Saturday, February 03, 2024

Cloud tracks and tide-ripples


Last weekend I went to Cambridge to see the Kettle's Yard exhibition Making New Worlds: Li Yuan-chia and Friends. Laura Cumming wrote in her review last November 'I can hardly think of a more uplifting show for the dying days of autumn' and I felt the same way on a cold day in January. 'Everything about it,' she goes on to say, is bright, beautiful, hopeful and as amiable as the subtitle suggests. For the Chinese artist Li Yuan-chia (1929-94) had many friends, and attracted so many more to his extraordinary “museum” in Cumbria in the 1970s that over 300 artists eventually came to work in Banks, a remote village beside Hadrian’s Wall. This show is filled with their spirit.' There's a lot to say about Li Yuan-chia and his gallery space YLC, so if you're not familiar with it I'd recommend reading that review or an article Nicholas Wroe wrote for The Guardian, '"There’s a story of racialised exclusion": the forgotten Chinese artist who transformed Cumbria'.

Li himself wasn't primarily a landscape artist, although there are abstract ink drawings he made before arriving in England that could be imagined as referencing the shapes of roads, fence posts, waves or tree forms. However, deciding to live in Cumbria and establishing the YLC in 'a landscape of farmland, fells and forestry, of uncultivated moors and unpredictable mires' (Ysanne Holt) unsurprisingly brought him into contact with artists working locally with natural materials like David Nash and Andy Goldsworthy. And some of his work did draw on the history of these borderlands - there is a photograph of him in the LYC in front of an artwork based on a map of Hadrian's Wall that resembles the gallery works made by contemporary land artists. A catalogue essay by Elizabeth Fisher compares his decision to work away from urban art centres to Kurt Schwitters in his Merz Barn and Ian Hamilton Finlay creating Little Sparta.

Li Yuan-chia's friends and associates included people I have referred to here before, like Winifred Nicholson, Frances Horovitz, Delia Derbyshire and Elsa Stansfield. The exhibition also includes Nash and Goldsworthy, Naum Gabo, Ian Hamilton Finlay (The Land's Shadows) and a Cumbrian artist I hadn't encountered previously, Donald Wilkinson (an etching/aquatint of The Greta Joining the Tees/Winter). They are among the long list of LYC Museum artists on the Li Yuan-chia Foundation website. There were also several examples of concrete poetry by Dom Sylvester Hou├ędard (dsh), including SANDROCKTIDE, shown in my photograph below. The correspondence between dsh and Li is referred to in Amy Tobin's interesting essay 'Friendship as Method' and I'll end with a nice quote from this. 'dsh said his work was akin to 'dual-space probes of inner & outer' that should be read like 'cloud tracks and tide-ripples, lichen patterns and gull flights, or simply as horizons or spirit levels.''