Sue Hubbard travls back in time to the funfairs and lights of Martin Richman's coastal home - the inspiration of the new light show of glittering installations and architectural watercolours.
When Martin Richman was a small boy in the 50s, growing up in Southsea, Portsmouth, his mother would check to see if the weather was going to be fine enough for a picnic on the beach by the quality of light over the Isle of Wight. If it was too crystal clear or too misty it was not a good sign, but the right sort of soft light meant they could look forward to a good day. Light and space are themes that recur in Richman’s installations, sculptures and paintings. There were other important images, too, the funfair with its thrills and spills and cool Teddy Boys who spun girls around in dodgems as the lights flashed and Johnny Kid and The Pirates belted out Shaking All Over. And there was also the synagogue. For Richman’s father and grandfather were both tailors to the Navy and his aunt was a fruitier in the dockyard, part of the small but tight-knit orthodox Jewish community of Portsmouth. Recently his father died and the family home had to be sold. For Richman it felt important to incorporate all these disparate memories, as the house was cleared and old photographs sorted, into a body of work so the past could be laid to rest.
Transitional spaces. Dreaming spaces. The places betwixt and between reality and imagination, these are the loci of Martin Richman’s work. Outside and inside, that geometry of binaries that Gaston Bacherlard called “the sharpness of the dialectics of yes and no” are what define the intellectual, as well as the emotional force of his work. For Richman’s sculptures and installations suggest more than their material existence. They act as Proustian triggers, connecting the physicality of our phenomenological existence with the poetic and fluid internal spaces determined by memory and imagination. For this new exhibition at Rhodes and Mann he has created a number of installations. One is a flight of steps, 3 meters by 1 meter wide. When Richman was a child in Southsea the steps from the promenade to the sands were about 12 feet high and led from what he saw as the prosaic reality of the town to the ‘stage’ of the beach. Now they have almost been erased by shingle. He remembers, also, how the promenade was lit with ribbons of bobbing lights. The translucent acrylic from which the steps are constructed glows internally beside windows covered with radiant light film. These seem to dissolve from pink to soft green or mauve through the day like the changing light of sky and sea. In a recent installation made for Jesolo Beach, Venice Richman upended 49 translucent white plastic buckets, placing flagstones between them and using UV tubes and fluorescent powder to create a glowing work that evoked childhood memories of both sandcastles and the seaside town twinkling at night.
Whirligig – a spiral of flashing fairy lights – conjures something of the illicit excitement and tacky eroticism of that unreal space of fantasy and desire, the funfair. While in a quiet back room of the gallery he has ‘boxed in’ a stream of natural light so that it spills onto the floor from the overhead skylight to create a void space, of silence and implicit loss. Nearby a section of film is projected and bounced off a mirror, which is then read on a translucent material screen. This is an oblique reference to the custom of orthodox Jews, who when they die cover mirrors during the period of mourning. For the film consists of a series of photographic stills, old photographs of Richman’s immediate family. Grandparents, aunts, uncles, parents have all been overlaid by filmed images of cherry blossom – an emblem of renewal - so that the figurative elements blur into hazy abstraction and the faces are barely retrievable, resonating in the memory like the fading features of the dead. Embedded, too, in these images is the emblematic silhouette of a swan making its nest on a canal in Hackney. There is something profoundly moving about the swan continuing to build under duress in the adverse conditions of an urban wasteland. It is as if life, for the living, must go on regardless, even after the death of loved ones.
Unusually for Richman he will be showing a whole room of watercolours. Some of these are abstracted architectural and city spaces where the grids are disrupted to give a sense of movement and flickering light like headlamps of traffic blurred in rain or the boxes of lit windows glowing across the dark city from a tower block. Others are illustrated proposals for public art projects such as a sculpture for the side of Denby Playhouse or the South Shields Ferry Terminal, 1999. This later collaboration, which included working with the architect, involved the colouring of the pontoon and bridge. The parapet was pierced with holes so the light came through and the arms or bascule were delineated with blue neon and the counterweight with orange, turning it into a modern, physical version of Van Gogh’s famous bridge; a flooded beacon that acted as a landmark for South Shields. At Swiss Cottage his interventions around an ugly gas substation will form part of the whole refurbishment of the library, Hampstead Theatre, the sports hall and public gardens. A screen of sandblasted and acid etched translucent glass will be backlit, immediately changing a busy interchange into a place of dreaming and reflection.
The feeling for both architectural space - and of internal space - in Richman’s work is very strong, for physical space approximates that of the unconscious and memory. It is as if through the experience of actual tactile environments we revisit and colour our perceptions of the current spaces we inhabit, just as our past emotional experiences colour the essence of who we are and who we have become. Richman creates what Bachelard has called sites for daydreaming. Milieus and art works that connect us back to our lost selves through the power of memory. His spaces glimmer, inviting us in, yet fending us off. We can, as the philosopher Herakleitos once implied, never step into the same river twice. Equally we can never return to the exact place of our memories. Through art they are ‘translated’, transformed and transfigured; given new life.
Martin Richman Come To Light simultaneously at Rhodes & Mann and Dominic Berning St Ives until 14 November 2001 and from 11 January 2002 the Aspects Gallery, Portsmouth then The Custom House, South Shields Gallery