GOODBYE SCARECROW - CONVERSATION BETWEEN PAINTER BILLY METCALFE, WRITER SIOFRA DROMGOOLE AND CURATOR LUDOVICA BULCIOLU
Billy Metcalfe, Siofra Dromgoole and Ludovica Bulciolu, May 2020
GOODBYE SCARECROW, a hybrid exhibition looking at the figure of the scarecrow through paintings, sculpture and poetry, was meant to open at the San Mei Gallery on 14th May 2020, but like so many shows was affected by COVID-19. The exhibition has now been postponed until 2021. The work is about scarecrows but also about all the themes that arise from studying them as a theme; scarecrows as "witnesses", their scruffiness, their loneliness, masculinity, femininity, how they inspire and fail to inspire fear, their childlike nature, and their relationship to the clown, the harlequin and the mannequin. It is a collaboration between painter Billy Metcalfe and writer Siofra Dromgoole.
Siofra Dromgoole: I think probably the best first question is just - why scarecrows? When did you first come across them, and why did they resonate?
Billy Metcalfe: Looking at a series of photographs by Peter Mitchel. He did a series of photographs of Scarecrows from the 70’s until 2015 and they really struck me. It hit me how they were sort of beautiful and sad whilst also being purposefully made to be repellent. There’s something very sinister about scarecrows, these isolated ragged things, but I feel also they crop up a lot in kids books as a sort of farmyard vagabond character in an innocent way. Anyway, there seemed to be a lot there that I wanted to think about.
Jane or John , Watercolour and Acrylic on Paper, A3
SD: And then why did you think of poetry? And (not asking for compliments) why did you come to me to collaborate?
BM: At the time I was first thinking about scarecrows as the subject for a show there was or had recently been a large William Blake show at Tate Britain. The aesthetic of writing and watercolour I thought would be a great way to approach the scarecrows. I love your poems and your taste in them, so I knew you were the person to go about it. I’d also never done that sort of collaboration, to have another person’s words on a painting and thought it would be an interesting new approach thematically and aesthetically. Why did they resonate with you?
SD: When I first thought about them - when you were drawing them before we started working on the exhibition - I thought of them mainly in terms of masculinity. I thought they'd be a great way of exploring that, figures made out of men's clothes propped up alone in a field, inspiring and failing to inspire fear. But what was most interesting was how quickly, once we started with them, I could see everything else they could represent. Which is obviously part confirmation bias - how once you think of something, it starts appearing everywhere. But it did seem particularly true of this - the possible meanings seemed to proliferate and radiate out. I became interested in the scruffiness, the loneliness, the strange joy in some of the mish-mash of the outfits; their relationship to the clown, the harlequin and the mannequin. So we put together a proposal in response to the San Mei open call out, based around exploring this multiplicity within a single thing. It's a space both of us hugely admire.
BM: I had been a fan of the San Mei Gallery for ages! I loved the shows I've seen there and thought the shape of the space would be perfect for the scarecrows. I think a slightly irregular space, that wasn't a total white cube was a perfect fit for the exhibition. GOODBYE SCARECROW is all about celebrating character and idiosyncrasy, two qualities the San Mei has - it's a slightly irregular space that isn't a total white cube, with beautiful amounts of light. San Mei's emphasis on cross-disciplinary work was also part of what was attractive - we wanted to involve different disciplines, and have a mixture of painting, sculpture, photography and dance. Ludo, what did you think when you came across the proposal?
Ludovica Bulciolu: Me and the associate curators of the space really enjoyed going through your exhibition proposal. For the 2020 open call we received many great submissions and we favoured those embracing the irregularity of the gallery space. San Mei is not a white cube, it was formerly a pub, a massive column is erected at the centre of the space, a chimney and a grand-piano are integral parts of the setting. We felt that hosting a bunch of scarecrows and colourful childhood-reminiscent drawings would suit the space very well. We also really liked the idea of suggesting to pair Scarecrow with an event of poetry reading and performance. How did you go about beginning and working on it? How did you articulate your own practices towards a common project?
