Poetry all art is one of universal worships a l’insu of god the unknown. Dom Sylvester Houédard

In an interview with Ian MacMillan in 2006, the poet Geoffrey Hill spoke about “the impossibility of a pure praise poem”.1 Hill’s bold assertion forms the basis of enquiry for this exhibition, which brings together work by the late Benedictine priest, theologian and Concrete poet Dom Sylvester Houédard (aka dsh), with work by three contemporary artists: Aliki Braine, Mark Dean and Anna Sikorska. The exhibition explores, in various media, whether the creative act and its product can ever comprise ‘pure praise’, or whether the incidence of a ‘pure praise poem’ (or equally of a pure praise photograph, painting, video or sculpture) is unattainable.

A number of intriguing symmetries occur within the exhibition, not least the fact that it includes work made by two ordained priests (dsh and Dean). dsh understood his visual poems and ‘typestracts’ as “icons depicting sacred questions,”2 and Dean’s video works, which have been described by David Curtis as “votive offerings,”3 also function in the interrogative mode. In each case, there is a tacit acceptance that answers will not be forthcoming. For dsh, questions are met with mysteries, “to which the appropriate response can never be an ‘answer’ but has to be a growth of awareness and awe – gratitude, depth and pleasure.”4 This attitude of praise defines the creative act, but cannot necessarily be conveyed to the viewer who joins with the artist in constructing the meaning of the work.

Dean’s work relies heavily upon the appropriation of, often iconic, film and video footage and music. It introduces visual and aural puns that behave as the generators and interrogators of meaning within the work, setting up a series of disputations between the different elements being sampled. Although the work is always carefully constructed, the reverberations and analogies created by placing potent symbols side by side are myriad. The screen becomes a crucible in which layers of meaning are compounded, burnt and refined.

Symmetries also exist between Braine’s photographs and dsh’s typestracts in the extent to which both artists seek to release their content from the dictatorial and paternalistic constraints of language and symbolism. Indeed, Braine’s work could be described as ‘Concrete photography’ in its attempt to allow the physical photograph to become part of the work, rather than simply the medium through which an image is captured. Braine has responded to the exhibition title by producing a series of black and white ‘Pure Praise Photographs’, made using non exposed-colour 120 film, with varying sized holes punched into them. This deliberate rupturing of the surface of the negative is one of several tactics (including hole-punching, pricking, drawing, sticking and blocking) that she uses in order to draw attention to the photograph as an object. The resulting ‘polka dot’ images offer playful allusions to Kusama and Hirst, as well as to the Zen circles that appear in dsh’s work. If there is a creative act of praise going on here, then its object is the materiality of the photograph.

Sikorska’s work also resists hierarchies in its glorification of the physicality of mundane objects. A laundry basket is inverted and cast in lead to form a ‘Colosseum’, whilst a wooden drying rack is transformed into a shimmering and playful structure that almost, but not quite, belies its humble origins. Like Dean, Sikorska employs visual puns that extend the meaning of her work, but the question lingers as to whether her creative action frees it from the contamination of its’ base associations. In ‘Colosseum’ she has created a comic micro-monument that questions our praise and elevation of monuments of human conceit.

[1] Interview broadcast as part of the programme ‘The Verb’, BBC Radio 3, Saturday 14 January 2006, 22:00-22:45
[2] First published in ‘Art Without Boundaries: 1950-70’, Gerald Woods, Philip Thompson and John Williams (eds), Thames and Hudson, London, 1972
[3] David Curtis, ‘A History of Artist’s Film and Video in Britain’, 1897-2004, BFI Publishing, 2007
[4] First published in ‘Art Without Boundaries: 1950-70’, Gerald Woods, Philip Thompson and John Williams (eds), Thames and Hudson, London, 1972

Dom Sylvester Houédard was, along with Ian Hamilton Finlay, one of the two principle founders of the Concrete Poetry movement in Britain. He began experimenting with ‘typestracts’ in the 1940s, and developed a highly distinctive style of typewritten visual poetry, using coloured typewriter ribbons and carbon papers. When Concrete Poetry emerged as an international movement in the early 1960s, he became – through his legendary letter writing–one of its most active participants, advocates and theorists. In 1971 was given a solo show at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. Houédard wrote extensively on new approaches to art, spirituality and philosophy as well as collaborating with artists including Gustav Metzger and Yoko Ono, and the composer John Cage.

Aliki Braine studied for her BFA in Fine Art at Ruskin School, Oxford University followed by an MA at The Slade School of Fine Art. She then went to the Courtauld Institute to do an MA in the History of Art. This grounding in both the practice and theory of art is combined in her work as she draws upon the recurrent themes of the historical painted landscape. Recent solo exhibitions include ‘Wilful Damage’, Galerie Raum Mit Licht, Vienna, Austria (2011), ‘Black Out / White Out’, Fruela Gallery, Madrid (2007), ‘Dessine moi un arbre…’, Jerwood Space, London (2006). Her work is included in this exhibition courtesy of Troika Editions.

Mark Dean has been exhibiting video and sound works in the UK and internationally since 1992, when he began working with appropriated film and music. Solo exhibitions include City Racing (1996), The Imperial War Museum (1999), Laurent Delaye Gallery (1999, 2000, 2002), Casa de las Conchas, Salamanca (2000), Ikon Gallery (2001), Volker Diehl Gallery (Berlin) 2002, Sketch (2004), Beaconsfield (2005, 2010, 2011), Matthew Brown Gallery (2007). The ‘religious’ aspect of Dean’s work has become more explicit since he was ordained in the Church of England, in 2009. He is interested in the historical and potential relation of art and religion, and in 2013 he was appointed as a chaplain to the University of the Arts London. However, he remains clear that there is no easy relation between contemporary art and religious faith, not least because there is no shared language with which to discuss it; this is the context in which he makes use of appropriation techniques.

Anna Sikorska studied at the Slade School of Fine Art (2004 – 8), incorporating study at Bezalel Academy, Jerusalem and Heythrop College, London, before gaining an MA in Sculpture from the Royal College of Art (2010). Recent exhibitions include ‘Change of Heart’, Leicester University Botanical Garden (2013), ‘Tabu Registration’, exhibition and journal publication, Tel Aviv (2013), ‘I Heart 3D’ at Christies, London (2012), ‘The King and the Minotaur’, Wignall and Moore, London (2011), ‘Museums at Night’, PumpHouse Gallery, London (2010), ‘Rapidform’, V&A Museum (2010) and ‘Exchange and Harbour’ solo show at the Corn Exchange Gallery, Edinburgh (2009).