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Open Frequency

Open Frequency is a curated online programme presenting new developments in contemporary art. Selected artists are nominated by key curators, writers and artists from across the UK. Recently profiled Scotland-based artists include Katy Dove, Joanne Tatham & Tom O’Sullivan, Camilla Low, Toby Paterson and Hayley Tompkins.

Open Frequency is a programme area of Axis, the arts council funded leading online resource for the contemporary art community.

Lucy Skaer

Lucy Skaer works on paper: large stretches of paper that, in scale, resemble unfurled banners, flags or giant scrolls. When pinned to the wall, meticulously drawn and painted imagery is revealed.  Yet the imagery is often ambiguous and is not always what it first might seem.
Graphite is the main substance of her drawings to which enamel paint, ink and gold leaf are added. Merging photo-originated images with different forms of patterning, Skaer creates shifting collages that move from the emotive to the reified. At play here is our familiarity with the compositional structure of Venn diagrams, heraldry, oriental porcelain design and Rorsach ink blots.

Lucy Skaer's Cell # 1 (with rules and exceptions), 2005; Photo: Lucy Skaer Skaer’s images can not be easily read – an inter-layering of motifs disorientates ways of looking and classifying recognisable things. It is similar to deciphering a text in a vaguely familiar language. Only as your eyes repeatedly travel across the expanse of paper, left to right, downwards and up, can a motif be slowly fathomed.

Transformation and camouflage are central to her practice. Her main source of reference is archived and printed material, images loaded with political and cultural baggage, which, through a process of tracing and merging with other pictorial and factual motifs, become distanced from their original source, opening a space for alternative interpretations. Skaer states, ‘All the elements are familiar, the logic recognisable, the symbolism readable, but at the centre of the drawing is a value impossible to understand’.

Emma Mahoney writes, in these drawings ‘victims of war and political unrest occupy the same plane as wine glasses, heraldic masks and vessels from antiquity. Each of these elements seep into the next, so it’s unclear where the blood from a cadaver stops and the ornamental patterning of a vase begins.’ (1)

Lucy Skaer's Depth / River, 2005; Photo: Lucy Skaer In ‘Depth/River’, (2005) a newspaper photograph of a family crossing a flooded river is the starting point for a vibrantly coloured drawing. The figures removed, the swirling surface of the water that surrounding them is the only recognisable element left of this captured moment.

A complex geometric form, whose planes describe impossible perspectives, occupies the space where the family once stood, its dense red and green stripes giving rise to optical dazzle. (2)

In ‘Bevelled Map’ (2004), a floating intricacy of pale green and blue watercolour seems to convey a lush and watery topography that could put you in mind of Edinburgh. But on looking further, it transpires to be a scene of destruction: a Far East city crippled by a nuclear bomb. Are the green areas perhaps indicating high levels of radioactivity?

In ‘Flash in the Metropolitan’ (2004), an ornate silvery vase is caught in the glare of a flashlight. As you walk past the image, the light catches the paint and transforms it from silver to dark graphite-grey to near-white. Towards the base of the vase, slender lines of red intercept and contribute to the decorative scheme.

Lucy Skaer's Cell # 3 (with rules and exceptions), 2005; Photo: Lucy Skaer

Yet these seemingly decorative elements have been lifted from a photograph of a shanty town destroyed by a hurricane.

In Skaer’s debut London show, The Problem in Seven Parts (Counter, London, 2004), a photojournalistic image of a corpse is sketched four times with various stylistic amendments – inversion, shifts in colour, medium and drawing style – in or around the central form of an empty wine glass, from whose base sprays out a quantity of bones.

Lucy Skaer's Cell # 2 (with rules and exceptions), 2005; Photo: Lucy Skaer ‘The Problem in Seven Parts’ (2004), Mahoney writes, ‘is a series of drawings, each designed to be hung on a panel of a paravent, or screen. In Part 1, an image of a corpse is traced in four different places around a central motif of an empty wine glass. Each of the representations incorporate various stylistic tweaks that differentiate them from their photojournalistic source and apportion them a different pictorial weight. The other panels that form the screen continue a kind of riddle about the visual description of matter, exploring ideas of seeing and screening, transparency and blankness’.

Tatlin’s Tower and the World (2005)
Lucy Skaer, Sara De Bondt and Henry VIII’s Wives

Skaer was shortlisted for Beck’s Futures in 2003. Her contribution to the exhibition was a set of give-away posters advertising the fugitive actions she claimed to have performed in public spaces – the secreting of moth and butterfly pupae in London’s Old Bailey criminal courts under the auspice that they may hatch during a trial; the placing of a scorpion and diamond side by side on an Amsterdam pavement.

Lucy Skaer's Banner of the Short and Longer Term, 2004; Photo: Lucy Skaer

Skaer collaborated with designer Sara De Bondt on a poster work commissioned by Platform for Art to be sited randomly throughout the London Underground network from June 2005.

The poster is part of a larger project by the artist collective, Henry VIII’s Wives, of which Skaer is a founder member. Henry VIII’s Wives aim to build the unrealised utopian Tower designed by artist Vladimir Tatlin in the 1920’s. This work, even though it was never built, is regarded as one of the greatest works of the Russian constructivist period.

Tatlin’s goal was to make a utilitarian structure based on purely artistic choices and the design, which references the tower of babel, is a monument to the idea of uniting all people. It is generally argued that the tower is structurally impossible to realise and it has come to symbolise an impossible project, the unicorn or Atlantis of the cultural world.

Henry VIII’s Wives’ plan is to build the Tower, full size and to the intended specifications, from girders and steel guy wires. They will build the tower in small sections, by whatever means possible (subculture, state funding, commercial sponsorship, commodification of the tower itself). The project will continue in various venues and locations around the world until the whole tower exists. The size of each section will be determined by whatever limits it: time, money, space and so on. The group plan to use the Tower project to investigate the cultural and economic systems of the world. The project reflects the group’s desire to have the Tower in the world, both as a physical object and as a metaphor.

Lucy Skaer's Wood and Trees, 2005; Photo: Lucy Skaer

The posters are artworks that also function to alert people to the Tatlin’s Tower project, communicating it as a conceptual idea to users of the London Underground, and act as an artistic investigation of the realm of advertising and propaganda, and the poster as a political and economic tool. (3)


Lucy Skaer (born 1975) trained at Glasgow School of Art and graduated from the Environmental Art department in 1997.

Recent exhibitions include Gasworks, London; Frankfurt Kunstverein; Platform for Art, London Underground; The world, abridged, Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge (all 2005); Lucy Skaer at Schnittraum, Cologne; The Opaque (solo show) doggerfisher, Edinburgh; Edge of the Real: a painting show Whitechapel Art Gallery, London; The Problem in Seven Parts, (solo show) Counter, London; Zenomap at Pier Arts Centre, Orkney (2004).

Skaer is a founder member of Henry VIII’s Wives, a group consisting of artists Bob Grieve, Rachel Dagnall, Sirko Knupfer, Simon Polli, Per Sander, and Lucy Skaer. She is currently based in New York undertaking the Scottish Arts Council New York Studio residency, and lives and works in Glasgow.

Skaer is included in the British Art Show 6, opening in Manchester on 27 January 2006.

1. Emma Mahoney, British Art Show 6, Hayward Gallery, London, 2005, p. 154
2. ibid.
3. Platform for Art, Transport for London, 2005

* Open Frequency
* Axis
* Glasgow School of Art
* British Art Show 6
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