Sussex ArtBeat

Art on show in Brighton and Hove & East and West Sussex

Art Exhibition Review: WhaleFest at ONCA, Brighton

07/03/14 Review and photographs by Scarlett Pares Landells.

ONCA scarlettONCA (One Network for Conservation and the Arts) and Darren Rees have teamed up to present a marine-inspired exhibition in support of Whalefest, an event which raises funds for the World Cetacean Alliance. The WCA campaigns for the conservation and welfare of sea creatures such as the endangered Maui’s dolphin in New Zealand. Whalefest is the world’s largest festival about whales, dolphins and marine life and will take place at Brighton Hilton on 14th-16th March.

Guest curator Darren Rees is a painter, naturalist, wildlife guide and traveller. This exhibition at the ONCA gallery was a labour of love for Rees, who collected most of the all-British works of art himself from all over the country, and contributed a number of his own pieces. From a life-size Bottlenose dolphin (Kendra Haste, wall relief) to Stuart Kuhn’s prints made with seawater, the presentation is neat and simple, letting the sea come to life through the art.

ONCA scarlett2‘Bubble-netting Humpbacks’ by Darren Rees is a real highlight. In it, the cavernous open jaws of a Humpback whale breach the surface of the water, creating a foam of bubbles and upsetting a flock of seagulls, who flap round it expectantly. Bubble-netting is a technique used by whales to round up shoals of small fish. A group of whales will swim round the fish, blowing bubbles while making smaller and smaller circles, causing the shoal to swim tighter together and making them easier to feed off. Using oil on canvas, Rees has created a masterful study of darkness and light; the dim underwater world meets the open air and the daylight. The whale, a gargantuan creature from the darkest depths, meets the glittering brilliance of the ocean’s surface, and the birds of the sky, which glow white in the sunshine. In the middle-ground of the painting is the whale, painted in moody grey and silver, while the gulls and gushing water in the foreground are illuminated in white and light blue, adding depth to the composition. The angle of the perspective gives it the essence of being a still image from a wildlife documentary and has a really compelling effect.

Interestingly, a number of Rees’s other paintings including ‘Big Blue Dolphins’ have a much more impressionist style. In these other painting the focus is much more on colours, especially blue and silver, for creating an overall marine effect rather than capturing a moment.

Quanuq Palluq’s ‘Walrus and Seals’ is a fascinating piece. Carved from a piece of whale vertebra by an Inuit artist, it features a perfectly symmetrical composition of reclining walruses and seals, with the artist’s own face on the back. The unique texture of the whale bone adds a delightful twist, inviting closer inspection and enhancing the 360-degree viewing experience.

It seems that there is a theme underpinning the exhibition which echoes Rees’s naturalist attitude. There are a number of small sketchbook-style pieces such as Bruce Pearson’s two watercolour and pencil works (‘Killer Whales’ and ‘Breaching Humpbacks’), with quick brushstrokes and pencil annotations, which are reminiscent of pages from an early 20th century explorer’s diary. This gives them a timeless quality and works well alongside other works in the collection made in more contemporary materials to give the exhibition an explorative range of styles. Although most of the featured art has been made within the last decade, the mixture of materials and influences gives the impression of a collection which has a much more far-reaching time frame, but with a conservation message which is modern. Bruce Pearson’s nod to polar explorers ties in to the topic of wildlife observation and documentation which I think is present throughout the gallery, and represents both the association with Whalefest and Rees’s own vocation.

Overall the exhibition successfully celebrates everything that is beautiful about the sea, from the elegant gleaming shapes of leaping dolphins to the intricate details of tiny underwater creatures (Anita Bruce, ‘Knitted Plankton Series’). Its aesthetic value is intelligently balanced with a message of conservation and naturalism, achieved very effectively considering the confines of a small but determined gallery space.

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