BM: I thought watercolour would be a great match for the subject matter. I wanted to channel a kind of William Blake inspired aesthetic; poems like ‘The Shepard’ I thought especially. I wanted to make very static and rough things appear light and airy. I wanted a bold aesthetic; folkish and naive, contrasting with its darker subjects. For this I began by using bright colours traditionally described as feminine or childlike to portray these largely masculine figures, thus queering the images whilst exploring the lone bodies of scarecrows against the landscapes they belong in.
SD: The poetry and paintings evolved together, partly purposefully but partly unintentionally, since we often worked around each other. Some days I would sit in the studio, writing whilst Billy painted. Other times he worked from home. No poems were a response to a single painting, but all of the poems were a response to all of them. We wanted all of the elements of the exhibition to be addressing elements of the scarecrow, but also to be in conversation with each other, so we brought other collaborators in early too.
Walking , Watercolour and Acrylic on Paper, A3
LB: Visiting Billy’s studio was very fun! He had been sketching, drawing, colouring a huge number of scarecrows, in medium and larger formats. Some of them looked really sad and silly, others more serious and eccentric. I was really struck by how he managed to give them different personality traits, according to the colour palette used, the painting technique or the type of support. The handwritten poems definitely contributed to bring to life the scarecrows or, at least, to bring me back to a time where scarecrows were real and I could easily imagine being one of them. Your exhibition proposal was very special because it brought together different artistic practices (painting, poetry, performing). At San Mei we are really keen on experimenting with the exhibition format. For the 2020 exhibitions we are working on a varied programme bringing together people and eclectic practices. Scarecrows gave us a lot of material to work with and to work on, not only in terms of display but also of opening a public programme.
SD: There were also other elements of the show that were very important to it. We wanted to approach "the scarecrow" or the idea of a scarecrow from as many angles as possible. We wanted other peoples voices to be a part of it, and were in the process of putting together a zine with other people’s poetry — we asked poets whose work we loved, and have had some brilliant responses — all exploring different themes scarecrows lend themselves to. We also had (and still have) plans for sculpture and performance.
BM: The sculptures will be a really good anchor and reference point for the paintings, poems and dance. We planned them to be life size, addressing the materiality of the scarecrow. On the opening night we had asked theatre-maker and choreographer Sam Skoog to do a movement piece, dancing through and among the sculptures in a sort of company.
All Dressed Up , Watercolour and Acrylic on Paper, A3
LB: And then coronavirus arrived and temporarily disrupted our scarecrow plans.
BM: Yes and then Covid-19 happened. How did the San Mei gallery cope with it at the beginning? Over that week - the week when the Government hadn’t made up its mind, and told people not to go to public gatherings without cancelling them - it must have been tough making decisions over that time?
LB: It hasn’t been easy task to respond immediately to the circumstances. We tried to looked to other cultural institutions, in order to wisely define our take and to accord it to the wider contemporary art landscape. We saw that everyone was dealing with it in its own way, so we did too, trying to be as responsible as possible. At first, we started restricting the gallery’s access to appointment only. Then we decided to cancel and postpone the March exhibition, then the April and May ones, then June… then July.
SD: It's so strange. Morally - of course - wanting to obey all rules, but also desperate to say that creative work is essential and working out how to make that argument for the future. Another example of how things pick up meaning in context - or how they mean more when you spend more time with them - is how relevant the scarecrows seem. Suddenly in Billy's paintings I notice how brave they look - alone in a landscape, but still standing, still hopeful.
BM: I think scarecrows kind of lend themselves to themes of isolation - you never see two together in the "wild." But we've been very lucky. San Mei Gallery have been wonderful at postponing, and finding different ways of putting on their shows rather than cancelling them. Working with them has been a joy, and we look forward very much to putting on the exhibition come 2021.