In Clive Hicks-Jenkins’ latest collection, his previous life as a choreographer and stage director could not be more apparent. The fourteen screen-prints he has created for Daniel Bugg’s Penfold Press illustrating Simon Armitage’s hit retelling of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight for Faber in 2007, are camp theatrical masterpieces. Hicks-Jenkins uses an array of effects, from collage-like layering, to bold imagistic statements, to mystical symbolism, to unfold the story in an arresting slideshow of technicolour shadow plays. Each scene ripples upon a deep pool of narrative and meaning. It is a powerful, kinetic, mesmerising exhibition.
The shadow puppet shapes of Hicks-Jenkins’ tableaux is not an affectation – he has frequently played with such two-dimensional landscapes – but rather there is a suggestion here that artist and subject matter have met and sparks have flown. There must be very few stories that have been blessed with the visualisation of so apt a vision.
If the pre-Raphaelites created a soft focus fairy-tale nostalgia for King Arthur’s court, Hicks-Jenkins here brings an altogether more brutal, oriental edge to the cycle. The colours do more than pop at times, they explode, they assault. Whereas artists like Waterhouse and Rossetti gave flesh and bone to figures of romance, Hicks-Jenkins has created a dreamworld of shadows and crags where perspective gives way to imposing castles and ambiguous magic. Hicks-Jenkins however does evoke the pre-Raphaelites in some of the poses he gives his heroes. “The Armouring of Gawain” recalls “The Beguiling of Merlin” by Sir Edwards Coley Burns-Jones, for instance.
Accompanying each of the fourteen works is text from art historian James Russell, who seems often as enraptured by the riches of Hicks-Jenkins’ interpretations as an audience by candlelight. Russell writes fully and beautifully, drawing our attention not just to the boldness of the colours (unnecessary from a lesser writer) but to the “martial reds and forest greens”; there are times when the panels are as deep into the story’s layers as the paintings. Russell’s insight and contextualisation adds another rich layer to the exhibition.
It is Russell that perhaps makes the clearest distinction between the crudity of the human aspects in the legends and the natural grace of nature. There is in the paintings a Yeatsian suspicion of the human world, of its brutality and cynicism. Camelot is often soaked in red, a symbol of war and imperviousness. Here Hicks-Jenkins shares the sympathies of Armitage, whose version of the poem is in thrall to the Pearl Poet’s original underlying romantic ecological tragedy. The beheading of “The Green Knight Takes Gawain’s Blow” is a horrifying moment, an act of sacrifice watched over by portentous images of gargoyles and caryatids, both in verse and hanging there on the wall. It is where the magic and mysticism begins.
This is most definitely, though, Hicks-Jenkins’ version of the story, despite his gratitude to Armitage and the Pearl Poet. Most enjoyable for the viewer might be the picking apart of Hicks-Jenkins’ staple eccentric flourishes, the discovering of the winks and the nudges. “The Green Knight Arrives” is a still of a dream-vision, but after the first blast of reds and blacks and yellows, out float the embedded foliage of the knight’s underarm, and the subtle reminders in his sprigs of holly that this is a “Christmas poem”. These are often busy frames, Gawain a solid earthy figure while the world floats around him in semi-collage.
And gone is the constant tone of reverence and earnestness found in Armitage; Hicks-Jenkins shows a keen sense of humour and understanding of the absurd. The rutting rabbits in “The Temptation of Gawain” will not fail to raise a smile, and often Gawain’s repose is a study in beauty nurturing naivety – there are a few moments that have the slightest whiff of that other iconic vision of the Arthurian legend, Monty Python’s Holy Grail. Hicks-Jenkins, like Armitage, is also interested in the femininity of the chivalrous Knights of the Round Table – something played up to by the pre-Raphaelites. Hicks-Jenkins has a Jarman-esque interest in the way Gawain moves and gazes, and this is as much to do with the landscape as it is to do with the figure himself. Gawain goes through it on his quest like he’s the only show in town, and yet there is so much more going on.
This is not, either, only a series of impressive painting – each scene complements the others; they come together to form a whole. To stand back at the edge of the room is to see a cavalcade of colours and drama. “The Green Chapel” sits brooding in its sinking grey-greens, a plummeting sensation between the blood oranges of “Gawain Staunches the Wound to his Neck” and the oriental pomp of “Morgan Le Fey”.
The most powerful work here, however, both in isolation and taken as part of the whole, is “The Exchange”, a work that encapsulates all the joys and weirdness of the exhibition in one frame. It is awash with ambiguities, swirling in colours at odds with one another, characters leaning into shot from unlikely angles, ships at the corner of this landlocked land, a resplendent magician’s cloak, and at the centre something strongly resembling a homosexual kiss.
The success of Hicks-Jenkins’ work here is partly that it steps between the real and the fantastical, just as its source material does. It does in image what the Pearl Poet (and then Armitage) managed to do in verse. This exhibition walks step for step with this ageless tale, and yet still manages to be full of surprises.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is on at the Martin Tinney Gallery in Cardiff until January 27th.