In medieval maps the edge of the explored world was also the edge of knowledge. In true horror vacui style, these voids were filled with bizarre megafauna: dragons, leviathans, and sea monsters. The phrase Here Be Dragons came to represent this need to populate the unknown with the fantastical, and to use it as a space for imagination to run wild. ‘Here be Dragons’ explores its enduring legacy through the work of four contemporary artists: Olivia Kemp, Mark Connolly, Cheri Smith, and Carolein Smit.
Olivia Kemp’s ink drawings stem from stream-of-consciousness markmaking that unfolds into expansive imaginary landscapes. This exhibition features a monumental new drawing based loosely on Cranach’s Hunt at the Castle of Torgau at the Prado in Madrid. Olivia adapts this into a collection of islands studded by buildings from Nantucket in Cape Cod, the home of Captain Ahab’s ship the Pequod in the quintessential leviathan hunt Moby Dick. This imagined land thus becomes the native setting for adventures into the unknown that are as much psychological as physical. Smaller accompanying works are inspired by Northern Renaissance painters such as Cornelis Van Dalem, who used mountains and rocks to suggest the fragility of civilisation and the raw power of nature. Olivia’s works create similar scenes with an effusion of detail, and colonise them with unassuming structures that echo her own house in the Swedish countryside.
Cheri Smith’s paintings examine animals as companions in adventures both real and imagined, presenting dreamlike scenes where the animal world recovers the symbolic power of the medieval bestiary. ‘Life Licker’ presents a ghostlike woman and hound, referring to the medieval belief in the curative powers of a dog’s licking. A pair of walkers echoing Tobias and the Angel in London’s National Gallery step on a snake that springs up to take their tongues. Bats do the same to another pair of night-time ramblers, and reappear frequently as agents of the unknown. In ‘Carried Away’, inspired by Angels lifting the Body of St Catherine to Mount Sinai in Frankfurt’s Staedel Museum, bats replace angels to abduct a surprised artist. In ‘The Touching’, a mass of gothic hands look to feel an amorphous flittermouse. Throughout, touch is important, the haptic experience of the animal other: petting as a source of pleasure.
Carolein Smit’s ceramic sculptures depict the mythological beasts and archetypes that inhabit the unconscious, bringing them into the light with theatrical sensibility. All her works tread the fine line between fascination and horror. A life-size bloodhound with razor teeth sits waiting for visitors, gold-flecked eyes glinting as his coat glistens with glazes. An oversized foot relic inspired by the tale of St Bartholomew’s foot being stolen from his church in London’s Smithfield appears as the bejewelled body part of a colossus, encrusted like a treasure trove. Alongside is a hairy Mary Magdalen, inspired by the Christian story of how in later life Mary Magdalen lived as a hermit covered in hair in the wilderness. Carolein’s Mary looks almost as much animal as human, and stares into a pool like Narcissus. They constitute just some of the magical and fearsome entities that inhabit the shadowy corners of the imagination.
Mark Connolly’s paintings explore the grand themes of good and evil and the narratives that underpin the eternal battle. The paintings in this exhibition look specifically at the dragon as the inhabitant of a magical land which the hero must confront as part of his quest. One painting presents the dragon embedded in his domain, flapping his wings beneath the moonlight as a waterfall flows beyond. The largest work depicts the moment of confrontation, with a diminutive lone knight reminiscent of St George facing a gigantic triple headed fiend. A third painting sees the knight conquering the dragon, wrangling it into submission in a scene echoing centuries-old Christian imagery of St Michael. Through playful execution Mark’s paintings suggest how the dragon as imagined menace is precisely that: a narrative creation that expands to occupy all available imaginative space, much as they occupied the entirety of the unknown world in medieval cartography.