Review of 'Silenced Voices'

© 2017 Jo Manby

Some of the most impressive work to date by Carolyn Curtis Magri is found in her recent pieces, which are reminiscent of highly detailed maps of imaginary topographies. Curtis Magri is fluent in a draughtsman’s vocabulary of her own devising. The work combines a breathtakingly complex system of arrangements of abstracted signs and symbols – a kind of visual syntax with its own logic and appearing to have a life of its own.

She has developed a range of equivalents for the type of signs you might find on a traditional Ordnance Survey map. These include the rise and fall of landscape in two-dimensions, which are akin to the OS brown contour lines which model heights above sea level. Versions of this technique can be found in the intensive drawing in pencil and ink in works such as ‘Killing Fields’ (2015-2017), in which Curtis Magri references “the disappeared of Vietnam, Cambodia and Indonesia and those closer to home”, and where the ‘ground’ undulates into rounded dips and small – or far distant – hills and vales.

The bullet holes which first appeared in ‘No Way Out’ (2015) are another example. Regarding the ‘Da Vinci shot shapes combined with landscape’ in this work, she says “I discovered the 3D possibilities of a stencilled bullet shape and that many of them together could be interpreted as part of a landscape from above when drawn in a certain way.” I asked Curtis Magri to explain more about the ‘bullet holes’ and their subsequent authentication. 

I was working at The Mustard Tree at the time I started this series. There is a fabulous art library there including a copy of The Unknown Leonardo which includes his drawing of shrapnel shell. A horrible, nasty device it was too. An ex-offender friend working there, whose life was completely turned around when he discovered art, said that my bullet shape looked like the ones he used to use! My work is fiction, not pure fiction though. I guess it is in the grey area in-between because I occupy the two cultures, in and out, but for obvious reasons, I call it fiction.

Pulled teeth also appear, in works such as ‘Only the Teeth Remain’ (2017), described by Curtis Magri as ‘evidence hidden in knots of tree trunks and overview of landscape’. The surface of the work is dense, like the patterns of bark or reptile skin. Tiny Letraset numbers are also dotted around, which Curtis Magri told me represented the numbers positioned by police at salient points across a crime scene which is in the process of an investigation.

If this implies the notion of secret information then this is perhaps appropriate, since Curtis Magri’s current artistic output concentrates obsessively on ideas of crime and forensics. Her pictures are about layering signs upon signs. She puts hundreds of hours into her work. If one surveyed Carolyn Curtis Magri’s work over the last two decades, one would perceive a narrowing and an intensifying of focus. A few years ago she was making small, delicate pencil drawings, felt tip sketches and acrylic paintings of varying sizes,

…with unidentifiable figures in claustrophobic situations or backgrounds, a result of my observations of inmates inside and how I imagined them to be on release. These figures seemed as if they had to fight to be seen and when they were, it was as if they were then always on some sort of edge or gathering in small groups, looking over a bannister or hanging onto or turning away from something or someone. 

I asked Curtis Magri what made her feel that she needed a change of emphasis.

What I was doing felt shallow somehow. I was not happy with my gaze-centred approach. It was too banal and did not really reflect my position as someone working inside a prison but able to go home at night. I wanted to find a deeper way of processing the different aspects of what I had seen, felt and heard as an artist working in prisons and with ex-offenders in the community. I needed to get underneath the surface of things, to work with the felt, fearful and obsessive nature of life inside.

Looking round Curtis Magri’s exhibition at The Portico in central Manchester recently, I couldn’t help feeling that it was a pity the drawings themselves had to be trapped behind glass. The artist has such an affinity for the materials, from the use of mixed media to the choice of paper. “On a trip to Brussels to see my sister who is a paper restorer, I found a great art material supplier. They had some thick, heavy, A1 sized Catalunya mixed-media paper with fabulous edges which was full of sculptural possibility.” This quality made me want to pick the drawings up, hear the paper bend delicately to the touch, hear the whisper of its crispness and the more muffled sound of paper that’s been heavily worked with pencil and ink.

‘Rhesus Negative’ (2014), taking its name from the medical terminology for a certain blood type, is an example of a work on Catalunya mixed-media paper. Unusually, it is suffused with colour. Washes of Rose Madder watercolour overlap like ripped silk or drenched bandages. There is delicate under-drawing in pencil of detailed forms such as the synapses of the brain.

The piece entitled ‘Bruise’ (2016) is also saturated in colour, of a deeper, more layered kind, and is the only work painted over with a layer of varnish. It combines the effect of the rawness of Rembrandt’s ‘Carcass of Beef (Flayed Ox)’ of 1655 with the purity of ecclesiastical stained glass. It invites longer contemplation than some of the other works and generates a devotional, prayer like feeling.

