The illustration exhibition is as one expects: quirky, kooky and full of eccentric pockets of interesting bits and bobs dotted around the entire room. To the left of the entrance it’s hard to ignore the Armitage Shanks urinal shamelessly mounted on the wall (a nod to Duchamp perhaps) with a gilded mirror positioned above. The mirror’s gold writing reads, “know your limits” (the slogan for a UK campaign against alcoholism). The mirror is meant to reference the use of gilded mirrors advertising alcoholic beverages found in many pubs (hence the urinal). Concerned with the UK’s heavy drinking culture, Joshua Barr wanted to mix “a modern day issue with a style of advertising from the past.”
Indeed, most of the work in the exhibition attempts to educate the viewer, typically in a curious and unusual manner. The works are not devoid of fun, humour and entertainment, and this in turn encourages the viewer to engage with the exhibits.
Illustration, for me, has always had a wonderful blend of comedy, absurdity, education and also a certain childlike charm. Walking over to a table in the middle of the room, I discover a set of tiles, created by Iida Lanki, depicting celebrities who have died whilst in the bathroom. Influenced in turn by Victorian commemorative tiles and also by modern day celebrification, these pieces are not only well-crafted and highly decorative but also genuinely interesting, all of which entices you to look again. The tiles ironise society’s obsession with stars; the drawing of the celebrities’ faces are carefully rendered, and the addition of a decorative border of chain, plug and drain adds a vein of wry humour.
Amidst the strange curiosities and handmade oddities there are also traditional styles of illustration. Chrissy Curtin’s lithographic prints display scenes from “Lady Gregory’s The Fate of the Children of Lir”, a story about children who are transformed into swans for 900 years by their jealous step-mother. The prints are meticulously etched, with fine lines dictating the movement of the water and the curves of feathers. A different example of craftsmanship is displayed in Rossi Gifford’s book Spirit Leaves. This book is focused in a more cartoon-like, anime direction. Gifford draws her images in this manner, scans them, layers colours on top of her original drawings, and then prints out the final images. The book contains highly decorative landscapes and dreamlike sequences; sometimes it’s hard to tell what order the drawings are in, but the story itself is quite supple (think comic book without borders). Another piece I couldn’t not address, is the stained glass made by Aimee McCulloch. McCulloch etched and painted onto the glass illustrations depicting the story from Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel, The Master and Margarita; she also designed a commemorative WW1 stained glass window.
Overall the exhibition contains a lot of variety in terms of styles and outcomes, with giant posters, stained glass, prints and books. The displays show the wide range of skills possessed by illustration students. Handmade books placed on a table highlight the different talents, interests and strengths held by each student; there are different bindings, paper textures and covers to suit each book depending on content. The exhibition contains a lot of work that takes inspiration from previous art movements and periods such as Art Nouveau and the Victoria era; each piece uses what we know about that particular movement, era or object to create something new and fresh. Students seem concerned with telling us something we didn’t know before, whether this concerns how to understand the human mind, emotions and behaviours or about the environment, animals and the world we live in. It requires us to take something away, discover something new or to understand something better.
Illustration is not just about interesting wall art or drawings in books. There is definitely something here for everyone to look at, even if you’re not a fan of urinals.