joint exhibition of new* work by automatist ROBERT RACE and reclaimed-wood sculptor VICTOR STUART GRAHAM
March 13th-27th
* with small retrospective element

Leaflet with PV and Open Morning details

To “The First” Gallery’s regulars, ROBERT RACE hardly needs an introduction: one of just a trio of living artists to have had more than two solo shows here, he has been associated with us for almost 20 years. He started on a multi-track career path, making his own adaptations of traditional toys, and running his own self-built carousel at community events, alongside a day-job teaching science. This background, together with his fascination with primitive working toys from other cultures, informed the development of his mechanisms for later automata. Leaving teaching in the 90s, he leapt to prominence as an early adopter of driftwood as a medium, an idea that seemed to have found its time. For a while it became his unofficial trademark. Many imitators later, RR is using less driftwood and more reclaimed material in his newer work, although the former is still well in evidence. Unusally, he is equally at home making at an intimate level or on a scale too grand to exhibit at “The First”. (That said, see his "Star Turn" which is 2m high. You have to see this for real, to witness the full effect).

In 2005, he was appointed Co-ordinator of the UK contingent of automatists exhibiting at the Karakuri Expo in Japan (a nationally broadcast event over there). He is now one of the most sought-after automatists in the UK.

VICTOR STUART GRAHAM, while not an automatist, regularly co-exhibits. The affinity with them is unstated and hard to fathom: however, the use of reclaimed materials, the obsession with the sea, his enthusiastic embrace of the eccentric, and his visual / verbal wit, all find a natural home alongside the outlook and creative concerns of many automatists. The bulk of VSG's motifs have maritime connections: yachts, shipping, coastal housing, harbour walls, cliffs, stemming from his native East Sussex coast, where he still lives. Paradoxically, given his residing in a seaport, and in the light of his subject matter, he probably uses less driftwood than Robert Race, who has to make a serious journey to collect his. Reclamation centres and car-boot sales are VSG's equally happy hunting-grounds for materials. Recent creative forays have involved dioramic boxes: scenes built inside old wooden drawers, or new wooden boxes, with elements of the tableaux that one arranges oneself, to taste. His newest line is a small pull-along ark on wheels, populated with tenny-weeny laser-cut wood animals.

He has had many phases. Trained first in Graphic Desgn, then an MA in textiles at the Royal College of Art, his earliest commercial output was needlepoint images of house-fronts, commissioned by their owners. By his own admission, these pieces were so over-engineered that he couldn’t make them pay. Later, and more profitably, he developed a range of ties, along similar lines. After lecturing (in knitting) part-time and a period in youth work, he spent three summers as a seaside railings painter, a job that was a major influence, due to the way views of the sea are framed by each pair of railing-uprights. Ten years of teaching followed, until he cut loose to set up his own knitwear studio, and work as a freelance designer. VSG’s usually low-relief pieces are made from driftwood or reclaimed pieces (with occasional appearances of other materials). His particular skill is envisaging the potential shapes / colours of e.g. yacht-hulls, houses, in the uncut pieces. With typical sly wit, he calls it "releasing the wood's 'inner boat'"! He often incorporates existing worn, peeling or damaged paint-finishes, and holes or natural surface-markings. All the Beachy Head cliffs, for example, (see vsg-beachydio.jpg: "Still Moving" features two such) are part of a series using a large, flaking, white painted door, which he picked up last year. Some of the scenes he made using this were about 1.8m / 6' tall.

The yachts are usually free-standing, if sometimes set atilt, reminiscent of the 'lean' of tide-beached boats (vsg-2slfstndychts.jpg); those that won't stand are intended to lean against a vertical surface; all can hang on a picture-hook. Of especial appeal to VSG are offcuts showing a different colour each side, giving pieces made fom them the potential for two 'moods'. His duo-coloured hulls, much in evidence in his hinged "bendy" tankers, are something of a hallmark.

The long diorama shown here (vsg-beachydio.jpg) has a set of different-sized boats (one of them sits in front of the box) suggesting a vast perspective effect within a comparatively shallow field. Flags (as in Bon Voyage, illustrated here (vsg-bnvyge.jpg)) spell out messages in maritime code. Terraces of houses are often titled after the format of suburban addresses, with reference to the number of properties in the row, and the timber in which it's made (e.g. 5, Pine Row).

All this visual / verbal playfulness is typical of VSG's understated humour, an unforward manner reflective of the man himself.

His original, sophisticated work manages to exude charm without being twee: a difficult balancing act, the more so when involving seaside imagery. Rather like Paul Spooner (subject of "September Already?" in 2008), VSG seems to revel in the bizarre and seemingly art-irrelevant array of activities on his CV. (In fact, and in contrast to Spooner, most of his life-activities HAVE fed into his artistic output). He has been showing with us since only 2005.

