Past Present is an exhibition about our love affair with discovering the stories of history. Starting from the premise that being in touch with our past enriches the present, the exhibition looks at our how history engages our imaginations, and how we use historical stories to shape and add colour to the present, explored through the work of three emerging artists who use historical sources to inform their contemporary work - Toby Wiggins, Guy Barton and Stine Ljungdalh. The exhibition coincides with the solo exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery of Toby Wiggins, who last year won the BP Travel Award.
Toby Wiggins’ drawings, loosely grouped together in a body of work titled “Stills from an Epic Adventure”, are based on a collection of family photographs from the inter-war period in Continental Europe. Like chapters of a story or episodes in a grand epic, they carry a strong sense of being the punctuation points of narratives that unfold and then become forgotten over the passage of time. The very technique of Toby’s drawing – multi-layered, built up and then partially erased – itself mimics the function of the mists of time, hiding some stories, altering or highlighting others, and leaving behind memories that are unclear, incomplete, but at the same time highly intriguing.
Delving further back in time, Guy Barton’s paintings reinterpret old anthropological photographs from the colonial period into painterly portraits that resonate with melancholy tragedy. Through his paintings, Guy looks to rediscover the subjects as individuals rather than as the racial specimens the photographs were intended to document, hoping in the process to give them back some element of their uniqueness lost through technological Imperial empiricism. Through this interplay between painting and photography, Guy examines the disappearance of cultures through technological and colonial development, an issue as prevalent now in today’s globalised world as it was over a century ago.
Inverting the traditional artistic process of using photographs as sources, the one other uses old Master paintings (in particular those of Holbein) to structure and inform her photographic portraits. In contrast to the theme of rediscovery of both Toby Wiggins and Guy Barton, Stine’s portraits, intended as representations of a dual personality of the artist herself, are more concerned with a transformation and disguising of the subject. She does this principally through a strong sense of theatre and a narrative that is directed and drawn up by, rather than discerned through, photography. In this way, she illustrates how historical sources are used not just to explain the past, but also to lend narrative to and enrich our present. She appears courtesy of the Cynthia Corbett Gallery.
By bringing together these three artists, Past Present creates its own narrative progression between drawing, painting and photography, with each medium being related to the others in an historical context. While old photographs are mined to reveal the past, new photographs use historical imagery to alter or embellish the present. The strange operation of historic images, simultaneously revealing and obscuring information, is played out in the narrative lines of the different artists that seek to clarify and appropriate elements of the past that are then manipulated to re-present the present. It is this complicated relationship that we have with history and how we use it for our contemporary narratives that is explored in Past Present.