A garish pink sunset sky surrounds an arid nature spot. Curious creatures draw towards the watering hole, a central feature in the scene, for respite and perhaps a little socialising. A boulder here, a puddle of water there. Over yonder is the Midnight Snax bar, a simple wooden shack, where a shady character (a vacant pointy-nosed thing) is waiting to sell his wares to absent customers. A barely legible scrawl on a menu board adjacent indicates the rather unappealing and limited array of refreshments he has to offer. What will it be? Disappointing biscuits which bear a likeness to murky mud patties, or maybe a cup of some unspecified liquid to wash down the dry pretzels and popcorn. Perhaps you will just pick up your fishing permit and be on your way.
The scene just described is an approximation of British artist Edwina Ashton’s bizarre and wonderful sculptural installation Midnight at the Watering Hole at Works/Projects in Bristol. Ashton’s new exhibition, which incorporates intermittent elements of live performance, is like the best, or at least the most eccentric children’s story book brought to life, but gone slightly awry. Not overly constructed, her arrangement of crudely made objects; puppets, props and backdrops, provide just enough of a magical concoction of material and form to allow for imagination to fill in the gaps and conjure a vivid scene populated by a motley cast of curious animal-like characters.
Ashton’s sculptural creatures, made from socks, filled stockings, papier-mâché, draped material, buttons and other everyday materials that were likely to hand in her studio, are not immediately recognisable as specific animals, but are instead more improvisational. They have a mix of different qualities; snouts, big eyes and ears, elongated limbs, and their brightly coloured bodies and exaggerated features bear cartoon-like associations. Each of these hybrid creatures seems to have its own personality; some are rather cute, like the stunted snake-like thing precariously balanced on the edge of a diving board, others just a bit weird. Her potent arrangement of objects in the space begs for animation and stories to be spun, like a theatrical set waiting for multiple narratives to play out, but there is also an overriding pathos to this half-baked scene.
If you visit at the right time, anticipation in waiting for these characters to come to life and go about their ways at the watering hole is broken. On my recent visit, a motionless human-size lizard was sat on a bench to begin with, then after a while I realised it had come to life and was lurking behind me, suspiciously following my path around the gallery. The lizard attempted to interact with me but would then be overcome by shyness or disinterest and would go about its own ways making swirly patterns on the floor, as its cloth feet dragged through puddles of water. On a hot day, like the one in which I visited, the poor actor within Ashton’s bulky, sweat-inducing costume must have felt discomfort and frustration – perhaps exacerbating its mischievousness (the lizard later came and stole my cycle helmet). Ultimately, the lizard’s character seemed partly constructed by instructions from the artist and partly influenced by the appearance and practical limitations of the awkward costume made by Ashton.
Around the corner from the main exhibition space, is a series of small watercolour sketches by Ashton. With quivering black pen lines full of energy, tempered by casual washes of pastel hues, they show the immediacy of their making and bring to mind the illustrations of Quentin Blake; or at least the characters depicted in the drawings might be called Quentin. They are more intimate than the sculptures, perhaps due to their small-scale or even more restrained economy of means. A related cast of anthropomorphic creatures sparsely populate them and again there is an air of melancholy surrounding her characters. She depicts odd-looking figures, again with long noses, as well as more deserted snack bars; one with its owner patiently waiting while life passes it by.
Much like in children’s literature, there is a sense of safe-guarding in Ashton’s method of projecting human emotion and social ideas on to animals and other fictitious creatures. If her characters were more human-like in appearance, it could all get rather depressing when confronted with her ambiguous scenarios. With all of the characters Ashton constructs, there is a quintessentially ‘British’ sensibility; politeness coupled with eccentricity and an underlying sense of unfulfillment. Precariously balanced between a wondrous fantasy and an ultimately dissatisfying reality, Ashton thinly veils failure and disappointment with brightly coloured fabric and paint.
Edwina Ashton: Midnight at the Watering Hole, 15 June – 27 July 2013, Works/Projects, Sydney Row, Bristol, BS1 6UU.
1. Midnight at the Watering Hole, 2013, Installation view, courtesy of Edwina Ashton and Works/Projects.