Wednesday 15 March 2023

Hilary Mantel - The Graveyard of Convention

Photograph Hillary Mantel, The Honourable Society of the Middle Temple, London, 2017 

C-type archival 20x24” 2/2  - mounted on dibond, dutch ripple frame, museum AR70 non-reflective glass.

Acquired by the National Portrait Gallery permanent collection (purchased with support from the CHANEL Culture Fund for 'Reframing Narratives: Women in Portraiture’.)

We can learn so much from just brushing against greatness and I felt a rare affinity with Hilary Mantel in these brief moments. There was a synchronicity meeting her for the first time in the historical setting of Middle Temple Hall. Photography is inspired as well as in competition with art history, so I am overwhelmed by the responsibility to represent something of Mantel’s personality inextricably linked to British history. Being in her presence demands reflection of the invisible timelines linking present and past. The portraits on the walls are a reminder of the intimidating legacy of portraiture. The great artists that were judged on the pursuit of reality undermined by photography that brings it so effortlessly but photography’s power is also its weakness and mere facsimile is not enough now.

To dare to attempt to capture the essence of another human being means risking everything in the moment and this pressure adrenalises the process in the pursuit of something that might dare to come close to being worthy of the subject. Its a form of possession, a complete commitment to the moment and to self that is absent in me without the camera but is a requirement if there is a chance of capturing anything valuable against the odds through this lump of glass, metal and pixels. Being possessed is something Mantel understands she carries the ghosts of the past with her, the grail exists in the hinterland between success and failure and only those that attempt to reach it can truly empathise with what it feels like to glimpse it. 

There are some processes that are consistent to my practice and whilst the subject is inevitably collaborating they cannot be entirely complicit, the portrait must feel exploratory, an examination of them caught covertly in their presence that betrays something of their nature behind the mask, especially of the famous. A subject’s entire complicity devalues a great moment demoting a portrait to the graveyard of convention. The intimidating setting of Middle Temple and Mantel herself is the inspiration that drives us towards the goal of something beyond mere representation. The dogmas that define my practice set the boundaries within which to observe her humanity and I pre-light and compose the scene in Mantel’s absence so that not a moment of her presence is wasted in front of the camera. She is well known, not only for her immense talent but for her fragile physical health and Mantel’s lack of a stereotypical physicality and ego belies the incredible charisma that is built on her humility.

I introduce Mantel to the prepared space, I don’t rescue her from the silence she steps into and in these early moments all the hope and risk exists. To understand photography one must understand its limitations first, it is merely the capture of what is transpiring before the instrument of capture and the photographer’s role is to facilitate the event, to alter the molecules in front of the lens through force of will and Machiavellian intent driven by the overwhelming need to create something of value at any cost in the moment. I have observed many a coup d’oeil of humanity in this created alternate reality and these glimpses of vulnerability that we work so hard to hide are easily missed in the conventional timeline uniquely interrupted by the photographic process. This image even with its failures is that rare glimpse of the grail and a success in my mind that represents the very best of my practice.

The search for humanity can be easily confused with iconoclasm in the representation of the famous who are possessive of their carefully constructed personas. This obsession with an intimate connection driven in part by my queerness transcends convention and is the key to the unspoken understanding I create between subject and photographer. In these brief moments with Mantel I am in hindsight empathising with her own process as a writer in unravelling the humanity of the distant giants of history in her own work. To stand even the slightest chance of capturing this authenticity, the ego must be subjugated and trust handed over to the chance of the present relationship unfolding in front of the camera. The pursuit of greatness can ironically be the obstacle in the path to its realisation and the ultimate trauma of the portrait photographic process is the awareness of the myriad of paths left untrodden in the decision making process that is defined by the potential for failure. The only solution to this crisis is to dare to trust in the moment and allow the camera to do its job objectively documenting the evolving relationship in front of its godless gaze.

After the shoot Mantel explained to me that so often people had felt concerned for her health to the extent that her portraits were mostly sedentary and my lack of consideration for her comfort in the pursuit of a great portrait allowed for an expression of a rarely seen but undeniable joyful, playful side. The priority of authenticity can come at a cost and in this single capture I hope it outweighs its flaws. 

