Tuesday Riddell: Web
An ancient technique used to tell a contemporary tale of the beauty and drama of nature.
14th July – 13th August 2021
In recent times Messums, along with a fistful of other galleries, has championed material-based art and brought it to a new audience. Tuesday Riddle is part of that movement. She is an artist who has recently trained in Japanning, a process originating in the 17th century as a European imitation of Asian lacquer work. It is an incredibly intricate process and – as a film of Riddell made by Messums illustrates – completely captivating. Riddell starts with a wooden board, prepared with gesso. She applies 25 to 30 layers of European lacquer (made up of varnishes and pigments), sanding between layers to attain a black, mirrored finish. The board is then left to dry for a week or more. After this she applies cut gold and silver leaf, while in the background she adds lustre and gold powders. The artist discovered the technique after she was awarded the Painter-Stainers Decorative Surface Fellowship at City & Guilds of the London Art School, having finished her BA in Fine Art. Essentially, she took her student work, used this newly learned but traditional skill, and discovered a wider audience.
Conceptually, she is inspired by Sottobosco, a sub-genre in Dutch still-life painting of the seventeenth century that’s generally credited to Otto Marseus van Schrieck. He created dark studies of flora and fauna taking cues from scientific discoveries of the era – most notably the microscope – that effectively opened up a new world. ‘The Snuffler’, as he was known by contemporaries, was fascinated with the creatures of the forest floor: insects, reptiles, snails and mushrooms. Riddell has combined this with a strong interest in more contemporary culture, such as Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, a manga series and film by Hayao Miyazaki, where nature destroys the human race, and Entangled Lives, a book by Merlin Sheldrake that investigates, among other things, how underground mycelium networks can store knowledge.
The centrepiece of the artist’s second solo show at Messums’ London base is ‘Beneath the bee’s and the black pond’, a vast nine-panel work that stands at 213 cm x 213cm. It’s the detail that astonishes. The work is full of snakes – a reference to her less than happy times during school religious studies lessons seemingly – birds, bees, fish, insects and worms, lots of worms. The scene teems with life but there’s a darker underbelly. Is that bird about to eat the fish leaping from the pond? To the far right, a fox pokes its head around a tree trunk, ears pricked perhaps waiting for a moment to pounce. But, most disturbing, are a pair of eyes shining malevolently in the darkness above a clutch of eggs buried deep underground. What is it about to do? Or what might it already have done?
There are oddities too, perhaps designed to throw the viewer off balance. What is that snake doing feeding a cluster of baby birds a sprig of lavender in a nest at the top of a tree? It’s a bravura piece and if her smaller works don’t quite have the same physical impact there are still fascinating moments that reward careful study.
Riddell’s message of our interconnectedness with nature is clear – as is the fact that it can be both beautiful, brutal and disconcerting at the same time. However, what separates this work from the pack – and why she has a show in a Cork Street gallery – is the process. Essentially, if you find Japanning aesthetically pleasing then chances are you’ll enjoy ‘Web’.
Where do I stand? Well, I hugely admire the skill and Riddell’s eye for detail as well as her finely-honed sense of the macabre. And there’s no question that the precious metals leap out from the blackness of the lacquer background quite wonderfully. It definitely has a place and that’s why the role of the gallery in showcasing work of this nature – which a few years ago might have struggled to negotiate its way out of the craft bubble – is so vital. Long may it continue.