Ploughing the Furrow
Exhibition: That morning he watched the dawn
Date: February 2009
Writer: Louise Short
Publication: That morning he watched the dawn
Publisher: Oriel Davies Publications
Whether one is from suburban Los Angeles, the English Riviera, downtown Caracas or Ceredigion, it is an undeniable reality that the precise location, or locations, of one’s upbringing has a profound effect on one’s identity. In a culture that is, for a good number of reasons, preoccupied with the specifics of cultural identity, it is not surprising to see artists negotiating such issues in visual ways. One may be accused of superficiality by defining the elements of an artist’s practice by their physical origins, particularly if one strays into stereotyping. With this consideration foremost in my mind I will explore how the work of Carwyn Evans questions the premise of such territory in social, geographic and cultural terms.
What kind of image does rural Wales conjure up in one’s mind? How does the real and the imaginary translate in these times? To some of us the countryside has become at least mere spectacle, or at most a battleground. In recent years the Chernobyl disaster, BSE, foot and mouth, mushrooming Disneyesque Celtic theme parks, not to mention the effect of EEC laws and its impact on sheep farming, have done much to change rural communities in Wales. The marginalisation of Welsh culture is more deeply felt in its rural communities. For Carwyn Evans these issues have become central to his current practice; though he does not fit within the definition of either romantic essentialist or contemporary Welsh formalist. Carwyn has embraced the profound (indeed feminist) adage ‘The personal is the political’. The work is as much about his relationship to his family (particularly his father), as it addresses the notion of a disappearing ‘fatherland’.
In Hand Tools (p.10-11 & 36-37) farming implements made from casts of his father’s and mother’s hands allude to the physical connection with the earth through the generations. They can function as agricultural tools since they are made of hard metal and yet bear traces of both tenderness and strength in human hands which ‘know the land’. Carwyn’s family have been farming in and around Llandyfriog for thirty years and soon this way of life will become redundant, as his parents get older and reach ‘retirement’. This sculptural work is a powerful family portrait which marks a significant moment in time.
Signs of change are documented in similarly sensitive ways through a set of portraits of Polish workers from the local slaughterhouse (Think of Home, p.38-43). Briefed to think of ‘home’ whilst eyes are closed, we can only speculate what images are being summoned up in the minds of these immigrant workers. Memory and photography are inextricably linked, as are the indexical makings of fingerprints. Walker Evans’ ‘Labour Anonymous’ comes to mind. Walker Evans made portraits of workers walking to and from work in the streets of Detroit in 1946. Like much of his work they have been seen to represent ‘the real’ America at the time rather than some idea of the American dream. Back in contemporary Wales, four hundred and twenty people work in the slaughterhouse in Llanybydder. Mainly Welsh-bred lamb are dispatched, butchered and packed there by a current estimate of two hundred and ten Polish, fifty from nationalities including Slovakian, Portuguese and Czech and around one hundred and sixty local workers*. The town boasts its own Polski ‘Sklep’ (formally the local butchers shop) which provides familiar Polish groceries to the immigrant workers. In Yiddish the word ‘schlep’ translates as an arduous journey, to lug or drag. Times are indeed changing.
Movement (Bro Dyfriog) (p.6-9) suggests a more sinister view of change. The potential takeover of the village, indeed Carwyn’s parents’ home, presents a dilemma expressed before in his work. The migration of Welsh speakers out of the villages, property sales to non indigenous people and development of new housing estates bring new challenges, some unwelcome, to the communities who have long histories in the area. Everything seemed so simple and beautiful (p.18-21), a collection of miniature dioramas of sites under threat in the area (a rural school, village shop and a farmhouse in ruins, for example) are simultaneously places to land as well as being sheltered spots to rest and ponder on. Again the reference to flight suggests (im)migration, both in and out.
A nest of tables stands furrowed by the plough (Turn, p.24-27). In an effort to escape one’s social sphere one may fall into the trap of the kind of pretentiousness inherent in the politeness of the coffee table, or a nest of tables that stands dormant until the vicar comes for afternoon tea. By ploughing into these tables, Evans cuts through this veneer, splintering the wood. By shattering the surface (mimicking the skill and dexterity of the ploughman in the field) he exposes the natural physicality of cheap furniture, extending its surface area and devastating its faux french polish. In Carwyn’s exquisite etchings of ploughed fields, he remarks on the cutting of the furrow and the following of this line over and over again, as if we are obliged to follow the original channel (or rut).
In the deeply philosophical painting Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (1) Breugel illustrates the tremendous effort on the part of Icarus to become a god. His exertion resulted in unnoticed failure, since the ploughman continued with the far more important task of ploughing his field on the cliff top above and missed the spectacle of Icarus plunging headfirst into the sea below. This painting represents one of the greatest indictments of the belief of human superiority over nature.
The context of Carwyn´s practice has been forged through a deep understanding of visual language, history and landscape. The work
has many complex and often contradictory aspects which include human loss, celebration and humour. Such articulation of the predicament of change is rare.
Louise Short, artist and curator, January 2009
1. Landscape with the Fall of Icarus. c.1558. Oil on canvas, mounted on wood.
Musees Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels.
* As quoted by Carwyn Evans in January 2009.
Louise Short is an artist and curator who has exhibited widely in Western and Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Australia, and whose work is in the Arts Council of England Collection. She is founder and director of STATION, a research and development centre for art, in Bristol. Artists who have been in residence there include Phyllida Barlow, Louis Nixon, and Michael Snow amongst many others. She also co-founded ALIAS, the Artist-Led Initiative Advisory Service which has been supporting artist-led initiatives in the South West of England for the last ten years. She is currently a Senior Lecturer in Fine Art on both graduate and postgraduate levels at the University of Wales Institute, Cardiff, and Associate Lecturer at the University of Plymouth and Camberwell School of Art.