The Hills are Shadows – Review

Third year student Susanna Davis reviews current exhibition at the MAC

The Midlands Art Centre is currently exhibiting the results of an artistic collaboration between two Canadian artists, entitled, ‘The Hills Are Shadows’. When I visited, I was lucky enough meet Jim Holyoak and Matt Shane, the artists behind the exhibition, who were working as artists in residence at the time. Jim and Matt met at university at a life drawing class on the first day of term. Since meeting they have been in a band together, travelled together and have collaborated on artistic projects, with this exhibition being their 20th collaboration. As a result there is a deep-rooted bond of trust between them. 

When they lived together at university, Jim and Matt covered their basement in paper which they and their friends drew on. They later received a grant to exhibit the results of their experimentations. They described this first collaboration as a very free process and the experience was influential in forming the way that they work now. 

‘Forestrial Brain’ 

Jim and Matt explained that their preliminary planning involves lots of discussion. Through a number of sketches they arrive at a loose idea of what they are setting out to create. But their plans aren’t rigid and they allow the work to evolve. They respond to each other’s mark making in a collaborative process and the informality of their initial experimentation in their basement has extended to their current practice. 

When I met them, they were in the process of creating the last section of the exhibition which will fill the currently blank area of wall in the gallery. This drawing combines a shipwreck and a dinosaur in a hybrid form resembling a landscape. They were painting using ink and Chinese brushes which Jim has used since studying Chinese ink painting with artist Shen Ling Xiang. They used a spray bottle full of water to disperse the ink. The effect of this was to create pools of ink collecting in pockets on the surface of the paper resulting in an undulating surface.

Jim and Matt’s immersive work ‘Quagmire’

Drawing is very significant for both of them; for Matt it was a way of vicariously accessing faraway places as a child, and for Jim it has always been a significant way of communicating and telling stories: it has run through their artistic practice from the beginning. While they work collaboratively and respond to each other, these artists also have a particular interests in drawing different things. Matt takes the more architectural constructions, and Jim draws the animals and monsters in their artworks.

Close up of ‘Quagmire’

The inspiration for their artwork comes from a variety of places. Jim and Matt’s travels together, their many hikes, and their lively imaginations have been significant in forming the basis for their artworks. Literature has also been a significant source of inspiration and the title of the current exhibition, ‘The Hills are Shadows,’ is taken from a poem written by Lord Tennyson. 

The hills are shadows, and they flow

From form to form, and nothing stands;

They melt like mist, the solid lands, 

Like clouds they shape themselves and go. 

– Alfred Lord Tennyson, excerpt from ‘In Memoriam’ 

While I was walking around the exhibition, I felt that this excerpt captured the essence of exhibition – you will have to go and visit to see what I mean! The beautiful drawings made me think of all the fantasy books I had read as a child. The works are deeply immersive, and walking around the gallery I felt like I was about to walk into a story or fall into the scene of a mystical land.

Close up of ‘Quagmire’

When standing far away from one of Jim and Matt’s artworks, you may think that you can see what the image represents. For example, the basis of ‘Quagmire’ is an image of sperm whale, from a photo taken by a friend. When standing back it’s easy to make this out, but as you get closer to the work, it changes. It becomes something else and the surface shifts. In ‘Quagmire’ the surface of the whale is multi textural and it becomes possible to make out mountains, surrounded and interspersed by collections of buildings. Jim and Matt describe this effect to be much like our world: we may believe we have understood a concept – but the more we learn, the more it shifts and changes and can often become something else ‘The Hills Are Shadows’ is a fascinating exhibition. It is on until the 24th November – don’t miss out!

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