Richard Slee: "Sunlit Uplands"
Opening Reception: Saturday 21 January, 2 - 4pm
"We can see no detail, we can see nothing definable and it is, I know, simply the sanguine necessity of our minds that makes us believe those uplands of the future are still more gracious and splendid than we can either hope or imagine."
The Discovery of the Future, H.G. Wells 1902
Hales is delighted to announce "Sunlit Uplands," the gallery's fourth solo exhibition with Richard Slee. In an epic installation of a new series, Slee has created a meticulously crafted ceramic archipelago.
Slee (b. 1946 Cumbria, UK) is one of Britain's most influential and celebrated artists working with clay. In an oeuvre spanning five decades, Slee's work challenges conventional notions in ceramic art with technical precision and outstanding craftsmanship. In explorations of the domestic, play and culture, he draws upon an extensive knowledge of ceramic history and traditions. Slee studied at the Central School of Art & Design (1965-1970) and received an MA at the Royal College of Art in 1988. In 2001 he was awarded the Jerwood Applied Arts Prize for his contribution to contemporary ceramics. Slee has had major solo exhibitions at Tate St Ives and the Victoria and Albert Museum. His most recent solo exhibition, Richard Slee: Mantlepiece Observations opened in 2021 at Bolton Museum, UK and toured to Hove Museum and Art Gallery, UK.
In this large-scale project, Slee intricately explores the phrase "sunlit uplands" as a concept for an imagined landscape. The quote has been used as political ideology, as an assurance for better days to come. Churchill first borrowed the expression from H.G. Wells' The Discovery of the Future for his 'This was their finest hour' speech delivered to the House of Commons on 18 June 1940, stating that if "If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be freed and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands." More recently the phrase has been linked to the promises of Brexit, with politicians leaning on this rallying rhetoric. Andrea Leadsom referred to "sunlit uplands" in her unsuccessful leadership race to become Prime Minister in 2016 and was used again in 2019 by Jacob Rees Mogg: "as the Bill would have become an Act, we would have left (the EU) on 31 October, and we would have gone on to the broad, sunlit uplands that await us. Even as we enter November, there will be broad, sunlit uplands."
Slee states: 'As we have been promised a future of endless sunshine-style implausibilities, it is our Brexit obligation to imagine these.' The artist interprets the "sunlit uplands" quotation as a chain of ceramic islands - the fragments of utopian sunlit uplands are here with clear skies and everlasting arcadian suns. Slee manipulates heraldic imagery of lions and unicorns as reoccurring characters traversing cake-like worlds. High gloss glaze, bright colours and rocaille entice the viewer. Compact fields sprinkled with trees and wheat sheafs conjure Blakean imagery of pleasant lands, but not all is as it seems - this terrain is patterned with false perspectives.
"Sunlit Uplands" marks a return to landscape for Slee, expanding on works made in the mid-1990s, in which he made domains for the figurines from his daughter's carboot sale collection. The exemplary Landscape with Hippo (1997) is in the Victoria and Albert Museum collection. This body of work is less sentimental, providing a piercing yet witty commentary on current times. Slee directly draws upon the idea of the wordless graphic novel, notably made popular by Flemish artist Frans Masreel, with each fantastical idyll holding potential narrative open to interpretation. In the repetition and variation of scenes, there is the influence of American newspaper comic strip Krazy Kat, with its ever-changing landscape backgrounds. The viewer's journey through this land is reminiscent of Gulliver's Travels, which can be seen in the direct nod to the novel with Lilliputian eggs and the satirical nature of the work. There is a magic to Slee's expansive landscape - evoking wonder, delight and laughter before raising pertinent questions about our reality.