This picture is all the more precious because of Mantel’s appreciation of it, acquiring it for her personal archive at the Huntington Library, California. The further recognition by the National Portrait Gallery in acquiring it is an additional affirmation that means a great deal not only because of the irony that Mantel now joins a celebrated and historic collection of portraits of the great and good in her own right.

Thursday 18 November 2021

Botticelli and Cat Shit

I am having a rather dramatic wave of self doubt if that helps you believe I am human .. it’s part of the process as I move towards sharing the series of works from the very private and intimate creations from the series 'No Place Like Home' by slapping them on the wall for people to judge. The viewer inevitably brings a criteria and motivation to the work often in conflict with my own increasingly lost message, my voice drowned out even in my own space. Hence the statement if you can be arsed to read it.

Our shear unadulterated arrogance mostly masked by social convention occasionally shows itself. I often define what are called mental health issues especially those with depression as a consequence of being connected to the brutal reality, the realisation of a vast, cold, heartless universe, so vast in time and space that nothing matters. What a friend of mine calls my 'Godless gaze'. Fly too close to the sun again and again and it becomes all we know and what was a balanced existence is a fading memory.

So desperate to find our way back from the agony of self-knowledge to the stable ground of denial that has long since departed, a craving nostalgia for a life less complicated and damaged, fuelling an increasing sense of isolation and existential loneliness no longer able to be hidden by an increasingly flimsy persona. The standards set by our ego become the enemy to self love. We can live too long perhaps as to pass through multiple identities of which mine has always been unstable from the start, giving me empathy for anyone less comfortable with this constant and unnerving dislocation. I'm drawn to it like a fly to cat shit, my sub-conscious antennae seeking a parity with the like-minded but the existential loss I carry, I am ashamed too say, always defined 'others' as more complete than myself regardless of their own suffering.

Silence is very important but it can be dangerous to, we can make assumptions of the unspoken and very often a different truth can only come out if the right question is asked. My impertinence that Sierra and I had that unspoken understanding during the capture of these images of their decapitated body both as the reclining muse and here in the twisting female stereotype inherited from the representations of the male gaze of art history. A conventional beauty interrupted by the scars as memories of a recent past too unbearable. A home, if you can call it that, has become an allegory for depression, filth accompanies despair; if you don't intend to live, why hoover. Nothing matters.

The unadulterated documentation is empathy, if I am invited to join my subject in the abyss I feel it is my responsibility  to return with the evidence (if I make it back). It would be a great failure to sanitise such an extraordinary gift in the misguided presumption of dignity that only belongs in the mind of the privileged. I recall, deeply hallucinating from food poisoning in a small village in Kerala; I cling onto the edge of what I perceive to be an abyss, terrified to let go not knowing what awaited me. How disappointing and what an opportunity missed.

I am celebrating survival as beauty. I am celebrating Sierra's beauty because I feel less able to celebrate my own.

Botticelli and Cat Shit #28729 © Richard Ansett 2020

Wednesday 28 July 2021

You say risotto..

I was recently invited by a renowned London restaurant to consult on an ongoing 'discussion' between kitchen and management regarding the authenticity of their risotto dish.

Dear //////////

Please find below my full report.

Following the tasting last Friday I concur that indeed the rice itself whilst not reflecting the established expectation of ‘risotto’ rice is potentially subject to interpretation as a ‘regional’ variation. But whilst the word ‘risotto’ does literally translate to merely ‘rice’ there is a higher standard to which our expectations are of ‘risotto’ the dish. In the very few regions of Italy through which I have travelled, anecdotally only I must stress, I have not detected huge variations in grain and I feel risotto refers to the dish which is primarily represented by Carnaroli, Arborio and my personal preference, Vialone Nano.

My instinct in testing your current risotto dish is that the rice used is possibly Orzo or close to, it has a relatively slimy texture structure and as you suggest may not be best suited to an even cooking resulting in variations of al dente.  It does not quite meet my expectations of a traditional risotto.

