Bruton, Somerset, U.K.
Somerset is fast becoming a mecca for innovative arts initiatives. In the town of Bruton, Hauser & Wirth Somerset has now been joined by Bo Lee and Workman, a new gallery housed in a former Methodist church. Transformed by Bindloss Dawes Architects, the building (which ceased to be a place of worship in 2021) provides a lofty, yet intimate viewing space. Contemporary architectural elements meld with classical proportions and historical details, while a mezzanine floor and elevated balcony offer a birds-eye view of the main gallery below.
The inaugural exhibition, Jonathan Michael Ray’s “The Voice in the Shadow” (on view through June 24, 2023), features a range of mixed-media floor and wall-mounted works that pay homage to the building’s previous life. Ray takes his inspiration from ancient alphabets, sacred sites, and archaeology while also drawing on the realms of science fiction and fantasy. He frequently uses found objects, manipulating them into forms that look beyond function or the nature of the material itself.
As a site-specific project, “The Voice in the Shadow” explores how objects acquire multilayered histories through human intervention and the passage of time. The show shares its title with a wall-mounted work made from found marble overlaid with a gelatin silver photograph on paper. The textures of the photograph echo the mottled grays of the marble so that the two elements combine to create a hybrid entity that exudes a distinctly spectral quality. Objects, when removed from their original context—as in The Voice in the Shadow (2023)—become frozen in time, thereby imparting an experience that is both physical and metaphysical.
Ray lives in Cornwall, an area abundant in quoits, monoliths, and stone circles—spread across the landscape in a seemingly random manner—and his sculptures draw on this rich heritage. The seven-foot-high Dark Lith (2023), constructed out of Cornish slate, enamel, and steel, dominates the exhibition with its brooding presence. Each of the 250 slate blocks is inscribed with a mysterious, imaginary language that appears to fuse the past and the future. In ancient times, standing stones, or “liths,” often attracted worship, and Dark Lith combines the spiritual narrative of a monolith with the idea of a chimney stack, or castle tower. Faultlines (2022), a two-part sculpture of enamel paint on serpentine stone sited under two luminous windows, is similarly enigmatic; while No Turning Back (2023), made of concrete, pigment, and enamel, rests solemnly in the grass outside, like a tombstone.
Wall-mounted works that combine stained glass fragments and lead are spaced throughout the gallery, creating a dialogue with the building’s ecclesiastical windows. The titles, referencing arcane subject matter, reinforce the connection—Garden of Time (2020), The Chapel (2022), The Tale of the Ingrate and his Punishment (2023), and A Graverobbers Tale (2023). Equally intriguing are works assembled out of glass, lead, oak, and steel, such as Under Raking Light (2022) and Séance (Full House) (2022), both suspended in the manner of pub signs, at a distance from the wall. Séance features a cast of characters from different historical periods, seemingly in dialogue with each other. Their arrangement within pictorial space reveals a certain sleight of hand, while the implausibility of the situation imbues them with an engagingly comedic quality. The play of shadows created by the space between the work and the wall adds a further dimension to this engrossing scenario.
Ray’s practice involves a complex process of reinterpretation and amalgamation. In his works, found objects acquire new meanings that unify the secular and sacred, making them a particularly appropriate choice for this setting. “The Voice in the Shadow” is a perfect union of art and architecture, as well as sound. Reliqua (2023), a generative sound recording that incorporates music played on the church’s organ (created in collaboration with sound artist Benedict Mortimer), resonates beautifully throughout the space to complete the experience.