An ape sporting a bowler hat, regards his surroundings and then invites you sit awhile; perhaps pose for a #monkeyhouse selfie.
Friday 3rd July saw the launch of new exhibition ‘Welcome Back To The Monkey House‘ by the artist and image maker Anna Bean. During the preview night there was a noticeable warmth, for both art and artist, from the fifty or more gathered inside KAG (Kingston Art Gallery) on Humber Street.
In just a few short years the work of Anna Bean has become synonymous with the words ‘fun’ and ‘fantastical’. But just as it is with the original faerie tales, beneath the magical sheen, lie darker fascinations. The synthesis of Hammer horror, classic cinema and Hull personages, make for a most scintillating and surreal viewer experience.
Anna did a steady trade out of the battered suitcases – an apt makeshift display – selling different sized prints. The prints not only make excellent gifts for that discerning art fiend but are great conversation starters: then and now. The new badges proved popular, with the young and older visitors to the gallery. Music filtered into the space throughout the night, courtesy of the Reverend and the atmosphere was sparkling, just like the celebratory fizz.
I first met Anna at a house party then a year later at another we got talking. It was an invite to an exhibition by the HU5 Collective, where I first fell for the multiple charms of the chimeric world of Bluebeany. That evening I was bewitched by a silvery wolf, that now proudly adorns my hallway, resplendent in faux Victoriana frame.
Anna’s images have a wonderful English eccentricity. The props and sets are painstakingly collected and observed, long hours spent seeking out hidden collectibles, costumes and curios: where else do you find the perfect clown shoes, monkey paws or rabbit head. If a particular idea requires it, Anna will create masks and costume components herself in her studio. In her hands the customary and commonplace become extraordinary and exceptional. Having been the recipient of an Anna Bean makeover last year, where I became a demonic vision in red velvet, I can testify to the sheer ingenuity and confidence of her creative vision.
‘The new exhibition is sublime,’ proclaimed DJ and Festival Organiser Mark Page.
Describing an image called ‘Billy Lion‘ one visitor said that it exudes a kind of ‘sexual power.’
Indeed, the lupine image that I had previously fallen for had similar qualities. There is something incredibly seductive in combining raw animal instinct with human capacity. It is the stuff of Gothic transformation tales: the enduring tragedy of the werewolf, the opposing forces doing battle in Jekyll and Hyde: beauty and the beast.
I asked why the work has such appeal to one who has appeared in many guises, within Anna’s magical world,’…it is unique… grabs your attention… the strange subjects are beautiful yet, at the same time unsettling.’
The popularity of Anna’s work may well be due to the fact, that despite having these unnerving qualities, the images remain accessible; the images speak on a variety of levels to all viewers. There are numerous popular and cult culture references that reward the trained eye and, as I learn from the art academics, various slants and nods to established artists.
Notably a fascination with British Romanticism, tempered with surrealism. Before me a nightmarish vision crouched impish atop the prone body of a sleeping woman: she is vulnerable and dreaming. Henry Fuseli’s famous oil painting from 1781 has been acutely observed and then re-imagined. Everything on show from the shadowy figure, the folds of fabric on the bed, to the angle and position of the languid body, playfully recreate the disquieting essence of the original.
There’s an offbeat homage to the exquisite art deco design found in the British horror film ‘The Abominable Dr. Phibes’. The central figure, the very embodiment of mystic ritualism clothed in a cloak of fabulousness, absurdly conducting a brass ensemble of seated Frank Sidebottom heads.
Deft image manipulation, prompts questions from the viewer around the understanding of what was really present, when the image was ‘taken’ and what exists, purely in the mind of the creator. I like the work for a number of reasons but recently I am increasingly drawn to the tension to be found in the act of being hidden, yet simultaneously on show. The desire to retain and control moments of anonymity in our increasingly surveilled lives: the power given and attention drawn to the subject, through the donning of a mask.
Just as Bowie is transformed into a glorious vision from a psychedelic dream, the white-walled space becomes a gateway into Anna Bean’s magical world. It is a world that appears ever more enticing as we seek to rid ourselves of the turgid, humdrum and banal. Her creative visions speak to our sense of escapism, our desire to become something other, that stems from childhood and the irresistible pull of the dressing up box.
With the work of Bluebeany becoming ever-present in the city’s cultural psyche, I took this opportunity to delve a little deeper into the artist’s world…
1. You have called your show ‘Welcome Back To The Monkey House’ a reference to the American writer Kurt Vonnegut. What prompted you to make this connection between the 1968 dystopian narratives and your own work?
It was more that one day I decided to take inside outside and made a room in the garden including props, a Monkey man, cats and some mannequins that had been given to me. I needed something for the Monkey man to read and ‘Welcome to the Monkey House’ seemed perfect. Then afterwards I read Vonnegut’s short story saw some comparison to the world I had created within the frame, a fluke.
2. Where did this fascination with animals and anthropomorphism come from?
Thinking back children’s TV growing up, Johnny Morris and ‘Animal Magic’, definitely ‘Planet of the Apes’, even programmes like ‘Skippy the Bush Kangaroo’ where animals are given human characteristics, also vintage Star Trek and Doctor Who. I adore the surrealist collage work ‘Une Semaine De Bonte’ by Max Ernst where Victorian illustrative plates are remixed by replacing the human characters heads with various creatures heads and body parts. I love the strangeness that is created by this simple act, the familiar becoming unfamiliar.
3. What animal would you choose for yourself and why?
A cat. Maybe because I like to observe life from a slight distance… surveying my photographic prey.
4. The mystical world of Bluebeany is seeping into the real world, with images finding their way onto merchandise; and heading up promotion campaigns. You sharply updated the characters in Cinderella, bringing them vividly to life for Hull Truck’s pantomime last year but how would the artist in you feel, about Bluebeany becoming an instantly recognisable brand?
I am not sure I like the idea of a ‘brand’. I think a recognisable ‘style’ is good, brand seems more commercial.
5. In the show there are a number of new additions, with more digital collage techniques and something akin to cartoons in the linoleum prints. Tell us about this, are you toying with a new direction?
The linoleum prints were new for me and done as part of Hull School of Creative Arts Foundation Diploma ‘Big Lino’ Shows in 2014 and 2015. I enjoy the process of cutting the lino and am really pleased with the results. I do like traditional print techniques and I am presently making a screen print of the Shining Bunny image from the poster of the show.
6. Now you are a member of KAG (Kingston Art Group) how does that benefit you and what effect if any, will the association have on your work and your opportunities to create?
The benefit of being a member of KAG is having the studio space to be more adventurous in, creating 3D sets to photograph within. Also being able to show so much work in one great gallery space. The support I got from the gallery committee was brilliant including Jay Moy who created the publicity material and Andi Dakin who wrote a fabulous press release about my work and also helped me curate and hang the show.
7. The makeshift stall appeared to do well on the opening night with a steady stream of people pouring over the images, selecting their favourites to purchase and take home. How does it feel knowing your characters will be hanging out in people’s homes across the city and beyond come 2017?
I absolutely love making the work, being creative makes me happy, in addition to that having an encouraging audience buying the work for their own homes is just mind blowing.
Welcome Back To The Monkey House continues at KAG until July 26 (open Sat/Sun 12 – 5pm)