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Henry Coombes

June 12, 2008 - September 7, 2008

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Scottish artist Henry Coombes explores the tension between instinctual, natural impulses and the constraints of polite society. He presents viewers with seemingly idyllic scenarios that gradually delve into the deeper, darker inclinations of human nature. In two of his recent films—Laddy and the Lady (2005) and Gralloch (2007)—actors don animal costumes and the traditional sportsman attire of the British elite, playing out scenes at once amusing, disturbing, and surreal. Both films will be on view in the Hammer’s Video Gallery marking Coombes’ first exhibition in an American museum.

About the Exhibition

By Carole Ann Klonarides

Sir Edwin Landseer, an artist whose work gained wide popularity among an emergent class of nouveau riche and landed aristocracy, was knighted in 1850 by Queen Victoria in recognition of his paintings and sculptures of animals associated with the hunting sport of the Scottish Highlands. The queen, after all, shared an interest in Landseer’s subject matter after her husband, Prince Albert, first leased and later purchased Balmoral, a sporting estate in Aberdeenshire, Scotland. Glasgow-based artist Henry Coombes, chosen as one of six artists to exhibit work in the Scottish Pavilion in the 2007 Venice Biennale, makes paintings, watercolors, sculptures, and videos that reframe Landseer’s nineteenth-century depictions of the hunting lifestyle as a darkened, apocalyptic vision of the privileged class’s bloodthirst for Scotland’s land and game, perhaps revealing that art, like territory and culture, is also co-opted by social forces.

Following the royal family’s lead, the upper strata of the British elite adopted the Highlands as their outdoor playground. The region’s original Gaelic culture and agrarian peasant economy were supplanted by leisure hunting estates and deer forests whose game management and ownership was (and still is) in the hands of those foreign to the region, whose principal interest and motivation for holding land was the social status it afforded together with the private enjoyment of hunting. Scotland did not adapt well to the hegemony of the hunting estate, as it was the Gaelic belief that access to game and land was a god-given right of the indigenous people. More

Carole Ann Klonarides is an independent curator and teacher based in Los Angeles. Recently she served as a consultant for a project involving the Long Beach Museum of Art Video Collection, which was acquired by the Getty Research Institute. [For background information on the history of hunting estates in Scotland, I am indebted to Andy Wightman, Hunting and Hegemony in the Highlands of Scotland: A Study in the Ideology of Landscapes and Landownership, Noragric Working Paper no. 36 (Ås: Noragric, Agricultural University of Norway, 2004); available online at www.umb.no/noragric/publications/workingpapers.

Notes
1. Hunters use a trained falcon (or hawk) much like a dog, for the purpose of seeking (hunting) and driving out (flushing) game, but in this instance the falconry is not necessary, and perhaps the gralloch was left for other purposes: it is organic and biodegradable and can be a very valuable food for other animals and buzzards.
2. Au hasard Balthazar (1966), Robert Bresson’s film about class and social injustice, also has a scene of a young foal at the teat of its mother, its bucolic pleasure short-lived. Balthazar, a beast of burden, suffers servitude and cruelty under a succession of owners but accepts his fate nobly in this parable about the sins of man.

 

This Hammer Project was organized by James Elaine, and was made possible with support from The Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation, The Annenberg Foundation, the Los Angeles County Arts Commission, and members of the Hammer Circle. Additional support has also been provided by the British Council. 

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