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Joanna Braithwaite: Out of the Blue (2021)

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All Ages

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Milford Galleries

There is a sense of purpose to the passing raucous parade of creatures and grotesques in Joanna Braithwaite’s Out of the Blue. In works that straddle the line between the real and surreal, birds and fish form their own marching bands, their bills and noses contorted into a preposterous horn section, an army striding on to destiny.

The works are an extension of the artist’s previous forays into surreal anthropomorphism, and were inspired by the fish specimen charts which were once ubiquitous in fish and chip shops, and also by a pre-lockdown visit to the Galapagos Islands, where the artist observed a riotous multitude of species living alongside each other. The result is a series of works where the focus is less on the individual and more on the collective.

There are three groups of works, one focusing on pairs of creatures, another featuring individuals, and the third displaying bright processions of a multitude of individuals and species.

The paired works are perhaps closest to Braithwaite’s earlier images, and wryly comment on social interaction. Fish wearing bird masks converse with birds wearing fish masks, allegorically pointing out the roles and characters we assume while meeting and greeting other people. In today’s pandemic-ridden world these psychological masks are further compounded by physical face coverings, masking many of our facial tics and expressions. Does anyone know our true personalities — do we even know them ourselves?

The individual works and the group images are closely related to each other. We see individual handsome chimerae in semi-formal poses, birds with fish heads presented bright against the blue skies of summer. The same brightness and light pervades the group paintings, and is in stark contrast to the dark backgrounds and Rembrandtesque side-lighting usually associated with Braithwaite’s art. In the group works, the artist returns to an idea she has used previously, the similar anatomical shapes of birds and wind musical instruments, and here has taken the logical step of combining the two forms. The works could almost be seen as sections of the same parade, different snapshots in time as the spectacle passes by.

And a vibrant spectacle it is, as the procession marches on to its destiny… but is it to a bright future or extinction? The artist gives few clues. The term "herd mentality" has been much in vogue lately, particularly being bandied around by both sides of the debate on covid vaccination, and it is only too clear that any form of progress can lead to a better or to a worse place. The Brueghelesque characters in this passing mob are all happily playing follow-the-leader, but where is that pied piper heading?

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