Magazine article Art Monthly

Edwina Ashton

Magazine article Art Monthly

Edwina Ashton

Article excerpt

EDWINA ASHTON'S WORLD is populated by oversized insects, well-spoken rodents, a stiff-backed elephant and creatures too misshapen to be readily identified.

She draws or paints them on pieces of paper or directly on walls, often annotating the images with gnomic comments or scraps of conversation. Also regularly working in video, she makes animal costumes out of old clothes, sleeping bags and other odds and ends and then wears them, or has collaborators wear them, in films of animal characters performing simple, repetitive, generally pointless tasks.

Dotted across white walls or strips of old wallpaper, the drawings combine disparate narrative forms and pictorial traditions. They have the dimensions and ephemeral air of doodles, the delicate colouring of old amateur watercolours and a scratchy graphic quality that vaguely recalls the work of caricaturists such as Ronald Searle and Ralph Steadman. A few of her images look like plates in 19thcentury zoological treatises, many more like illustrations in children's books. The animals in them are often solitary; when they appear in pairs, their relations tend to be stiff, or so the scrawled snatches of dialogue suggest--they use anachronistic, pret-a-porter phrases ('terribly pleased', 'nippy for the time of year'), the formality of their speech matching the slight fustiness of Ashton's pictorial manner. The images allude to the social rituals of another time but recast them in nonsensical terms, suggesting in fact that all social exchange is largely mechanical. The areas of empty wall space between the smallish drawings have a similar effect: they drive home the intermittence of Ashton's vision, the incompleteness of her stories and the isolation of her animals.

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And yet the animals plainly long for contact. Her videos, which are short and roughly edited, occasionally present scenes of attempted seduction, but her creatures are clumsy in their romantic overtures and their love objects, which generally belong to other species, tend to be unresponsive. In one video, a figure consisting of several sticks--Ashton is punning here on 'stick figure' and 'stick insect'--pursues a (real) fly, the insect buzzing around and against a window pane while the stick-character follows it, stick-arms extended in a pantomime of inane yearning. In another video, one of Ashton's characteristic bugs (Ashton herself, wearing a striped, sack-like costume) repeatedly turns a light on and off in an effort to wake a young man, who is played by a woman in a wig and lies apparently asleep in a broad bed. As the 'man' turns over, the bug quivers with excitement; then, seeing that he won't wake up, it lies awkwardly across the bed, pressing against his side. At once needy and hesitant, Ashton's creatures are torn and ultimately have to help themselves to the companionship they crave but wouldn't otherwise receive. In these vignettes, desire is rarely reciprocal, affectionate gestures becoming senseless ticks as they play themselves out to no effect in resolutely humdrum settings.

In other works, Ashton's creatures prefer simple domestic chores to romantic entanglements. Often holed up in narrow, protective spaces, they are prone to odd compulsions and obscure anxieties. …

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