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ART REVIEW: The Court of Redonda @ Heong Gallery, Cambridge 24/02-20/05/18

The Verse’s Jake Francis reviews exhibition The Court of Redonda at The Heong Gallery in Cambridge’s Downing College, which runs until May 20th 2018.

World building. We’ve all done it at some point during our childhood and adolescence, or even today as grown adults (I’m looking at you people in Games Workshop on a Sunday afternoon). Whether it’s through writing, drawing, play, or even just an interior monologue – creating one’s own possibilities, or imagining the sheer impracticality of another reality is one that has intoxicated individuals from all walks of life, especially (and unsurprisingly) artists. One of the most potent and endearing examples of these activities formed within fantasy and historical fabrication was the reclusive artist/writer Henry Darger. Famously dubbed the ‘Janitor Artist’, Darger secretly created a vast and powerful world through an endless array of texts, stories, and artistic works on his meagre custodial salary; the beauty of his decades-long activity only coming to light after his passing, with each meticulous detail stretching across every inch of his home.

The current exhibition housed at The Heong Gallery at Downing College, Cambridge builds upon this tradition further – it giving visuals to the infamous (and arguably) fictional nation of Redonda, but more on that later. The exhibition, titled ‘The Court of Redonda’, is made up of over 100 portraits and a number of prints – all from the Royal Academy’s Stephen Chambers.

Originally exhibited as a Collateral event at the 2017 Venice Biennale, this vast array of characters has returned to Downing college as a celebration of the artist’s 1998-99 residency at the city’s Kettles Yard – marking a 20-year reunion of sorts. The title and theme of the exhibition is a reference to the works of fantasy writer M.P. Shiel – an author who throughout his lifetime contributed an incredibly convoluted account of the so-called monarchy surrounding a 2-kilometre square island residing in the West Indies. Also known as King Felipe I (1880-1947), M.P Sheil’s claimed aristocracy to this patch of earth has led a tradition of other writers to accept the ‘throne’ up until today – the most recent monarch of Redonda being King Xavier (or Javier Marias in legal terms). But anyway, let’s get back to the exhibition.

With 101 portraits in situ, it is hard to argue with the magnitude of what Chambers has constructed here – each painting reflecting a unique and core sense of personality. Like any collection of ‘things’, even those that include a 1000 different types of lunchbox or toothpaste, the vast number of artworks that are on offer here lends a sense of unquenchable fascination and the desire to explore every nook and cranny. Described by Chambers himself as ‘the ignition point of unresolved narratives’, it is difficult for us, the viewer, to not buy into this realm of fiction and fantastical design. I know that I personally began to fixate on a number of these characters with a self-entitled claim of story for every accessory they held or harboured – and the woman beside me was certainly doing the same, stating ‘She looks like a wonderful mother.’

With the collection originally taking shape over a period of Brexit and daily stories of division and immigration, it is hard not to look at the multicultural community that Chambers has created with a sense of keen optimism. Overall, despite my usual gut-wrench towards anything painted or ‘traditional’, I found the exhibition to be one of whimsical charm and open-handed gestures; it is, in short, a show that invites you to play and contribute to a layered and infinite world. The fact that there are a number of school-orientated events lined up for this exhibition is of no surprise to me.

‘The Court of Redonda’ is on display at The Heong Gallery, Downing College until May 20th. Entrance is free. Please visit www.dow.cam.ac.uk for more information.

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