Before Ikon Gallery’s exhibition The Aerodrome—An exhibition dedicated to the memory of Michael Stanley, Stanley’s contributions to the British arts scene were often spoken of in contemplative tones as a result of his suicide at the age of 37. In this eloquently delivered memorial exhibition the lasting impact of Stanley’s curatorial and directorial career, which was singularly ambitious and extensive its scope and inclusion, is made evident.
Starting as an independent curator in 1997, Stanley’s swift ascent through institutional ranks earmarked him as someone destined to leave an indelible mark. He was appointed curator at Ikon Gallery in 2002, and joined Milton Keynes Gallery as director in 2004 before leaving in 2009 to serve as director at Modern Art Oxford, where he remained at the time of his death in 2012.
Organized and co-curated by artists David Austen and George Shaw alongside current Ikon Gallery director Jonathan Watkins, the exhibition uses Rex Warner’s novel The Aerodrome (1941)—a favourite of Stanley’s—as a skeletal framework. The persistent battle between the protagonist’s desires and obligations felt in the face of rising totalitarianism and disintegrating moral fibre are allegorical for Stanley’s determination to see his artistic vision through while adhering to bureaucratic pressures.
In line with Stanley’s belief that public space should be seen as cultural space, a new version of Michael Sailstorfer’s Clouds (2010), first shown at the Yard at Modern Art Oxford, now greets visitors in the gallery foyer. Suspended from the ceiling, industrial tyre inner tubes inflated and twisted into one another leave a thick smell of rubber in the air, though it’s ultimately a double-edged sword, a metaphor that reminds us of the circumstances that brought about its restaging.
“But art has a way of extending conversations over the greatest of distances,” writes George Shaw in the accompanying catalogue, and this is plain to see. The exhibition’s greatest strengths lay in the way the works—in addition to illustrating Stanley’s wide-ranging interests—make effortless and plentiful the opportunity for audiences to form new connections.
In the second, larger room of the first floor gallery, a shared theme of aviation and the escapist freedom it symbolizes is undercut by an existential restlessness made visible on the surface of Aleksandra Mir’s collage, Plane Landing (2003) and Kristian Ryokan’s painting Alaya Consciousness (2018). In Plane Landing, this is brought about by collaging different materials; a technical drawing of a jet sits on top of a sepia coloured, aerial view of forested mountains printed using Ben Day dot. In Alaya Consciousness this is a result of the application of paint whereby the larger section of cross-hatched, bright red impasto is at odds with smooth, mark-free canary yellow strip across the top of the composition upon which are two small blue illustrations of jets seen face on.
At the same time, it’s impossible not to link the latter, superficially, to Michael Craig-Martin’s boldly colored Untitled (chair) and Untitled (shoe) (both 2009) nearby. Yet, Martin’s concerns, centered around perception and language, which led him to paint everyday objects—in this case a chair and a shoe—in a way that prompts viewers to question the function of an image beyond its representational elements leads to an interesting re-appraisal of Constable’s Study of Clouds (1822). It was so accurate in its depiction of the weather, it is noted, that a mistake in the dating of the work was uncovered, and this in turn, provides an obvious correlation to Michael Stailstorfer’s Clouds.
Adjacent to Constable’s Study of Clouds is Chair falling (1995), a looped Super 8 film projected onto a wall from Stanley’s degree show at the Ruskin School of Art. In it, a wooden chair collapses before suddenly appearing to be in full working order again, only to collapse yet again, over and over. The Sisyphean reading could be dismissed as youthful pessimism but when seen in the context of his Graham Sutherland exhibition, An Unfinished World, guest curated by George Shaw at Modern Art Oxford in 2012, we see it rather as optimistic vulnerability.
Stanley took a big risk on the Sutherland exhibition. From the outside, it looked like it wouldn’t work—Shaw as a curator, and Sutherland, an artist whose reputation had once been held in the highest esteem had by this time been resigned “to distant galleries run by people in tweeds” wrote Charles Darwent for The Independent. The exhibition is considered a pinnacle of Stanley’s career. Here, in Sutherland’s Cornstook in Landscape (1945 – 1946), where a richly coloured field is on the cusp of blossoming in the shadow of the devastation wreaked during World War II and Shaw’s Scenes from the Passion: The New Star (2002), a glossy, sullen-in-tone brown rendering of a building on a council estate, we see a shared anxiety and displacement imbued deeply into the fabric of their artistic DNA, which Stanley first noticed years earlier.
The final work is the most poignant. Located in the tower room—a demanding space left from the gallery’s former use as a school—Linder Sterling’s Salt Shrine (1997) comes full circle after it was exhibited in Stanley’s first exhibition Epilogue in 1997 in a former Catholic school set for demolition in Stanley’s hometown of Widnes.
Linder had filled the religious education classroom with 42 tonnes of industrial salt “suggesting,” writes Jonathan Watkins, “a strenuous attempt to preserve a space in which ideas of eternity were preached, now on the edge of extinction.” Seen now, as the salt crystals glisten in the sun, with a crucifix by the window, a hold out from the original incarnation, we understand, exactly, why the content of Stanley’s life must not be eclipsed by his single, last act.
There is a risk when mounting an exhibition like this that it could fall victim to being too self-reverential but what, if anything, the seven-year gap since his death and this exhibition demonstrates is the democratic potential of art, which Stanley held so single-mindedly and was motivated by and which in turn, he rewarded with his ceaseless support and tireless work ethic.