With the development of a closer relationship with the Coniston Institute programme, we wanted to host an exhibition that combined the concerns and collections of the adjacent Ruskin Museum and those of the Institute, and with painter Dan Sturgis we developed an idea to look at the history of abstraction in art, in landscape painting in particular. The aim was to combine contemporary and historic paintings with a bespoke hanging system to display the work across the space, 'in the round' - necessary within the Coniston Institute due to its characteristic 'village hall' architecture rendering wall-based hanging impossible.
We were interested to explore at what point abstraction in landscape painting had become uncomfortable for a mainstream art audience loyal to realism. We also wanted to see whether the exhibition could reconnect with the endemic local interest in landscape appreciation in its myriad forms.
We shared an interest in the hanging systems used in the early part of the 20th century to take art 'to the people', in particular one by Russian artist El Lissitsky. There were many others too, and systems for hanging art and design became something of a trope in the Modernist canon.
For 'Against Landscape', with Tom Philipson we developed some experiments we had been doing using a leftover flooring material - a light coloured oak 'parquet'. This up cycled material had also been used in our Dublin Fair Land project for seating and had further evolved with input from the Pforzheim Design School (with Robert Eikmeyer) in Germany, and from UK architects Assemble.
From these co-created designs and construction methods we were able to create a viable freestanding hanging system ideal for our Institute 'village hall' architecture - with shades of mid century Modernism thrown in.
The system continues to be used for Coniston Institute exhibitions and for other touring shows and has latterly been taken up in Chicago by Sweetwater Foundation based on their involvement in the 'Fair Land' project.
Dan invited contemporary artists he saw as reflecting the ideas behind the show to exhibit. These included Lisa Milroy, Paul Morrison and Pamela Fraser and he further selected a wide range of historical material from early abstraction of Alexander Cozens to Piet Mondrian.
Very sadly, the important historical component of the exhibition was prevented from being presented at Coniston due to administrative loan / security complications, so sadly the Mondrian that once hung in Ben & Winifred Nicholson’s miserable Cumbrian cottage (in the 1920’s) did not manage to return to its land of roses-over-the-door rural cliche.
However, the historical element of the show was in time realised at a second iteration of the exhibition at Glasgow School of Art gallery, now run by ex-Grizedale writer-in residence Jenny Brownrigg, a woman with an unhealthy interest in bleak landscape interpretation.