Best of the best at Compton Verney: 'Creating the Countryside'

Added on by Georgina Barney.

Far, far away, somewhere deep in darkest Warwickshire... Rosemary Shirley and Verity Elson have brought together a nuanced collection of some of the most interesting artwork on the subject of (those nebulous words) 'the countryside'; 'rural' and 'farming'.  My work squeaked in and made the grade, a triptych of light-boxes from my milestone 2007 project 'GB Farming' featuring a snapshot of the complex tapestry of 'farms' in the UK: the patchwork roof of a lambing shed of a family farm in the quilted hills of the Scottish Borders; the muscle of scything arms at an eco-community in Somerset; the artificial blue crates of endless seedlings mirrored under the infinite blue dome of an East Anglian sky.  And what a treat to be hung next to Stubbs, an historic and important artwork featuring a picturesque scene of immaculate peasant reapers, dressed in white, overseen by the authoritarian, possibly benevolent farmer, an artwork I have previously written about as it reveals a penchant for a tidy, ordered countryside both socially and as a landscape (and yet the 'star', addressing the viewer directly, being the peasant).  

One of the highlights of this exhibition, is surely the interplay between historic and contemporary artworks that traces attitudes towards the countryside and reveals those references with which contemporary artists have been grappling, to disturb and question prevalent notions on this our subject.  And what quality: show-stopping classics greet you in the first room, including a Claude Lorraine drawing, an original Claude glass and - no major historic UK show complete without it - a Turner!  In the same room, contemporary artist Mat Collishaw's Hollow Oak, a projection of this tree into a nineteenth century carry case for glass negatives, meditates on the historically loaded iconography of the British countryside whilst Hilary Jack's Souvenir, a curiosity of a knotted wooden relic from the wooded landscape, provides a peephole through the walls of the gallery, towards an alternative landscape slideshow - perhaps a metaphor for the exhibition as a whole.

Jack's work was certainly one of my highlights from the exhibition: her prior series of photographs of turquoise plastic bags caught in trees (also a subject of Joanne Lee's artwork shown at the Harris Museum's exhibition 'Green and Pleasant Land?' in 2015, known colloquially as 'witches' knickers'), having been developed into a bronze cast hanging from a real-dead-tree installed into the gallery space.  Another fave was a selection of photographs by Andy Sewell from his gentle, slowly observed chronicle of anonymous lives' connection to the landscape, 'Something Like a Nest': the banal, yet sacred view of and from a kitchen sink; a pile of Tesco's bags on a church altar at harvest-time; a string of washing blowing in a domestic garden abutting the green edge of farmland, echoed compositionally above by the strings of telegraph wires criss-crossing the-not-natural-either-landscape.  One of the many successes of Sewell's work is its exposure of the ambiguity of all those notions, of green, natural, countryside, rural, food; and their ironies.  Nothing is simple (I'm thinking of the word 'authentic').  Embedded in each of his images (you'll want to seek out Sewell's publication) is also a sense of humanity, however potentially available to ridicule: old hands around a commemorative 'Diana and Charles' biscuit tin with an advert of rurally priced tea (£1) and coffee (£1.50) at, I'm guessing, some kind of village fundraiser or fete. His breadth of industrial-domestic-rural subject matter is a reminder of the surprising diversity in how we intersect with, and derive meaning and value from this thing, the Countryside.

Something that made me chuckle whilst I travelled the exhibition was a suspicion that some of the many visitors (may I say elderly?) were doing their best - as in a recent Country Life review - to sidestep the contemporary works, stumbling over the Collishaw on their way from the Claude Lorraine to the Turner.  Be it an error in marketing (?) it also spoke to me of issues of taste in generational relationships both towards art and the countryside, and possibly of class through Compton Verney's attraction as an endowed country house, set in a Capability Brown landscaped estate: the very latent themes historically embedded in the aesthetic lens of 'landscape' so powerfully brought into the foreground by Ingrid Pollard's important 1988 photographic and text series Pastoral Interlude, featuring herself as a surprising, disruptive black figure in the historically 'white' picture postcard Lake District countryside.  This suspicion seemed to invert some of the problems of representation and the countryside that I've engaged with in ten years of practice: Tom Hackett's review of my 2014 exhibition Sheep Sketchbook highlighted the snobbery against the dangerous 'fluffiness' and - heaven forbid! - nostalgia associated with the countryside, all but banned from the imagination by Art School.

When I embarked upon my post-graduation 2007 tour around fourteen UK farms ten years ago, I was conscious that it was an entirely contrary choice, even for an art school graduate.  I had no particular career ambitions for it as a project (though, ironically, it has forged and established my practice); it was simply something that I was interested in doing, and I accepted an attitude from my peers and tutors that I was a little bit weird.  Creating the Countryside therefore is an astonishing landmark from my perspective, interrogating a subject with a high quality of contemporary work that, since 2007, has scaled the walls of public consciousness.  It's good to be in the company of these artists.

A drawback as well as a value, is that this exhibition is at Compton Verney.  The exhibition interrogates the art gallery's setting and a complex, rich art history but good as it is, Compton Verney still feels 'far away' as a site, perhaps further away from London than New York and Shanghai (I only briefly entertained trying to drum up enthusiasm for a trip from my home city of Nottingham, let alone London); and its subject matter therefore still has an invisibility.  This year London's Science Museum permanently closed its Agriculture Gallery, demolishing a unique collection of in-built post-war dioramas and the only major national museum presence for farming in the capital.  Though proposals are afoot for something new, I can't help feeling saddened by the loss of this resource, a rare site within the city, for having conversations about that world 'out there' that feeds and nourishes us: a place that is so much more than an empty space to draw a line across, as historical landscape art might view it.  Whilst it is still difficult to envision an art world that isn't metropolitan, it seems that there is still a problematic, essential incompatibility between contemporary art and the countryside.  But perhaps that's why I like it.

Hannah Brown's current exhibition Lain Fallow For Too Long at the Dalla Rosa gallery in Camden moots itself as a quietly subversive approach, partly because it is in London, because it is painting and because it looks dammed lovely.  I regret, that when I was a dilettante of the city last weekend, I didn't make it.