in the Atlantic Ocean sometimes tracks eastwards past the north of Scotland and may then be driven into the shallow waters of the North Sea. The surge tide is funnelled down the North Sea which narrows towards the English Channel and the Thames Estuary. If the storm surge coincides with a spring tide, dangerously high water levels can occur in the Thames Estuary, and if not for the Thames Barrier system, London would face a frequent and dangerous set of issues.

The threat has increased over time due to continuous rise in high water levels over the centuries and the slow 'tilting' of Britain (up in the north and west, and down in the south and east) caused by post-glacial rebound. The barrier was originally designed to protect London against a very high flood level up to the year 2030, after which the protection would decrease, whilst remaining within acceptable limits. At the time of its construction, the barrier was expected to be used 2–3 times per year. It is now being used over 7 times per year.

In the 1928 Thames flood, 14 people died. After 300 people died in the UK in the North Sea flood of 1953, the issue gained new prominence. Early proposals for a flood control system were stymied by the need for a large opening in the barrier to allow for vessels from the London docks to pass through, the Thames Barrier was eventually completed in 1982.

Two of my Thames Barrier Studies will be exhibited as part of London: A Sense Of Place, in Bankside Gallery 7th October - 5th November.

1928 Thames Flood

David Hewson: Author of 'The Flood'

In collaboration with The British Institute Florence, I'm putting together an exhibition that looks at the history of Florence's 1966 Great Flood. I've been working on this project for around three years now, and hope that its climax will fall on the month and year that mark the 50th anniversary of this catastrophic event: November 2016. Below, internationally renowned author David Hewson (The Killing) describes his own critically acclaimed response to the flood, in relation to my project:

"In a single night in November 1966 the birthplace of the Renaissance was reduced to a sea of mud as the Arno burst its banks, engulfed some of the most famous and historic buildings and sights in Europe and took the lives of more than thirty people."

"And yet, as I discovered when I came to write a novel partly set during this extraordinary period, the event is now largely forgotten outside Florence itself, overshadowed in the public imagination by the dreadful aqua alta in Venice at the same time. The city, its stalwart people, and the thousands of angeli del fango who flocked to Florence to help the city recover deserve better. During many visits to the city while I was writing The Flood I was astonished to see how the disaster continues be visible on the face of the twenty first century city, from the signs in the street marking the level of the water down to more subtle effects, among them the restoration of the damaged masterpieces in the Brancacci Chapel to remove the prudish additions of earlier centuries."

Four years on from working on The Flood David Cass’s evocative paintings took me straight back to that terrible night in November 1966, a timely reminder of the fragility of beauty against the elements of nature, and the defiant human spirit that swept away the mud and restored Florence to glory. I hope they find a place in the heart of the city fifty years on from the events that inspired them.
— David Hewson

Find out more about David Hewson's The Flood by following this link

www.davidhewson.com