During one trip to the Veneto region, I was invited to La Fiera del Riso at Isola della Scala where I joined the traditional celebration of the harvest Garzega, tasting many great dishes made from the Vialone Nano grain traditional to the region, a highlight being the famous risotto all’isolana and a traditional local delicacy which includes veal, rosemary and cinnamon. (In Venice there is a tradition of sauté eel risotto but I don’t think this will travel well). 

During this visit I had the great privilege of attending a personal cooking lesson by the renowned chef Gabriele Ferron, which was very enlightening although he compares the level of attention required to the risotto as equal too that one needs to give a woman; can we forgive a little old school Italian misogyny in the pursuit of perfection?

Further, I was invited to a late harvest with Giuseppe Melotti together with his children Luca, Gianmaria and Francesca. The image attached from my archive is of Giuseppe scything the crop by hand ahead of the modern machinery, which I was invited to do but unfortunately there is no photographic evidence and you will have to take my word. (Also, attached landscape I love of an original natural reservoir that has fed the fields with fresh water for centuries).

Cooking of the risotto: Rossini’s opera Tancredi has a ‘rice aria’ I suggest as an experiment playing this on constant repeat in the kitchen during the stirring of the risotto which might ensure a perfect consistency.

Isola della Scala is the beginning and end of the La Strada del Riso Vialone Nano Veronese, or “Rice Road”, which takes in 22 villages including Buttapietra, Palu and Nogara so i suggest Paul and I embark on a research roadtrip to really gain a full and vital understanding of this vital dish.

As an aside, during another visit to Predappio during an investigation of fascist architecture, admittedly a little further south, I stayed in a very special farm house with a restaurant that just served one dish; a simply perfect champagne risotto with truffle. It remains one of my best food memories.

Very best and kindest regards,

Richard Ansett

Wednesday 7 July 2021

Community Turn To 'Queer Icon' To Lift Lockdown Curse

A gallery in a small isolated community tucked away in the cliffs of North Devon, England has been host to some bizarre events. A huge light box of a portrait of the self-declared tranvestite potter and winner of the Turner Prize Grayson Perry has been shining a light from the gallery window during lockdown. 

Gallery owner and expert in mid 20th century fine art pottery Tim Williams has held Grayson Perry in the highest esteem and saw the opportunity to show the lightbox by artist Richard Ansett as tribute to his contemporary hero not realising the remarkable turn of events that would transpire.

“The pandemic has taken its toll on our collective mental health and as some of the lockdown restrictions lifted we noticed what we could only presume were ‘offerings’ left on the doorstep as tribute to our secular icon.” said Tim.

“I turned up one morning to find a can of SPAM on the doorstep and then on another occasion a packet of McVities Rich Tea biscuits and I started to think something might be happening.” 

Since then the gallery has cautiously opened its doors and encouraged the pilgrimage to the alter. The local community have also responded bringing handmade objects, natural as well as supermarket bought offerings.

Retired couple Rene and Cathy came to the gallery with wild strawberries, Bisto Gravy Granules and Jacobs Cream Crackers. 

“Lockdown has been very hard on us and many of our friends and neighbours” says Cathy “we hope that our offering to the alter will lift the curse of Covid-19 on our little village.”

Self-identifying non-binary teen and by coincidence Perry’s namesake Grayson admits he bought the first offering to the gallery steps.

“Spam’s a big thing in Lynton” says Grayson “I wanted to leave a tribute and I just took some Spam from my mum’s house and left it outside the gallery. It doesn’t feel easy sometimes being young and different in a small village especially in lockdown and this amazing picture of a man in a wig holding a baby made me feel less alone and like everything was going to be alright.” 

The portrait consigned to Tim Williams Fine Art Gallery in Lynton by artist/photographer Richard Ansett is an “inglorious pink extravaganza” of art historical and religious references. The national treasure Grayson Perry is captured in the traditional conceit of mother and child surrounded by the “shameless campery” of organza and fake flowers bathed in a halo of light. Not the traditional fair one might think for an area known for its predominantly conservative views. 

