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Abbot Hall Art Gallery in Kendal seems a very unlikely place to play host to some of the most recognised contemporary artists of our time. In an area so infatuated with pretty crafts and old master’s paintings, it is a brave move to shove such ambiguous work into the faces of those who have recently retired to the Lake District in an attempt to get away from all this modern art muck. And yet time and time again Abbot Hall pulls it off. From Bridget Riley to Hughie O’Donaghue, Richard Long to Francis Bacon, Abbot Hall has showcased some truly ‘difficult’ art over the past few decades; illustrated most poignantly in their current temporary exhibition by Swiss artist Uwe Wittwer, ‘In The Middle Distance’.
A great deal of Wittwer’s work is based on the reproduction of old masters paintings, however his work is seemingly controversial as his attitude towards these older paintings is not entirely one of reverence. Using memories from years spent in museums and galleries, and a digital image of the work itself as merely source material, Wittwer treats these paintings almost like fading family portraits. Drawing on themes of ageing and decay, his reproductions are far removed from the originals aesthetically. He often choses to paint the image strangely cropped and in negative, blurring the edges with hazy brush strokes and adding what I can only describe as supernatural orbs to the scene, accentuating a ghostly, almost sinister atmosphere.
‘Doppelgänger after Van Belcamp’ (2012) is a stand out piece from the exhibition. Not only is the original (1646) displayed downstairs as one of Abbot Hall’s most prized pieces from the collection, but is also Wittwer’s largest painting to date; stripping away the superficialities of the original and reconstructing it to reveal the truth about the family depicted. Wittwer completely subverts our perception of the original paintings, focusing on aspects that would not usually be picked up on and blacking out areas that would traditionally be the focus.
‘Black Sun after Antonioni’ (2012) was my favourite piece, made up of 78 stills extracted from the cult British film Blow Up by Michaelangelo Antonioni. The film itself deals with the ability of the image to mislead the viewer, as the plot follows a photographer who when developing his pictures realises he has inadvertently witnessed a murder. This notion of a seemingly insignificant background resonates deeply within Wittwer’s work. He paints the stills in hazy watercolour, removing them from their original context and recreating the film as randomly displayed fragments of a narrative; crucial pictorial information becomes lost and unimportant glimpses take centre stage.
What I actually found most interesting in the exhibition was the comments book. One entry from the day before, despite the author taking the time to write down their entire address and further contact details, simply stated ‘Dull.’ Another wrote ‘No. I don’t really understand the point of these at all.’ Not only does it completely escape me how anyone could describe Wittwer’s work as dull (I mean, yes the colours he uses aren’t exactly vibrant, but really?) but what bothers me more is that apparently if a piece of work can’t be fully understood it’s not worth seeing. Even with the detailed guidebook provided I still have an awful lot of questions about his work, but if I had left the exhibition knowing all the answers it’d be a complete waste of time.
Wittwer’s temporary exhibition ‘In The Middle Distance’ is displayed at Abbot Hall Gallery, Kendal until the 16th March 2013.