Look Forward in Anger
Other artists have collections of brushes in their studios, neatly arranged in jars according to size, and ranks of postcards of favourite paintings pinned up next to the kettle and teabags. This artist has heaps of used industrial gloves on his studio floor, sorted according to colour- white, grey and red ones- alongside bags of rubber knee pads and safety helmets, rows of rusty spade heads, and assorted circular ventilator covers.
David Garner’s return to his native mining valleys from art college in London in the mid 80s was as much determined by practicalities as anything. He could find an affordable studio space back there, and a part-time teaching job nearby. He also found a situation which he could not ignore, and which he had to reflect somehow in his work.
“Life is a game. And we all know which one.” So says a hoarding, advertising sportswear, by the side of the main road between Cardiff and the valleys. Garner became the unwilling spectator of a different sort of game, with the moves made elsewhere. The coal mine at which his father had worked, along with all the other mines was shut down, capped and landscaped. The miners were so easy to lose or mothball, and entire communities lost purpose and direction.
Garner has collected things from skips and dumps at the now silent pitheads, and has used them, mostly unaltered, in an ongoing series of large-scale works called ‘Political Games.’ For once, it is self-evident what these works are about, and they do not require an elaborate explanation.
The employment of ‘found objects’ by artists has a respectable history in twentieth century art, from Picasso through to the recent designer-trendiness of ‘creative salvage’ furniture. Garner’s accumulations of ‘found objects’ find themselves somewhere between the ‘classic’ sort- the single worn shoe or bicycle seat which releases poetic qualities when placed in the Zen garden of an art context- and the concept of ‘readymade’ invented by Marcel Duchamp, who re-presented mass-produced consumer items as ‘art.’ The specific history of the groups of worn and stained objects in Garner’s work could be traced by some obsessive industrial historian, but as they are anonymous industrial artefacts they serve to represent not only the demise of coal mining, but that of any moribund industry, or even any human endeavour which is exploited and them summarily junked. Piles of abandoned used clothes have a ghostly, haunted quality, and we cannot help but associate the tondo of empty boots in ‘Political Games 2’ with the floor of victims’ shoes in a mummified concentration camp.
The influence of the German artist Anselm Kiefer is undisguised, and Garner limits himself to a similar palette of colours of earth and industry on a monumental scale, though without Kiefer’s particular brand of Teutonic mysticism. Also influential has been Garner’s teacher in Cardiff, Terry Setch- particularly Setch’s ground-breaking late 70s work, painted in encaustic wax on huge tarpaulins. Garner also reveres the work of the now unfashionable Italian abstract painter Alberto Burri, who used untreated materials from scrap heaps to express post-war angst- torn hessian and distressed iron plates, sometimes stained with black and red paint.
Although they are completely static, and wall-hung like painting, the large scale of Garner’s work lends them a dour ritual presence which could be called theatrical. It comes as no surprise to learn that he has been strongly moved by the spectacular large-scale productions of the performance group ‘Brith Gof,’ who work from a Welsh base across cultures, across languages, and across histories, they have worked with the group Test Department, whose sound-world (and the uncompromising graphics that go with it), and that of other practitioners of ‘Industrial Music’ with unpronounceable German names, is equally something with which Garner feels a bond.
Garner currently works in isolation from other visual artists, but it is a situation which has enabled him to find his feet and establish his identity as an artist. Anyway he is far from being a naïve ‘outsider.’ Garner may be isolated from the mainstream studio and schmoozing scene, but he is part of another less disingenuous one. In the bedrooms behind the nice hanging-basketed porches of Blackwood, poetry is being written and guitars practiced by the descendants of coal miners who were probably encouraged to study the great works of literature at the Miners’ Institutes on their free evenings. Blackwood Miners’ Institute is now a “multi-facility theatre and arts & entertainment centre,” and there are polytechnics and NVQ’s for all, but set against an enervating milieu of unemployment and uselessness. Simmering with anger at the emptiness of such a prospect, groups have been formed and recorded, poetry books published, and all without anyone else’s help or opinions, like a cultural management buy-out in which, as The Independent put it, “the lines separating ‘art’ from ‘popular culture’ mercifully fade.” (1) A visual art aspect has been added to this revitalising stew by Garner. But the work that Garner has been making in his studio, while the selectors of the much-vaunted British Art Show were all looking the other way, can stand on its own and perhaps reinvigorate the art world too.
(1) Emma Forrest, ‘Land of my fathers, poets and punks,’ The Independent, 21 Dec 1995
David Briers, freelance writer, art critic and exhibitions organiser, lived in Cardiff from 1976-91; from 1991-94 he was Keeper of the Ferens Art Gallery in Hull.