It’s not often I make my way to an exhibition with the conviction that I could have been one of the artists proudly displaying his work.
That was how I felt with The Witching Hour – Darkness and the Uncanny.
Only a couple of weeks ago I carved my very own Jack O’Lantern for Halloween. A scary job I made of it, too. (Jack was the spit of Wayne Rooney, though slightly prettier.)
What I expected from The Witching Hour was the usual Gothic ghoulishness that has been part of the visual and literary lexicon since Henry Fuseli’s The Nightmare, and has now turned into a clunking cliché courtesy of the Twilight franchise.
What I found was something... different.
Curators Matthew Collings and Matt Price have opted for an elastic definition of ‘‘the witching hour’’.
The artists included in the exhibition – who all come from the West Midlands or have strong connections to the area – discombobulate and disturb with their work.
But all art should do that, not just the Gothic strain.
Some of the exhibits do deserve the ‘‘darkness and uncanny’’ label.
Toby de Silva’s images from his series Immortal, for instance.These are photographs of martyred saints who are said to have been taken to a remote church on the border of Germany and the Czech Republic, where they were dressed in the most lavish regalia of the period.
I was hypnotised by these gloomy, brooding photographs that are so rich in dark detail they could be Caravaggio oils. It was particularly satisfying to gaze at photographs of richly dressed skeletal figures, and know for certain that I wasn’t looking at snaps of Victoria Beckham in Heat magazine.
Another genuine fragment of the uncanny is Gillian Wearing’s Lily Cole, a print of the British model wearing a mask of her own face. One cheek of the mask cracks and crumbles, like a freshly-bashed boiled egg. Cole’s eyes stare through the eye-holes, holding the viewer with their haunting, pleading emptiness.
Reminding us that the model is a prisoner in her own skin. A skin that is sleek and celebrated, though due to the nature of her vocation, also the part of her that nobody ever looks past. Her skin is also trapped by time – it will wear and decay. And what happens to marketable model, Lily Cole, then?
Wearing has created a modern, female version of The Picture Of Dorian Gray. No mean feat.
From a distance, Ged Quinn’s mighty canvas, I Am an Ear of Corn in Sun and Wind looks to be a fairly traditional panoramic landscape.
Close up, weird things are happening. In a broken down house there is what seems to be the image of a man, though he is really some sort of patchwork construction. Either Frankenstein’s monster or a rag doll gone awry. Then there is the naked cherub at the centre of the canvas who is carving the statue of a crow.
What does it all mean? Hard to say, though the discrepancy between the majesty of the landscape, and the brittle, broken man-made objects at the base of the painting suggest it is a comment on the foolishness and arrogance of man’s attempt to imitate nature. A very Gothic philosophy and what Mary Shelley was all about.
This is a memorable exhibition forcing the viewer to think again about what the uncanny means, while dispensing with many of the clichés put in place during the Romantic movement. Lush, loopy horror is replaced by something gritty, modern and urban.
There are no pointy hats and broomsticks in this witching hour. But who needs ‘em? This exhibition flies on its own merits.
* The Witching Hour – Darkness and the Uncanny is presented by the Art Of Ideas at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery Waterfall Gallery (until Nov 14). Admission is free. Visit www.visualforbusiness.com