Review: ‘The Last Judgment’ and ‘Only When the Tide Goes Out’

S Mark Gubb, It’s a Wonder We Still Know How to Breathe. Courtesy the artist.

Jon Gower

In 1966 Robert F. Kennedy made a speech in which he alluded to a possibly apocryphal Chinese curse, the one that runs ‘May he live in interesting times.’  Expanding on the theme Kennedy suggested that ‘Like it or not, we live in interesting times. They are times of danger and uncertainty; but they are also the most creative of any time in the history of mankind.’

The uncertainty of the age is captured well in Cardiff based S. Mark Gubb’s installation ‘The Last Judgement’ at Oriel Mostyn.  The biggest work on show is nothing short of monumental: taking its cue from Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel in the Vatican, this version is painted on huge sheets of corrugated iron and gives us a snapshot of the age in all its tumult, from Cold War paranoia to the epidemics of populist politics.

Writhing at the bottom of the work, and thus in the eternal flames of Hell, are the likes of Boris Johnson, Theresa May and White House spin doctor Kelly-Anne Conway, while above them a statue of NHS founder Aneurin Bevan, covered in seagull shit accidentally points a finger at a broken pillar. On this marble stub someone has sprayed the graffito “US UK,” with its multiplicity of meanings.  Meanwhile above Bevan Trident and North Korean missiles arc towards earth and there are images too culled from recent news footage, such as the right wing marches in Charlottesville, Virginia and the People’s March in the UK.  This is art as news reportage, with dark influences of Goya and the Victorian visionary of the apocalypse John Martin.

This huge, arresting and very timely piece shares a space with a history-spanning array of Union Jacks, not one of them unproblematic as well as limestone sculptures depicting a turtle trapped in the discarded plastic wrap of a beer six-pack and a matador’s head gored by a bull’s horns.  We could be in a museum dedicated to a society that fractured at its own hands and how prophetic that might turn out to be.  And if you look up at the ceiling you can see balloons carrying emojis of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse which, over time, and possibly the time frame of this show, will drift or canter down to earth.

And in one corner of the room, a quiet piece, and a funny one, being a school chair engraved with the cover art from a Californian thrash metal band Slayer’s album.  Gubb is besotted with popular culture and some of its noisiest expressions and it shows, in an installation that demonstrates real ambition, a restless, animated curiosity and includes bold and questioning art of the first order.

Curiosity and playfulness are watchwords for the work of the other artist who shares space at the Mostyn for this show, being the L.A. based Derek Boshier, whose ‘Only When the Tide Goes Out…’ gathers work and ephemera from four decades worth of hyper productivity.  Best known for his work producing stage designs for David Bowie and collaboration with The Clash, Boshier’s work rhymes and chimes with Gubb’s offerings, for he too is a gluttonous consumer of pop culture and its artefacts, from thrift store plastic toys (which show the dominance of the US industrial military complex when it comes to getting kids to play with things, from F1 fighters to handguns) to gadgets, in this the Age of the Gadget.

Boshier is a well-travelled man, having lived all over the world, from Somerset to Southern California, from India to Houston, but this show also documents a time he lived well away from the bright lights and the big cities, namely in Llangadfan in Powys.  The photographs of the rural community, its sheepdips and local characters such as Boshier’s farmer friend Tecwyn are both documentary and telling, not least when Boshier himself hoves into view, wearing the sort of transparent-plastic-rimmed Bohemian spectacles that marked him out as an insider, but one who respectfully tried to fit in and took the photographs to prove it.

The resonances between Gubb and Boshier’s output are multifarious because they both delight in things and ideas with a magpie disposition, collecting and selecting as they go.  They are also restlessly productive in a wide and wild range of media as evidenced by the tapestries, sculptures and film on display.  The Mostyn show melds both their various interests and searching intelligence together to create a show shot through with humour and life-zest.  ‘The Last Judgement‘ shows us the mess we’re in, but does so with good heart, using the brightest possible colours.  Boshier’s show tells us how an artist need not diminish or lose energy with age but rather ramp up the dial, keep on making things with all the urgency of now.

‘The Last Judgment’ and ‘Only When the Tide Goes Out’ – Mark Gubb and Derek Boshier is at Oriel Mostyn, Llandudno until the end of June 2019.

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