Ruth Barker

The Power of Mental Images



Review of exhibition at Project Ability's Centre for Developmental Arts (CDA), Glasgow, commissioned by Project Ability, reprinted in Raw Vision issue 62.



“The Abbott gently stroked the supple leather of the book he was reading. He fancied it yielded beneath his palm like the flank of some peaceable grazing creature. Could leather be cured of its curing? Could the sightless hides be reassembled, clasps turn to bells, the branded spines grow tails again?
He would lose first those books bound in vellum, for the bindings would turn back to stomachs and digest the contents. Or the shelves would grow into a hedge and keep out the hand that reached for knowledge.”                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     
                                                                                                                                                                                                                            John Fuller
                                                                                                                                                                                                                            Flying To Nowhere, 1983


It is almost a truism to note that the arts, and visual art in particular, has a long relationship with the borders of mental illness. From the generation of images through hallucinatory Shamanic ritual, to the well-documented mental health problems of some of Europe’s most well respected artistic innovators, the line between the figure of the artist in society and the label of ‘insanity’ has never been a particularly long one. In Mental Image however, the recent exhibition at Project Ability’s Centre for Developmental Arts (CDA) in Glasgow, the curators reinvest the theme with real significance though a collection of works that are by turns surprising, affecting, lyrical, and supremely inventive.

Part of Scotland’s first National Arts, Film, and Media Festival, coinciding with Mental Health Week, the exhibition presents 44 artists from Europe, the UK, and North America; all of whom contextualise their own work within the frame of mental illness and mental well-being. Interviews with some of the artists featured reveal that many live with a variety of mental health conditions, though crucially this biographical detail is not the condition for their inclusion in the show. Rather the work has been selected on the basis of quality and innovation by a panel of visual artists and arts professionals who have drawn a compact thread of exploratory narrative through the curation.

Mental Image is a powerful exhibition that sits cohesively as an essay in both ideas and emotion. There are, however, several works in particular that remain with the viewer long after the exhibition’s close. Formally, Sarah Firmin’s edgy, crackling Steroid Drawings 1 & 2 have an energy and line not unlike the American painter R. B. Kitaj, who died this October. In the gallery’s second room, Brookes Yeoman’s acrylic Zoological Park is an enigmatically populated landscape image in which a group of individuals turn their backs on the viewer to glimpse strange and unidentifiable animals in a caged enclosure.

The scope of Mental Image is broad, and the curation ambitious and wide-ranging. From the direct, raw imagery of Rhona Hoggan U.’s My Teenage Years and David Bradley’s Day Centre to the layered obliteration of Alison Glanville Jones’ collages The Undoing, the Middle and the End, and The Lungs Won’t Fill, the work again and again subverts our expectations through invention, discrepancy, and vivid reinvention.
Perhaps the overall sense is of the strangeness and power of metamorphosis - of the moment of transmutation and change through the revelation of shifting lines. The exhibition celebrates the dynamism and power of image-making. At its best it reminds us of an essential strength in the unfamiliar, and the continuing influence of a critical and challenging relationship.