AUTOMATA is the ‘art’-label for moveable sculptural figures, tableaux, or objects which are animated by some action from the viewer: turning a handle, pressing a lever, pushing a button, or (occasionally) flicking / tripping an electric switch. The motion is normally cyclical, and most UK makers exhibit a humorous, satirical and / or surreal slant. The heyday of the current revival was the mid-1990s, but dedicated collectors, and only three public / private UK collections, keep the discipline alive. The UK and Japan are its principal centres, although we know of makers on all continents except Africa (and even that exception may be due to our ignorance). With very few full-time practitioners, less than 250 makers are active worldwide.

VSG - Two self-standing yachts [on starboard side, red-hulled one is the same blue as the visible deck; front one stands leaning to port] - painted distressed wood / fabric - c.20cm high - £25 each

VSG - non-stand-up yachts, laid flat, showing natural broken wood texture of hull

VSG - Same 2 non-stand-up yachts, upright [blue-grey one is the yellow-hulled one in previous image] - painted distressed wood / fabric - c.20cm high - £25 - £30 tbc

VSG - very long Beachy Head diorama, with lighthouse and 3 placeable boats - reclaimed distressed / painted wood - c.75cm long - £250

VSG - "Bon Voyage", a sizeable 'liner'-style boat [a comment on the "block-of-flats"-type super-ferries that serve Newhaven Harbour! The flags spell out the message] - painted wood / metal tubing, fabric - 100cm high - £450

VSG - Fishermen's Terrace, lit flat-on - painted wood - c.30cm long - £36

VSG - Fishermen's Terrace, in raking light [to reveal subtle use of grain texture to depict brick-coursing, clearest on left-hand pair of houses; prominent pattern of brown house right of centre is effect of actual grain-figuring, not surface indentations]

VSG - Ark [earlier piece, c.mid-90s], to wall-hang - reclaimed / worked skirting- & floor-boards [keel – not visible in photo – created by 'tongue' of floorboard], copper nails [making portholes on hull; cabin portholes result from augur-type drill-mark just breaking existing varnished surface] - c.45cm long - £130

VSG - Sea-Wall Steps, one of a series using the grain-figuring of pine to depict sandbars and water [VSG expresses an especial liking for steps, to the left of the houses in this piece. NB the boat's bow is cut off at angle: this shot makes it look thicker-hulled than it really is] - painted distressed wood - c.40cm high - £60

VSG - Uphill Terrace, lit flat-on and in raking light [to reveal subtle 'pebbledash' effect in wood texture] - painted distressed wood - c.55cm long - £92

RR - Talking Birds - reclaimed / drift- wood, cord & stones - 60cm long - £295.
Click image for animation.

VSG - 'Leaning' diorama - reclaimed mahogany, painted wood house and placeable boat [a one-off, made from an angle-fronted bureau drawer] - 22cm high - £70

VSG - Green / Grey Gaff-Rigged Yacht - painted driftwood, dowel & cotton - 55cm high - £135

VSG - Lighthouse with yacht, low and high tide states - painted ash & reclaimed wood - 'water' slab c.25cm long - £55 each.

RR - Star Turn - yew - c.200cm high - £1875.
Click image for animation.

RR - Skeleton Crew - reclaimed / drift- wood - 45cm wide - £295.
Click image for animation.

RR - two Moon Priests - reclaimed / drift- wood & shell - 23cm / 29cm high - £165 / £195
Click image for animation.

RR - A History of Aviation: The Age of Driftwood - driftwood & reclaimed metal - 56cm high - £280

RR - The Bird and the Bee [weight-driven] - reclaimed / drift- wood & metal fittings - 43cm high - £212.50
(2 x clockwork ones "B Annoying" also available @ £90 each)

  1. Piece at rest, with bee hanging loose from wire loop attached to bird's head;
  2. When clockwork is released, bird rotates, the bee swinging ahead of it; bee wraps itself round the first post, like an irritating fly — bird's motion is stopped by this;
  3. Once fully wrapped, bee unwinds until its grip on the post is outweighed by the power of the motor...
  4. ... which allows the bird to rotate round to the other post, where the process starts again.

From fully wound, the sequence can run for 15 mins.

RR - Muttering Bird (none in the show, but some are available @ £67.50 - £75)

VSG - Night-time harbour diorama: liner plus 6 placeable boats [one only just visible: same colour as harbour wall, behind liner]; designed to hang or stand, but liner can't be fitted into box, so hanging configuration needs flat surface visibly close - reclaimed distressed / painted wood - c.45cm long - £185

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