A surreal assault on your mind

Sculptor Nancy Fouts provides a stimulating exercise in juxtaposition in her London show.

James Heartfield

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Just around the corner from Mornington Crescent underground station in north London is a charming street of terraced houses, alongside a small park. There used to be a church at the end of the street, but it has been knocked down to make way for some new flats. But the vicarage, which is made in that nineteenth-century style that is supposed to seem older than it really is, looking today like a set from a Harry Potter film, still stands, at 52 Oakley Square.

Floating high above the house, as if on a weathervane, is a golden galley ship that catches the sun’s setting rays. The surrealist sculptor Nancy Fouts lives here today, and her exhibition of extraordinary objects is housed in the first two floors of the building. The exhibition ran until 26 June, but has now been extended until the end of July. It is only open on Fridays and Saturday afternoons, but you can ask to come at other times if you want to.

Inside, you will see: a budgie, in the cage of an electric fire with the element for a perch; a snail run along the edge of a razor; a bronze, cross-legged Buddha cradling a 2,500-year-old erection, polished by the touch of thousands of worshippers. I want to tell you more, but it would take away from the pleasure of your visit.

Fouts seeks out objects that can be brought together poetically, like the biting teeth in a purse (Freudians – analyse that!), or an eyeless crow, with an eye in its beak. Joined together, these things can threaten or charm (like the astonishing violin hanging in the front room) or mock (like the image of the Virgin Mary emerging from the singe-stains on a well-used ironing board cover). I went to the exhibition with my two young daughters, so the magic of a door hidden behind bookshelves kept up the sensation of being on a Harry Potter set (though Buddha’s knob was harder to explain).

Fouts’ is quality work, done in the spirit of Marcel Duchamp’s assemblages (you will be familiar with the urinal, signed ‘R Mutt’, and also, perhaps, with the stool with a bicycle wheel attached), as well as Magritte’s paintings that depict objects that do not belong together – like an apple that fills a room.

Seattle-born Fouts has lived in London for 40 years, and joined that small band of English surrealists – inclduing the late Tony Earnshaw – on annual pilgrimages to see the master Marcel Mariën until he died in 1993. At the time, Mariën was the surviving connection to the continental movement. His ready-mades, like The Certainties of Madness – six identical toy Napoleons arranged as if in conference on the battle field – were in the Max Ernst-vein. In 2003, Fouts joined the anti-war protests outside the House of Commons with a giant pretzel on a stick – ‘choke on this’. It was a snack of mass destruction.

When I visit, Fouts is keen to show me a piece by Tony Earnshaw in her upstairs room. The Faithful Servant is a thermometer that, when wound, gives out a loud tick-tock. Downstairs in the basement she is working on a grandfather clock whose weights she wants to have crash through the case. She has skinned a Billy Bass novelty toy, so that only its motion-sensitive eye and lurching plastic mechanism remain. She wants to cover it in feathers to make a flinching bird.

Fouts’ imagination is underpinned by great skills as a modeller. She showed us the moulds for her great donkey made up of tiny golden figures, a gift from the people of Naples to those of Milan. In the basement, a mesmerising double-take of collected medals and motifs was in progress.

Walter Benjamin used the fancy word ‘juxtaposition’ to describe setting one thing off against another. In a way, this is what Fouts does. But then, it is not the word ‘dog’ that bites, as William James says, so do not miss Fouts’ show and a chance to get your imagination mauled.

James Heartfield is a director of the development think-tank Audacity.org. Visit his website here.

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spiked-issue: Arts and Entertainment.

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