Julian Watts - Ash Swale
Ash Swale, Julian Watts’ first European solo exhibition, will encompass a survey of three key areas of his artistic woodworking practice: his bleached, bronze and blackened work. Between each area of his practice Julian produces work dissimilar in style, technique, finish, scale and material to the others, yet together they comprise compelling insight into Julian’s varied explorations of his core concerns as an artist and maker.
Julian wants to pull us into a liminal space of the organic sensual grotesque. His world is one steeped in the arresting beauty of the underland of nature, but that pushes at the edges of western aesthetic assumptions.
The first stage of Julian’s process is to remove the worst of the rot from his salvaged or foraged wood. He uncovers the remaining ‘good’ wood, following the lines of the natural growth, the cracking and decay. Julian’s work venerates these stages of decomposition and transformation. In nature this breakdown of wood is necessarily entwined with new life, a crucial part of the circle of life, yet the contemporary Western mind is uncomfortable with associating beauty, life and new growth with insects, woodworm and decay. Julian’s work problematizes this limiting perspective. He urges us to see the beauty in the whole cycle, all of it is the wood, the forest, life.
Coming upon Julian’s bleached work kickstarts a journey of shifting emotional responses, pulling us between layers of attraction and disquiet. The first impact comes from the enticing sense of puzzling materiality of the foraged wood- from afar it masquerades as marble. Intrigue develops into delight at encountering the lightest touch of the biomorphic grotesque, amplified by his growing use of warm pink “blushing moments”. We are left with the seductive tactility of his almost slippery sanded smooth surfaces; until another detail of the work takes us by surprise and the journey begins again. This work is by turns beautiful, serene, silly and unsettling, it is a playfully organic corruption of the descent into the uncanny valley.
The bronze tangles and blackened wall pieces are tied to the bleached work through their similar intentions and origins - a light-hearted, slightly surreal disruption of material expectation, suggestions of an animistic understanding of nature and they function as devotions to the particular landscape of Julian’s forested Oregon. Yet there is also something unmistakably sumptuous about Julian’s work. The bronze sculptures confronts us with this most openly- to cast collections of twig constructs in a precious metal is an almost ostentatiously votive act. The rich stain and polished finish of the black work casts a lush but serious tone. In conversation with the pink blushes and gleaming bronze this more representational work immerses the viewer in the narrative of Julian’s woodland.
Read the exhibition essay Somewhere Other by Dr Stephen Knott, Senior Lecturer at Kingston University.