Returned Moments: The Work of Lesley Halliwell

Catalogue essay by Elisa Oliver

To accompany the solo exhibition Time and Time Again

Touchstones Gallery, Rochdale (2008)

As a child of the 60s and teenager of the 70s I have only retrospectively come to engage with many of the cultural pleasures of the period, Joy Division, The Fall, early Slade were too sophisticated for my hormonally driven palate. The opportunity to return to these outpourings with the frivolities of youth behind me is afforded more and more frequently today thanks to technologies ability to store and replay (if not form) our memories.

The continued intrusion of the icons of the 70s on our present is testimony to this as well as marking, in the specificity of the 70s, a sense of loss between one state of being and another. The utilisation of 70s toy the Spirograph, in Halliwell’s work would seem to be, on one level, another aspect of this intrusion. However, what this work allows us, through the mediation of the object of the Spirograph and its Alice in Wonderland like translation of size in the work, is both a return to, and a working through, of the issues that such an easy return engenders, rendering the works key examples of a very contemporary sensibility.

Halliwell uses the child’s Spirograph on large-scale paper repeating the action until the pen that she uses runs dry. The scale and duration of the action means the production of the work is physically tough, tearing and ripping the paper in the process. These marks show the trace of the exertion of the work but also indicate its duration, each work is titled in relation to how long it took to complete. The time of making, something present but not integral to its use as a toy, becomes essential to the ‘working through’ that occurs in the creation of the pieces. In the action one returns to the familiar play of childhood but in the duration, the working through of memories facilitated by that return, are set in motion, the past becoming overlaid and intertwined with the present.

There is an obsessive quality to the work which like Sophie Calle in her work ‘Exquisite Pain’ creates a quality of wearing “out my own story through sheer repetition” in order to find relief or closure to both the past and the present and identify a means of continuation.

This rebalancing of equilibrium appears established in the glowing radiant finished works. Highly decorative and complex they present as complete, ordered and rational with the meditative quality of a Morris Louis or Ellsworth Kelly painting. However the mark making tells a different story, mistakes, gaps, and slips all become evident, making the surface an object in itself. These marks are witness to the passing of time and the mistakes become a metaphor for the processing of thoughts and experiences that occur as part of that process. The element of failure, as Halliwell herself explains is key to the work ‘.my aim for perfection and order is constantly frustrated as I can only succeed to fail; ink runs dry, pens slip and paper tears, mistakes are inevitable’. In this way the works show the impossibility of the Modernist dream that they aesthetically make reference to and in that way indicate the end of one way of being and the searching for another. In another way they negotiate the process of nostalgia, the inevitability of the desire to return to the past, the sense that it was always better, but the reality that in doing so both the past and the present are found wanting or become entirely transformed, this seeps through in the marks of ‘failure’ integral to the making process.

Much has been made of the decorative quality of the works and the fascination with pattern. While this is undoubtedly a feature of the pieces this intense surface has as much in common with the narrative pencil drawings of artists such as James Pyman and George Shaw. Both artists also reference the 70s, in this case through the music and obsessions of their adolescence, and demonstrate labour and duration in their work through intricate recreation of detail. Here the idea of failure is also evident but it is much more clear cut, the past was definitely better and the worked surface is a way of keeping it real, keeping it in the here and now. With Halliwell, the narrative and negotiation with the past is much more abstractly present. The narrative starting point is the Spirograph itself, and it is the process that becomes the means of understanding the past while needing to be very much in the present. The works initially emerged from the necessity of needing to work with materials to hand and in a confined space, which they have obviously now outgrown. But this necessity makes clear the distinction from Pyman and Shaw. The luxury of dwelling totally in the past is not a possibility here these works are about understanding the past through, and in relation to, the reality of the present. As such they oscillate between two states, past/present, melancholy/joy decorative/narrative, domestic/public.

In many ways Halliwell has in adulthood mastered a technique that may have eluded her in childhood, the Spirograph was as tantalizing as it was frustrating, small hands not always having the dexterity the toy required and hence its educational as well as play possibilities. Halliwell has made the toy itself grow up, testing it to limits it was never designed to endure and allowing it a restorative and transformative potential in this new mastery.
Comparisons can be made with another technical feature of the 70s the pause and rewind of the VCR and tape recorder. For the first time we could re-live again and again the same moment, pause it, isolate it, extract it. The obsessive back and forth of this action echoes the repeat and return of the Spirograph, the action creating something far beyond its mechanical simplicity. Similarly the rewind of the VCR allows us to discover again, and often anew, a much loved moment of the past.

This restorative quality is aptly demonstrated by the closing moment of the 70s children’s TV series Mr. Benn and returns us once again to childhood. At the end of each episode Mr. Benn would return home from his adventures, which always started in the fancy dress shop, with a souvenir that was both an aid to memory and a symbol of a problem solved.

“Children are playing in Festive Road as Mr. Benn walks to his house at number 52. Scrabbling for the door key in his pocket he finds instead the stopper from the bottle. Just the thing to help him remember.’

Elisa Oliver Nov 2007

i.Sophie Calle, ‘Exquisite Pain’ Thames and Hudson, Oct 2004
ii.Lesley Halliwell, ‘Artists Statement’ 2004
iii.see Jane Chavez-Dawson, ‘Lesley Halliwell’ Flux Magazine, issue 43 July/Aug 2004 and Kathy Kubicki ‘Beyond the Pale’ NEWI 2003

iv.David McKee, ‘Mr Benn’ episode 9 The Magic Carpet, BBC TV 1979