Ansett’s appropriation of Perry into what he calls a "faux religious queer icon" came to Lynton from a world tour following its success at the Sony World Photography Awards, a residency at Fitzrovia Chapel, London where it was displayed alone on the alter and the Format and Arles Photo Festival. Whilst at Fitzrovia Chapel the artwork transformed from bombastic challenge to the status quo to a genuine icon in its own right and statement of the right to the sacred for all.

Tim Williams has big plans for Lynton, an art festival is high on his list to compete with Damien Hirst’s dominance of nearby Ilfracombe. “This is one of the most beautiful parts of England” says Tim “steeped in British art history. We feel the new normal could be something very special for everyone. We invite everyone to come, bring offerings to the alter in solidarity with all people that feel different and share in the beauty of nature and art.”

BIRTH: A Portrait of Grayson Perry by Richard Ansett will be on permanent display throughout 2021 at Tim Williams Fine Art, 1 Castle Hill, Lynton EX35 6JA.

Tuesday 15 December 2020

Remembering John Le Carré

 I spent the day with David Cornwell, invited to his cottage retreat on the Cornish coast. He was very gracious and charming as one would expect. He presented as a typical middle class, white, Oxford educated elitist, the personification of the British exceptionalism cliche and a glimpse of a hidden world accessible to only a few who know the rules. Even as a white man (but clearly of a lower class) I am confronted by this passive aggressive stereotype that reminds one of one's place. Impenetrable superiority is engrained in the privileged like an inherited disease and irrespective of how delightfully eccentric, it carries the legacy of empire, the mythology of the benevolent white overseer as a right and the very thing that infected the British Intelligence Service to its core. I notice this in my father's generation, a tolerance of others, a politeness barely masking a sense of unshakable entitlement.

What separates Cornwell is the recognition of these traits in himself, he is self-observant and betrays not his country but his class. The ultimate betrayal to pull back the Wizard's curtain. His gift of self-awareness and an awareness of the world he inhabited exposed to public view the ease in which the British intelligence service could be infiltrated by those who recognised hubris and this elevates him from the pap espionage writer.

He is a character in his own novels in this respect, it felt to me that I was in the company of someone that had got away with something, exiled to a remote cliff top house arrest and he played on that. The less said the better in creating an air of mystery. As the photographer I sensed he had laid out a series of visual clues to a fictitious alter ego as he showed me round his gardens and I found myself looking for clues that might betray his true allegiance, maybe as a radical Marxist traitor and conveniently my fantasy is obliged with a large, prominent socialist realist statue of a boy struggling to hold a flag pole in a strong wind. There is no pattern on the flag but I assume it is red. The perfect spy hides in plain sight I thought.

It is only fiction writers that are responsible for the romanticism that surrounds the security services. It is obstensively a bureaucratic organisation, the blandness of a civil service department where one daren't even wear colourful socks, re-invented as intrigue. The air of mystery and excitement relies on the silence, the true betrayal of the whistle blower is to expose this incredibly dull world behind the glamorous or intriguing facade of Bond and Smiley.

I don't think I am betraying any national security protocols when I share that I have had a MI5 officer sitting on my toilet patiently with his cheap briefcase on his lap as I fucked a member of her majesty's armed forces in the other room. "Don't try to leave" he said with unconvincing menace. I didn't share this anecdote with John.

Cornwell personally knew the truly dangerous homosexual traitors that infiltrated the very top of the security services. One can empathise with those dazzling queers surrounded by a sea of mediocrity that is the heteronormative state. Homosexuals then would make excellent spies, it was expected and we were used to hiding our true nature.

Adam Sisman remarks, “only can he make the wildest nonsense about himself credible (reportedly he enjoyed “playing” on his first wife’s suspicion that he was homosexual), he has encouraged others to add to it. “I’m a liar.”, he says. “Born to lying, bred to it, trained to it by an industry that lies for a living.”

Sunday 29 November 2020

Curtains Drawn in Daylight

"Tell us more about what’s in your image, the story behind it and the reasons why you created it."

I am so conscious of the limits of my intellect when writing about my work. Many words, phrases and even whole concepts can sit tantalisingly out of reach of my awareness. It's so depressing to be reminded of one's limitations and not accept them and in this moment I greatly envy those who have the natural capacity to access these areas with impunity.

