Based in St Ives but raised in Devon and the Bahamas, contemporary artist Simon Bayliss’ newest exhibition fits perfectly with the Exeter Phoenix, our city’s thriving cultural arts centre. Often exploring the conflicting feelings of respect and irreverence in a place steeped with proud artistic and cultural history, Bayliss’ relationship with the Cornish landscape features strongly in his work. This latest exhibition kicks off an exciting year for Bayliss, who will lead a further solo exhibition at Plymouth College of Art in October 2018 as part of the South West Showcase, which aims to uncover and celebrate the talent of contemporary artists working and living in the South West.
Bayliss’ ‘Kangaroo Beach’ consists of a body of works, spanning video, ceramics and poetry. Split into three rooms, each displaying differing mediums, the exhibition aims to “tease out ideas on intersections between the local and the international; traditional crafts and contemporary practice; and queer culture and rural identity”. Bayliss is inspired by poet and essayist Mary Reufle’s work of the same name, focusing upon sincerity and irreverence. According to Reufle, “there really is a beach in Western Australia where kangaroos swim in the sea and sunbathe afterward”. This idea, with its wide varying connotations, is reflected throughout this temporary exhibition.
A hard to miss artwork to launch the exhibition in the first room, Bayliss’ first piece – the 2017 video ‘Kangaroo Beach’ – invites the viewer to sit down to watch and listen to the work via the headphones provided. Featuring a disconcerting collection of appropriated footage of muscular buck kangaroos in varying settings, it is suggestive of an uncanny sense of ‘the other’, whilst also reflecting ideas around macho surf culture and body-building. Exploring issues prevalent in today’s hyper digitalized world, where the self can be represented through the distortions of intense editing, this sense of confusion between natural versus artificial is made all the more distorted through the way the work is edited and set to Bayliss’ own dance music composition. Music that is arguably more suited to a Friday night TP – not something I thought I’d ever experience in a gallery – yet, the work completely demands your attention as it offers a perspective in which the viewer is completely immersed by the experience of a conflicting world of reality and imagination, which all in all becomes oddly captivating.
Moving away from Bayliss’ first work, you’re then met by his series of ‘Fifty Slipware Plates (coming out as a potter)’, situated next to the Phoenix’s reception. Inspired by the history of studio pottery in St Ives, which developed in parallel with British Modernism in the first half of the 20th century and the legacies of potter’s Michael Cardew and Bernard Leach (who is often regarded as the ‘father of British Studio Pottery’), the plates created by Bayliss at the end of 2017 portray his close relationship with the Cornish landscape and juxtapose it alongside erotically-charged imagery. This plays on his whole concept of rural identity and queer culture. An eclectic mix of colour and bold clashing pattern, they discuss and provoke questions of identity, physical image and desire.
Alongside this, is a collection of large suspended text paintings illuminated in the gallery space by ultraviolet light. Selected from an ongoing series with the help of poet, artist and curator Ella Frears, the work draws back to ideas of masculinity and the narrative surrounding it, emphasizing Bayliss’ interest in the topic of rural queer identity. The poems, inspired by Japanese forms of Haiku and Senryu, visibly demonstrate an embrace of traditional elements of form with both a fresh and refreshing modern edge. The work tackles the issues involved in contemporary art practice in a consistently engaging manner, as the only way to experience it is to become part of the work.
Displayed alongside the exhibition in nearby installation space Gallery333 too, is Bayliss’ slightly older 2015 neon work ‘Past-Oral’. Inspired by the recurring motif Arcadia within queer film, literature and painting, “as a pastoral utopia away from public scrutiny”, the work exposes Bayliss’ conflicting feelings on the meaning of romanticism in rural environments. Like Bayliss’ ‘Kangaroo Beach’ exhibition, my photographs of the show certainly don’t do it justice. Like most works of art, you really need to see the work in person to grasp your own meaning.
As a contemporary art skeptic myself not too long ago, and an Art History student, I’ve seen my fair share of questionable ‘art’, but I urge you to make it down to the Phoenix for this free exhibition before it closes on February 18th. If you’re after something a little different or are simply in need of an injection of bright colour during a cold, wet and dull February afternoon, I highly recommend ‘Kangaroo Beach’.
– Emily Stearn
Featured image source: http://www.exeterphoenix.org.uk/events/simon-bayliss-kangaroo-beach/