There was a discarded title for this show: the Act of Creation. Bold and somehow bland – there are of course prime settings for the act of creation: the Sistine chapel, and the Bake-Off tent, and any maternity ward or cinematically in a taxi on the way there or indeed proverbially in the field while at work.
And, of course, almost prosaically by comparison, the studio of an artist.
In this case two artists who both work in painting and sculpture in a figurative idiom. Sort of. Because although the human form is crucial, the centre of their thought and action, at times it strays very far from its representational template and stabilises as an inchoate material mass, forms rising from the ground or out of the mist and never quite coalescing, struggling to be born.
The effort is not to present something we can recognise from our own knowledge of the world, but to invent something we can just about identify, characteristics we can supply from our own make-up. Again, sort of. Because there’s always the distance we might prefer to keep, and the identification we refuse. That mass, that (mis-)shape, can bring to the surface considerations we’d willingly avoid reflecting back on to ourselves. But as witnesses of Summers’ sculptures or paintings, or Lyddon’s paintings or sculptures, we mustn’t be afraid of feeling uncomfortable. Sometimes that’s the idea.
But not the whole idea, by any means. In the making, the bunging together (that’s precisely how it happens) of the mud and appropriated grunge, the simulation of flesh and blood by means of real struggle on the part of actual flesh and blood, or in the unflinching attention given to teasing out the grotesque antics of a freaks’ carnival, what we end up with is some kind of illumination: light on the very act of creation. Intercepted, we could say, at the moment of conception.
Kate Lyddon shows us a world that’s still under development, peopled with figures who, sometimes alarming, often poignant, usually with their own weird nightmarish elegance, almost touch on the visionary.
For John Summers, work is close to hard labour. What the finished (if it is that) piece includes is the whole memory of its making, visible or not; the physical struggle that building it has required. Materials have been collected, amassed, discarded, until some point of stasis has been reached, at least for the moment.
There are allegorical tales here, seen back-to-front – whether Pygmalion, boy-into-statue (Summers), or Pilgrim’s Progress, a journey lurching towards some kind of hell (Lyddon) – tellingly, the extent of both their reference points stretches across the world and through the ages, from Hindu myth and Ancient Greece to the brothers Grimm and Marvel comics.
The distorting mirror held up to a wayward world is both cautionary and cautiously optimistic, as though the Dunkirk spirit had survived the apocalypse. As though both artists are emissaries from our future (having as adults lived and learnt it) and are here to guide us through the tragedy to its second coming as black farce.