The Graphic Rise of British Modernism
By Robert Urquhart


All life in England now is here. Wrapped in boxes. Ticked after being negotiated around a table. Subtle, crisp, empty and locked in limbo.

There is more than a slightly menacing air to these photographs of England, for they scream, to me, of the state we’re in. I say England rather than the UK because these houses, garden sheds, kitchen tables and politicians are all subtle pointers to a singular country rather than a united pact of nations.  It takes a keen eye to spot, but you need not be a sociologist to enjoy, for this book is a simple, brilliantly executed, thoughtful conversation starter about contemporary England.

There are four undefined, but clear, chapters: houses, garden sheds, kitchen tables and politicians. To unpack the relevance of these let’s look at each from a micro and macro perspective – they remind me of the 1977 Eames film, Powers of Ten, that zooms from finite to infinite.

It has long been said that an Englishman’s home is his castle. This is often to denote the importance of independent power and autonomy. However, if we look at it within the current political climate, we see another angle, that of isolation, attack and defence. From an architectural perspective, these are ordinary homes, unremarkable, conspicuous only by their vast numbers, populating the suburbs of London. They range from the Victorian, through the Edwardian and into the 1930s and are the homes of a middle class which thinks it has a voice, but actually has none. 

The garden shed has long been popular in English ­­culture as a place where amateur innovation happens. A place for ‘tinkering’ with technology, a refuge for the male of the house from his wife and children, or a den for drinking illicit supplies of homemade wine and beer and looking at pornography.

The contemporary description of this is ‘man-cave’, but that is really far too grand a title for the humble garden shed, without which no Englishman’s castle is complete.

The kitchen table. Aside from his shed, for the suburban Englishman this is the centre of home life, at the head of the table. More than a place to eat, this is the place where discussions, negotiations and business happen. This is the desktop that Steve Jobs didn’t have in mind.

The kitchen table may have taken over from the shed when it comes to tinkering with innovation; small business empires are set up and run from around its cheap wooden frame. But here, the tables are empty. No one sits here. No one is working. There is no meal on the table. These are blank canvases.

And then we come to the politicians. We see life, or do we? Here they are, leaving the types of houses we see in the first element of the book. These are classic doorstop paparazzi shots that readers of newspapers in the UK will be familiar with. These photographs tend to be a prelude to an urgent issue of some kind or other. We still take the liberty of our politicians seriously, unless they do something completely idiotic, which is often.

On the other hand, on occasion, a politician may invite photographers to their door, perhaps to show their caring homely family-man side, to prove that they exist beyond the fudge of state.

The faces here are our former Prime Minister David Cameron, our current Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Prime Minister that never was, Michael Gove. The all-Conservative ‘tory-de-force’ is sabotaged here by a picture of Nigel Farage. The then-leader of the UK Independence Party – UKIP – that has shaped politics, without portfolio. Farage was involved in a light airplane crash on the day of the 2010 general election; he staggered away unscathed, as ever. Now we see the inside of a standard family car, full of the detritus of everyday life. Or perhaps it is a crime scene?

Perhaps, these are all crime scenes? I read a book with no words and yet conjured this narrative. Talking to Jonathan Ellery, the only time he interjected was to explain that the inside of the family car was Boris Johnson’s. Quite possibly a crime scene then.

We find a set of large-scale stickers interleafed within the book. We are inside a macabre comic book world where campaign colours are expected to be posted and worn.

Stuck.

The absurdity continues at comic book pace with shiny foil with the expletive demands of ‘Intrinsic Extrinsic’ and ‘Martial Art’. We then go down an Alice in Wonderland rabbit hole with the questioning ‘And Maybe You Are’, with rabbits bounding. We end with the quasi-religious undertones of ‘Formulaic Mass’ and ‘A Swim Beyond’. Where to stick them?

And the title. We are witness to a sharp break from the past with a thematic, formal and stylistic tone, here being set by Ellery, to reveal the fetishistic nature of English everyday life.  Britain’s civilised war is afoot here, wrapped in boxes and ready to go. Are we contained within defined borders? In many ways, we always have been.

The ‘negotiating around a table’ days are fast disappearing; the family has moved away. Yet we remain, subtle, crisp, empty and locked in limbo, atop our castles, lurking in sheds and around our kitchen table, while planes crash and crime scenes go undetected.


A Pursuit of Truth
By Lydia Fulton

The pursuit of truth is important to British artist Jonathan Ellery. 

Through the cadence of his art practice Ellery challenges the constructs of society, deftly seeking out the tensions surrounding uncomfortable realities whilst navigating the audience through a multifarious terrain to seduce a sincere discourse.

