BY Alex Farquharson in Reviews | 09 SEP 99
Featured in
Issue 48

Bethan Huws

BY Alex Farquharson in Reviews | 09 SEP 99

ith the exception of a beautiful performance event organised by Artangel ('A Concert for the Sea', 1993), and a hybrid solo/group show with the artist-run agency Bank, Bethan Huws has all but slipped from view in Britain since her move to Paris in 1991. All the while she has shown steadily on the continent, during which time she has consistently made watercolours and drawings on paper, a practice that may come as a surprise to those familiar with the artist's site-specific works. After being shown in Germany and Switzerland, this selection of 120 works on paper returns to the original site of much of their imagery - Wales.

Many are of landscapes and small farming scenes drawn from her memory of North West Wales: her parents' farmhouse, sheep on a hill, fields, barns, fences, kissing gates. Irony-free, bucolic watercolours then, from an artist better known for difficult, almost imperceptible works that often proved to be weirdly voluminous - a tendency first indicated at her Royal College of Art graduate show (1988) where she presented her empty studio, having chiselled clean, inch-by-inch, the entire wooden floor. After a little time with these modest, mainly untitled works on paper (none of which are larger than 37 by 45 centimetres) their relationship to her installations and actions begins to cohere, and the slight, far-flung fragments of Huws' somewhat enigmatic practice meld into a poetic sense of sorts.

Many of the works have a single, small motif in the centre of the page surrounded by a large margin of blank paper, reminiscent of children's drawings before they are taught to articulate the entire surface. Executed in pale, barely pigmented brushstrokes, there is the sense that they are about to evaporate off the agoraphobic white page.

Huws' pictographic depictions are far from the broad, layered, translucent washes unexpecting visitors might have wanted from an exhibition containing landscape watercolours. Their tentative, rudimentary figuration runs against the illusionistic, picturesque conventions of the genre. Instead they appear to point out the fallibility of language and memory. Their slightness, elementariness and emptiness suggests only what remains of the past in the present through acts of recollection and codification. In appearing to foreground the linguistic, they also appear to have an in-built awareness of the ambiguities of communication. As a British artist whose first language is Welsh, who works in France and exhibits widely in German-speaking countries, it should come as no surprise that Huws' images seem more about the difficulties of relaying a message than the message itself. The overt inadequacies of her pictorial signs act out the inadequacies of remembering, translating and communicating.

This is not to say the paintings and drawings are without life. The very fact that their context is obscure engages the viewer's reservoir of experience in trying to figure out what is going on, giving off an almost universal sense of déjà vu. It's as though we've already seen a version of the young girl joyfully throwing leaves (or feathers? paper?) into the wind; or recognise the wedding photo-call; or know to whom a tiny, curled hand belongs. Others portray stranger scenes that appear to be the recollection of dreams. An especially comic one is an indoor chase scene involving a peacock in low flight pursuit of an unidentifiable long-necked bird. A black cow (or is it a horse?), flat on the cracked ground, its fiery innards split open, seems a traumatic image particular to the artist, but even so, its delivery prompts identification.

Some images are more abstract and geometric. One motif that recurs persistently is an elliptical spiral line which winds round itself and finishes by jutting upwards. This odd, perhaps Celtic, form represents a boat made from a single straw of rush, a technique passed down to the artist through generations of children. Huws has made and exhibited many rush boats in recent years. It is a simple image that encompasses a surprising breadth of her concerns: art, formative experience, relocation, remembering, structure and communication. Another drawing of the same subject is entitled Marcel Duchamp's Turn (1996) - it is an organic, handmade image which belongs to a specific folk tradition - a piece of northern Welsh visual syntax whose function is migratory. The image is a tangible relic from Huws' past, yet one that can be re-made by the artist at will, or taught to another quite simply at any time; a humble, yet magnanimous vehicle of meaning.