The intensity of the labour involved in producing these works is self-evident. Curtis Magri starts somewhere in the middle of the paper, she tells me, and works outwards from there, constantly adding. Her process is the epitome of elaboration. Her works can look like the result of infection in a wound, a culture growing in a Petri dish, or the spreading of a rash – they have something of a pathology, a histology, of their own.

  • Pathology 1. the branch of medicine concerned with the cause, origin, and nature of disease, including the changes occurring as a result of disease. 3. any variant or deviant condition from normal.

  • Histology 1. the study, esp. the microscopic study, of the tissues of an animal or plant. 2. the structure of a tissue or organ.

(Collins English Dictionary)

 

The scale is definitely micro/macro – it is indeterminate – we could be looking at the membrane of an internal organ, or the surface of a landscape seen from space. Landscape closer to home, however, is what Curtis Magri is currently interested in. She told me about her recent move to Yorkshire, and her new works that relate to an unsolved crime in West Yorkshire. These are ‘Silent Stalker’, ‘She Won’t Be Home’, ‘Crag’, and ‘What Lies Above’. All date from 2016. All use, to one extent or another, a kind of workaday palette. The colours in ‘Silent Stalker’ are, and are intended to be, unappealing – grey, pink, green and acid yellow. In her research for this series, Curtis Magri looked at forensic evidence online together with aerial views of the sites of the unsolved incidents.

Regarding landscape, “I find it particularly evocative,” Curtis Magri explains. “I am emotionally involved through an attachment to place. It’s beautiful. But on the other hand it’s a place where things happen that aren’t spoken about.” She goes on to compare this hidden layer to the edge between the ‘front’ some men put up – appearing charming, affable – and the reality beneath, and the two being difficult to reconcile. “When you go into the landscape, the world lifts – worries disappear. It makes it all the more poignant when you realise what has gone on there. I put myself in the event. Almost in the victim’s shoes. The victim who’s not had closure. There are so many open cases.”

The series entitled ‘Postcards from Silenced Voices’, she says, are “fictionalised responses of people trying to communicate. They are channelling something. With the work it’s always about evoking something. It’s about getting back into an essential space where the evocation can take place” – this essential space being the studio. I ask Curtis Magri how important it is to have a studio. The bullet holes pieces, she tells me, are small extracts that can be done anywhere. But “with the big pieces, it’s about losing myself in it. Taking on someone else’s narrative voice. Or the voices of a group of forensics people. But mostly the victim.”

Intrinsic to the Postcards series is the fact that they comprise forensic samples taken from other works. Traces have been sampled from ‘Only the Teeth Remain’, ‘Da Vinci’s Ave’, ‘Scragg’, and the series of four West Yorkshire works mentioned above. Curtis Magri uses Magitape to lift microscopic flakes and residue from the surfaces of these works. A circuit is created – a self-contained process whereby the artist makes work concerning crime and forensics and then enacts a forensic intervention into her own work, generating out of it something new.

Accompanying each of the Postcards is a line of text which is either an existing quote in the public domain, or a fictional imagining. The fact that both fact and fiction are used complements the paradox of forensic sampling of artistic production that is about forensics. These are the voices of ‘victims, relatives, members of the public and forensic specialists, addressed to various imagined official bodies’. A chilling message, such as ‘Can’t you see – fuchsia stands out amongst all the dead colours – I am here, here’, will accompany a small pink streak sampled from the work ‘She Won’t Be Home’, for example. Some of the voices are formal, procedural: ‘Medulla, inner core of hair found on pink picnic rug, Minsmere, Suffolk, June 2016, Forensics Team, Leiston. Possibly forcibly removed but no tissue adhering to root so better look for others’. Others sound like the voices of anonymous witnesses: ‘Didn’t they see her? She fell over the edge. Her sleeve caught on a tree root half-way down. It must have been torn. The rest is history’.

Curtis Magri discusses a new body of work she is planning about the Yorkshire Ripper. “Some of the would-be victims managed to escape,” she says. “He attacked more people than actually died. This is how we know what he did to people.” It is macabre but at the same time it is part of reality. Curtis Magri’s work is compelling, saturated in detail and reference, invites absorption and concentration, and in this sense, aspires to the nature of the writing that she is drawn to when not making work – the books of Patricia Cornwell, Val McDermid and folk crime writer Ben Myers, as well as the Brontë sisters’ northern classics.