Sometimes my brain seems to click into gear and everything I need and want is before me like found treasure but its so hard to seek out that easier path when I am so far off it and the more I look the less I can find it. In a pathetic attempt to shake off the dementia I attempt to stimulate the limited and increasingly diminishing brain cells the universe has bequeathed me.

Today began with a cold shower, then coffee and fasting but the path I want to be on still feels blocked, the next stage is to write about it and post it hopelessly into the ether. Next I will immerse myself in a protective bubble of white noise, something rhythmic and incessant on repeat then when that fails I will go for a run and then inevitably withdraw into banal stimulation and ultimately bed, blocking out the daylight.

Red Curtain, from Curtains Drawn in Daylight © Richard Ansett 2013 C-type 20x26"

The series 'Nothing Matters George' is the personification of the danger of embracing the hopelessness of existence, we find ourselves slipping into the swirling pit of existential loneliness which requires many times the energy to emerge from, if at all. The washing line stretches hopelessly across the frame like the crack in my psyche. 

From Nothing Matters George © Richard Ansett 2018 

We cannot find our way back without help.

The artist must dance along the edge of the pit to glimpse the treasure but we must have fallen at least once to appreciate the danger and in the presence of George I see myself in extremis.

"Do not fly too low nor too high, so the sea's dampness would not clog your wings nor the sun's heat melt them." - Daedalus

The artist feels they are communicating a clear message in their chosen medium and it is deeply frustrating and confusing when that message is missed, rejected or misunderstood even in a successful work. It is a cruelty in the expectation of visual artists to explain our work in anything other than the medium we feel comfortable in and inevitably we very often fail at it; I am embarrassed by the artist interview, the clumsy self-justifications and faux-humility to satisfy normative expectations in the hope of success outside of the enormous value the work is to ourselves.

I feel it is true of me and therefore inevitably of others that a sense of failure in communicating conventionally has driven us into the arms of other mediums and this ironically is the very catalyst for 'the hand print in the cave'.

Thursday 26 November 2020

In The Room

Ruan and Catalina, Tavistock Block, Aylesbury Estate, London  (from Behind The Brutal Facade) © Richard Ansett 2020

This image is of Ruan with his mother Catalina in the Taplow block of the Aylesbury Estate overlooking the notorious Wendover Tower for my latest series Beyond The Brutal Facade capturing the lives of the last tenants of the estate once labelled the most notorious in Britain.

There are many examples in art history of this trope "in which a figure stares out from an otherwise self-contained canvas drawing the viewer in".* 'Freedom From Want' captures Norman Rockwell's neighbour in the bottom right of the composition cheekily breaking the spell of the otherwise perfectly observed and terrifyingly heteronormative scene.

Free From Want - Norman Rockwell, 1943

Botticelli's conceit in inserting himself amongst the most important citizens of Florence in the Adoration of the Magi still has the desired effect of bringing a radical shift in perception literally and metaphorically whilst drawing us in to join the crowd to witness this monumental moment of history.

Adoration of the Magi, Sandro Botticelli 1476

It creates a fascinating jolt to the psyche, often this device is explained away as more of an invitation to the viewer to cross the divide and enter into the work but its a two way street. The subject is equally joining us in our reality across the void of time and space. Its unsettling but further the use of this tactic has another profound affect on me. It is an interruption in the trusted narrative the artist has worked so hard to weave; to break the spell we are creating. It invites us to question the reality that is so convincingly on display and therefore challenges the security of our worldview . It is a device that stimulates open and existential questions about the nature of our reality beyond the everyday human experience.

One of my techniques in my relationship with a sitter is to ask them to look into the lens and 'connect' to an otherwise unknown future audience and attempt to communicate silently the message they might wish to deliver. This image however is a wonderful synergy of accident and design, a rare defining moment of a spontaneous glance when I had begun to think the defining moment was dead.

*ArtnetNews - Katie White 11.26.2020 - Here are 3 things you might not know about 'Freedom From Want.'