There is an alchemy of materials at use in Ellery’s work, a purposeful randomness which he delights in, together with a confidence to resist from settling upon any one medium. Sometimes he creates stand-alone sculptures: monumental brass works are dramatically side-lit then suspended, as though floating in space; other smaller works are cast directly into the floor of public places or meticulously spread out inside spotless cabinets. There are charcoal drawings, collectible objects, tape assemblages, live performance works, textiles, fanzines and special edition books. He astutely folds together techniques to construct what may at first glance seem to be straightforward statements, but soon transform into something far more complex.

In contrast to the fluidity of materials, there is a consistent development of thinking anchoring his work which can be traced from the 2005 piece 136 Points of Reference. Its inaugural manifestation was in tactile book form, followed by a show in New York City, the content for both composed of a seemingly fluid stream of thought: an edit of accumulated items from the artist’s collected memorabilia, communicating his artistic and personal sensibilities. The seed for narrative-based works was sown, and the sequential book form assumed the perfect conduit. 

In the ten years since, his work has gained momentum, producing twelve solo publications and exhibiting five shows. For Ellery, there is a delight in the sculptural objectivity of the book and the tendency to work in this form is a purposeful one. The books are accessible, akin to a catalogue, poster and billboard, as a means of directly communicating outside the cloistered realm of the museum. The narratives inside often take on a tide-like formation, spiking to an intensely fertile peak that inhabits an almost impossible space. In Constance, the intimate tale unfolds through live performance, setting the exploration of women, power and sexuality to the tempo of rock’n’roll drums. The middle crescendo is a deafening silence, coupled with the stillness of a nude: a perfectly placed shock of reality in the centre of the work.

The arrangement of formations is of continual concern to Ellery and has become a defining part of his practice. The flow of an early book, In and Out, charted the trajectory of a tiny circle transforming into a square, through a multicoloured central explosion. In The Human Condition, the starkly lit tale of morality is laid bare within a cabinet, taking us from sentiment and love through to the darkness of erotica. The relation each sculptural object, in this case rings, holds to the next is crucial. The single object becomes part of a series, intensifying the curation of order. In another more recent series, Ellery continues this theme through the production of a boxed set of five meticulously crafted books. The consequence of sequence upon narrative, the context of one title to the next, is crucial: the unnerving deviancy of Sexual Predators curiously offset by the fragility of London Garden Birds. In fact Ellery frequently wades into shady territory through his art practice, tackling a mass of disarming issues with a delicate gesture, allowing challenging topics to slowly surface.

The camera’s objective eye creates the nuanced sequence in Tribes 1. Filled with snapshots which he has taken, or of which he is the subject, their meaning left deliberately wide open for the viewer to interpret. In shifting the onus to the audience the work becomes a functioning dialogue. This sense of freedom is continued with the clusters of drawings and tumultuous tape assemblages in A Bewildered Herd. Foreboding charcoal, stickers, and fragile tape sway then dart across the page, the modesty of the charcoal separated from the ambiguous duct tape by a centrefold of silver. The materials and techniques employed are humble, chosen as means to communicate his now trademark narrative in the most democratic way. In Mergers and Acquisitions the choice of medium, a traditional cotton Tenugui cloth, ubiquitous in Japanese society, was selected for the same effect. Fuelled by the tenebrous mayhem of politics, Ellery designed a series of seven Tenugui, coupling graphic elements to form patterns and awkward alliances that would never normally come together: Black Panthers with the Federal flag, the Catholics with the Nazis. 

This tender friction continues with Populism, Ellery’s latest book, which returns to a conceptual quality first seen in 87 (an early book that appropriated numbers as characters). This 850-page tome is akin in form to an old telephone directory, a stout white cube, puncturing the seductive yet banal Helvetica typeface with three exposed arseholes controversially gaping and voluptuous. The starkness of this coupling mirrors the subversive tensions apparent throughout all of his works: a sensibility aligned to the world around us. 

The tenor of his practice is akin to that of a composer, asserting a tempo and arrangement over the fragments of his surroundings. This enduring body of work explores our relationships, our fears, our families, our dark sides. The abstract use of form, numbers, colours and shapes belies the subversive messages of social concern in his art, in which the tug against social constraints and a pre-programmed existence are recurrent themes. The more time we spend submerged in these works, the more the truth unfolds, map-like, before us, simultaneous and immediate. It is a gritty, against all the odds sort of truth, with a fervent undercurrent, shifting the responsibility of artistic interpretation to the viewer. 

In the context of contemporary art, this territory is new, and deliberately so. Ellery’s works are a pursuit for truth and a force against mortality.

Jonathan Ellery lives above his studio in Bermondsey, London.