The Tin Road: Review


Pasted Graphic
The Moray Art Centre

John Hodkinson’s current exhibition of digital prints and mixed media works at Moray Art Centre reinterprets the stories and recollections of Scotland’s travelling people, drawing inspiration from Highland storytellers such as Duncan Williamson, Essie Stewart, Alec Williamson and Bob Pegg. It is a fascinating show, the narrative suggested by Hodkinson’s visuals leaving the viewer wanting to know more about the stories, culture and communities which inspired the work.

As a survey of the artist’s work from the 1970’s to the present, it is interesting to see his ongoing development both in terms of his engagement with the oral storytelling tradition and in the interplay between two and three dimensional media. The most successful works in the show are those which combine digital and sculptural or constructed elements, defying literal illustration of the tale and providing a multi-layered interpretation of the subject matter.

The Apparition

A print such as The Apparition by Cill Chriosd Church on the Road to Torrin, Skye (Gicleé Print on Bockingford Paper) combines textural and photographic elements digitally, creating a strong composition which suggests both fragility and resilience in the use of colour and natural textures. The layering of imagery; the historical photograph of the site, the ghostly portrait/ found photograph and the texture of moss on eroded stone all evoke a shifting pattern of elements cast between life and death, contributing to the otherworldly atmosphere of the image.

The palette in russet, green and decaying sepia and the sky bisected with the texture of stone create a curious sense of tension, a feeling of transience and solidity which seems very much in tune with the storytelling tradition that inspired it.

The whole exhibition can be seen as “an elegy” for a way of life that is passing, in the words of storyteller Alec Williamson:”it was the end of the days of tin, horses and plastic coming in”. Though direct references to the stories and storytellers themselves culturally anchor the work, the artist’s use of mixed media and found objects in composite prints or in box construction provide expansive triggers for the viewer’s own imagination. As part of the exhibition a series of creative events led by storytellers and visual artists for young people and adults will further explore these connections.

Although on one level it would have been great to have a set of headphones retelling the stories while viewing the work, in recording or writing down the tale it becomes something else.

The Thieving Bees
Hodkinson comments that when stories are passed down through one generation to the next they are “possessed by the next person, who tells it from their point of view”. In visual terms replicating a story through pure illustration would not be true to the spirit of the stories or the living tradition they come from. In visualising an oral tradition which evolves and changes with each telling and each life it comes into contact with, Hodkinson creates a more open sense of narrative, one which enables the viewer to imaginatively construct their own stories or interpretations in relation to the work.
Than a t’ Eillein to Ahion / The Bee has taken Shelter (Mixed Media 1995) is a lovely example of the artist’s process of creative foraging, storing fragments of music in the collective hive. Originally made for a poster advertising the Helmsley Music Festival, this wonderfully inventive and intricate box construction transforms found and discarded objects; red tipped nails as rays of sun, an optimistic field of blue sand and joyous fragments of music suggesting a living, breathing hive of active creation. The fluidity between work conceived in two and three dimensional form is characteristic of the best work in the exhibition.


This is also exemplified in the largest work in the show,
Peter Scholar, a composite gicleé print in nine panels arranged as a hybridised triptych, the outer panels arranged in landscape format with the central panel elongated in portrait. This asymmetrical form feels very much in keeping with the suggested themes of the original story told by storyteller and traveller Alec Williamson. The tale of “an evil magnus, a curse and its eventual removal” is brought to life in the layering of photographic and symbolic imagery tinged with blue and orange as if the whole composition had been licked by flames.


The link between this large scale digital work and the artist’s sculptural box constructions such as
Beannachadh / Benediction (Mixed Media 1994) lies in the artist’s engagement with materials, particularly form and texture in creating a unified composition. Beannachadh / Benediction reads very much like a three dimensional drawing and the artist’s arrangement of found objects overall, some natural, some man-made, heightens the viewer’s appreciation of the textures of time, the elements and recollection which have successively altered them.
The Black Isle Witches

In stark comparison a work such as
The Black Isle Witches (Gicleé Print on Bockingford Paper) feels rather flat and pale in comparison, a collection of objects related to the original story but lacking the subtlety and power to really ignite the imagination.

Lucifer's song whilst falling
Not so with Hodkinson’s wonderfully poetic piece Lucifer’s Song Whilst Falling
(Mixed Media 1972),

a beguiling arrangement of natural and man-made elements, colour seamlessly blended in a blue heaven of layered sandpaper, the softness of the chosen palette brilliantly at odds with the quietly glinting and abrasive material. The accumulation of delicate fallen petals, their rounded pointed tips echoing the form of a blackened jigsaw piece in free fall, cleverly plays on associations of form.
There is something inherently seductive and finely tuned about the symbolism and sensitive use of materials within this small box construction; the jigsaw piece with its rounded head immediately figurative, one of many discarded objects transformed in the mind’s eye of both the artist and viewer.

Throughout the exhibition work is varied and seen as a representation of the individual artist’s work since the 1970’s the overall visual statement could have been strengthened by greater selection. However the exhibition is driven by wider concerns and to this end it engages fully with our collective need for storytelling, responding directly to stories and cultural traditions often hidden from view. Hodkinson makes this visible in a way that leaves the door imaginatively and invitingly ajar.

© Georgina Coburn, 2011