Princes, prefects, urchins and poets; these are just a few in a court of luminaries setting sail to Venice. But all is not as it seems, for this royal court is not to be found on the passenger list – all are actually cargo, nestled safely below deck. From May to November, The Court of Redonda, a solo exhibition by Royal Academy artist Stephen Chambers is due to be presented in the historic setting of Ca’ Dandolo, Venice, accredited as a collateral event of the 57th International Art Exhibition, Venice Biennale 2017. Curated by Emma Hill this installation of over one hundred imaginary portrait paintings will reimagine the extraordinary literary legend of Redonda, a tiny, uninhabited island in the Eastern West Indies.
It was while spending time living and working along New York’s East River that Chambers was introduced to the Redonda legend through the writings of the novelist Javier Marías. The mythology first took shape as a fantasy in the mind of Matthew Dowdy Shiell, a merchant trader who claimed the island in 1865 and elected himself monarch – effectively building castles in the air that others would add to and populate. His son M.P. Shiel, a writer of science fiction, determined that the kingship would be passed through a literary succession, and anointed the English poet John Gawsworth as his successor. Gawsworth went on to bestow honours to his friends, creating a court of writers, poets, artists and ne’er-do-wells. Marías himself was also a former king of Redonda, who appointed many creative individuals to his honorary court, including Pedro Almodovar, A.S. Byatt and W.G. Sebald.
From the concept of Redonda flowers a labyrinthine weave of visual possibilities where Chambers found ‘the ignition point of unresolved narratives’. It took him fifteen months to create the portraits; at points he was inventing the characters quicker than he could produce them, such was the imaginative stimulation that the ‘mental collaboration’ with Marais expounded. Each character, from Magda the Encantada to Harold the Bum has their own back-story, a personal context and history created by Chambers. At the heart of the project was the ideal of wanting these faces to be regular people; interesting, not necessarily beautiful, extraordinarily ordinary and, perhaps most importantly, for creativity to be king, if in mind only. By elevating people who make thinks and think things, he hoped to emphasise how creativity, along with diversity and inclusivity, played a part in this mythical kingdom.
The themes of diversity and tolerance run vividly through Chambers’s work. Born in Notting Hill Gate in the 1960s, a time still much defined by the race riots of the late 1950s, he was bought up to see how diversity can be a cause of both celebration and segregation. He went onto study at Winchester School of Art from 1978 to 1979 and then at St Martin’s School of Art from 1979 to 1982. He graduated with a Masters from Chelsea School of Art in 1983 and went on to win many scholarships and awards, including a Rome Scholarship, a Fellowship at Winchester School of Art, and a Mark Rothko Memorial Trust Travelling Award. He was elected to the Royal Academy of Art, London, in 2005 and was awarded an Honorary Fellowship from Downing College in the University of Cambridge, in 2016, where he has been Artist in Residence. His career does imply a sense of being an establishment insider. Yet, his work would tell a different story. Here lies the intriguing contradiction of Stephen Chambers. He declares himself ‘a disobedient by default, a cuckoo in the nest’, a provocative outsider. These one hundred faces reflect the anti-court; those on the outside, looking in and are ultimately a reflection of Stephen Chambers himself.
The project has an added universal poignancy, for Chambers was working on it parallel to the Brexit campaign. In this exhibition he wanted to elevate democracy and to show the benefits of tolerance and diversity. By exploring the creation of myths and the articulation of the role played by artists envisaging a world not how it is, but how it could be – the court shows us a world where we are all united by what we have in common. This court is open to all, not just the selected few. So it is only fitting that in these tumultuous Brexit days the Redondan ‘court’ is counterpointed with three large canvases entitled State of the Nation that were made before, during, and after Britain’s referendum about whether to remain in the European Union. The paintings hint at the precarious state of the modern world through their motifs of a falling rider (Chambers states that if the Remain vote had been victorious, the rider would have stayed on his horse). Rod Mengham captures the essence of this work in the following statement : ‘…his patterns refer us to the stories uniting us as a group, even when they are stories of division and rivalry: stories about islands, and their relationship to bigger land masses…’
This court, although seemingly mythical and far-removed are actually the faces we see everyday on the street and on the tube. Chambers work is strikingly relevant because he takes the familiar and puts it on a bigger scale. The personal and the universal are stories closely weaved and inextricably bound. In this exhibition each face has their own story and it is when they are bought together that they create a whole, for better or for worse. Although not overtly political, this exhibition is a seductively solicited and humorously surreal enquiry into these changing times. Maybe these one hundred faces could be any of us, in any group, on any island. In The Court of Redonda we find a self-portrait for all.
By Lucy Binnersley
Stephen Chambers will be exhibiting The Court of Redonda at the at Ca’ Dandolo, Grand Canal, San Polo 2879, 30100 Venice, 13 May – 26 November 2017.