We are pleased to present ‘Angels’, an exhibition about the artistic motif of the angel and how it is reinterpreted by contemporary artists today. Together with artworks that are centuries old, the exhibition will feature new works from Iain Andrews, Andy Harper, Liane Lang, Kate MccGwire, and Carolein Smit.
Two medieval works of stained glass provide the initial frame of reference for the traditional angelic motif. One is a roundel from the Duchy of Brabant from 1530 and depicts an angel as a divine agent, holding the coat of arms of a local family. A second fragment from Northern France in c. 1520 shows an angel holding a scroll. These are the familiar angels of the Western Christian tradition: divine, protective, and benevolent.
This archetype of the angel as a winged, feathered being is reputedly based on the classical sculpture of Nike of Samothrace, currently in the Louvre. This appears in Liane Lang’s photographic print on marble, albeit in the grip of interfering hands, as is typical of Lang’s subversion of ‘Establishment’ monuments. A second work from Lang suggests how these grand ideals can become degraded through use, showing us angels becoming little more than Victorian candelabra simply to lend a sense of pomp to a chapel.
How such imagery changes shape through reinterpretation is also the focus of Iain Andrews’s paintings, in particular with reference to the role of grand belief systems in a secular era. His works in this exhibition look at Old Testament stories such as the prophecies of Ezekiel and Elijah, some of the earliest narrative appearances of angels. Andrews’s paintings playfully distort his source material till they retain merely an echo of their origin, reflecting the vulnerability of the concept of a higher power in a time when every form of belief is questioned.
Reinterpretation in an age of fluid values is explored in a different way in Andy Harper’s works. A pair of paintings in this exhibition make reference to Jean Fouquet’s ‘Melun Diptych’ from c. 1450, taking its distinctive blue and red angel composition as a prompt for an experiment in abstraction and mark-making. While the angelic image still lies somewhere beneath, the focus in Harper’s works anchors on the material: the idea is elusive, almost obliterated by close inspection, as much hidden as it is revealed by the paint.
Kate MccGwire’s sculptures also follow the route of abstraction, but using feathers as their medium. Feathers appear throughout art history to suggest transition between earth and the Heavens. In MccGwire’s works, the sensuousness of the material is contrasted with interwoven, almost snake-like forms that fold in on themselves in a labyrinthine knot. There are ancient symbolic echoes at work here – the winged angel versus the serpent – that create a compact of the sensual with the sinister.
The darker aspects of the angelic motif are also explored by Carolein Smit with a ceramic sculpture of a fallen angel that echoes the biblical tale of Lucifer. In Smit’s work his bronzed skin is cracked to reveal molten lava beneath, suggesting how the Heavenly came crashing down to become clay. A second sculpture depicts an ancient queen as a skeleton adorned with delicate wings, a reference to how the angelic/feather motif has been used by monarchs to allude to divine status.
A pre-Colombian feather headdress from Nazca culture in what is now Peru & Chile, dating from c. 400AD, underlines this enduring truth. Through its use the wearer became associated with the Celestial messenger, the Condor – Eagle, and shared the supernatural powers of this divine intercessor. It indicates the universal relevance of the angelic motif: well outside the Western tradition, the feathered being has always had divine connotations.