“Horus the Egyptian God” by David Fielding. Article appeared in Carmarthenshire Life: September 2005
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Difficult to see the resemblance sometimes but Glenn Ibbitson uses his own image in much of his work.
Often he is disguised in some way. As Horus the falcon headed Egyptian god, for instance, he is wearing a mask.
In many ways this disguised presence is in keeping with what he says is one of the most important aspects of his work – the artist as deceiver, as illusionist, as trickster.
So, as the man behind the painting, why shouldn’t he also be the man behind the falcon mask in the big, strikingly painted, yellow canvas.
His partner, Carole, is easier to spot. She acts as model for nearly all his female characters. And in her case there’s no deception – or at least if there is at least it’s not by her. It’s the man behind the paintbrush again. The con artist.
If you think about it, Glenn’s belief that all artists are illusionists is perfectly reasonable. At the most basic of levels, for instance, nearly all painters try to finesse a two-dimensional flat image as a rounded three-dimensional object.
And then there’s most artists’ preoccupation – light. Rembrandt a con man? Yes, him too! I remember a small Rembrandt in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. Three or four men in a tavern round a table. In the centre, shielded by their bodies, is a source of light which we cannot see. But we see its effects – light and shadow – for it is reflected in their faces, in their clothes, everywhere in the room. Rembrandt the Arch Magician waves his magic brush and says, “Let there be Light. And Lo and Behold there is light!” Except, of course, there isn’t. Just paint. But what an artful deception by a master magician!
Glenn’s current exhibition at The Mwldan is full of deception – in a much more obvious way. Even the title ‘Smoke and Mirrors’ gives off a whiff of the performing magician. And so it is.
Glenn as Horus the Egyptian God who delivers bodies to the afterlife. Levitating Lady; the magician’s assistant hovers in mid air with no visible signs of support. Or is she? Conjoined Twins, Siamese brothers joined at the body but with two heads. Or maybe not. A blue Mermaid free-floating in the sea. But could she be behind an aquarium? And then the amazing Human Bridge high above the skyscrapers of New York. How on earth did they get into that position in the first place? Are they destined to have to stay there forever braced between those walls? And which way is ‘up’ on this canvas? How should it be hung?
Each painting is a poser. It’s also a challenge. Glenn sets the situation. The viewer puzzles away at the answer. How has he done that? Is it a piece of magic or is there a more down to earth answer? Once more we are children at a birthday party watching the performance of an illusionist. But now we have adult experience to guide us. What is important to the painter, to the problem setter, to Glenn, is that we are engaging with his work. He is getting a reaction. Quite possibly a different reaction from every viewer, from his audience – and ‘audience’ is a word he uses often.
In fact he goes further. We are contributing towards the narrative of his paintings for this one image frozen in time must have had some sort of cause and we, in puzzling out the ‘how come’, will naturally ponder what we think happens next.
With such a collection of huge, colourful canvases it’s easy to imagine we are at a circus or a fairground with a barker shouting out: “Roll up! Roll up! Come and see the Levitating Lady!” or similar. We could almost be among the tents of the fairground freaks, though Glenn is all too aware that in this day and age such description is no longer possible. However The Elephant Man is not far away and the prosthetics which made possible actor John Hurt’s transformation, plus the film-makers’ trickery which made it all so realistic are involved here too. For Glenn Ibbitson has an unusual pedigree for an artist…
He was born in Leeds, into a working class home, where his father was a lathe operator at what had once been the prosaic Yorkshire Copper Works which in the sixties was rather grandly promoted into the much posher Yorkshire Imperial Metals. Artists are not the only illusionists!
Neither of his parents had any artistic background but shrewdly Glenn reckons either could have been an artist with a different upbringing. He was a bright lad at school and finished his A level years at John Smeaton comprehensive with the offer of a four year MA in Modern History at the highly rated St Andrews University. And there but for a unforeseen influence he would have undoubtedly gone, but unusually for those days, he took a year out to work in Buckles, a camera shop in the centre of Leeds. It was to change his life.
Much to his mother’s regret, his growing interest in photography meant he ended up doing an art foundation year at Harrogate School of Art followed by a three-year Fine Arts degree at Hull.
The contrast between the two establishments could not have been greater. As he looks back over the four years, his lecturers at Harrogate win praise. They rolled their sleeves up and worked alongside their students.
At Hull both direction and interest in representational art from staff was almost non-existent. [Significantly, the only source of constructive criticism came from Hugh Adams, then head of Art History; now an adviser on the Arts to the Welsh Assembley] The in-thing was abstract expressionism so practically anything went. Thus the life drawing class had twenty students to begin with but by his second and third years Glenn had the department model, Alan, to himself. It was a luxury he used to the full. He has a thoroughly old fashioned belief that life drawing is one of the most important of disciplines in any form of art.
A year as part time lecturer back at Harrogate finished with him taking a job with the BBC as a scenic artist – painting backdrops to the TV sets.
Thus, during “Newsnight” coverage of the U.S. election, Jeremy Paxman presented to camera in front of Glenn’s White House backdrop featuring Uncle Sam playing a saxophone. It was the night Bill Clinton won the presidency.
Then after two years he became a freelance working for ITV as well as BBC and for many others including Martin Scorsese in the film “Cape Fear”, George Lucas in the TV version of Indiana Jones , the UK version of “The Jerry Springer Show” , “David Copperfield” at Pinewood studios and Terry Jones’ “The Crusades”.
These could be big canvases, executed at a rate of 10 ft a day. In two days it was not unusual to cover a canvas 20ft high by 50ft long.
Much of the work was done in art studios but sometimes artists went in on standby to touch up while bands were rehearsing or taking a break. Then they could chat with the musicians and singers. They were good times – and for artists, well-paid.
They also provided a good grounding in using and incorporating different televisual techniques; prosthetic make-up, computer and special effects which most artists would never encounter in their professional lives.
And for Glenn an age-old guide for transferring work from a small sketch to a big canvas which became so much part of his day-to-day work that he still uses it – breaking up a picture into a grid of small squares and reproducing that on a much larger scale.
For an ‘audience’ versed in the effects of such films as “Superman” and “Who Killed Roger Rabbit?”, Glenn’s Mwldan exhibition – which runs until September 22nd – will almost be part of their subconsciously learned experience and as such somehow familiar. That’s a familiarity which will make the experience that much more enjoyable.
And though it would be wrong to ‘give away the ending’, one of Glenn’s canvasses does provide clues to unlocking some of the secrets used by the illusionist in his other works.
It’s an unusual show and well worth seeing.
“Ladies and Gentlemen. Roll Up! Roll Up! See the Levitating Lady and The Mermaid in a Tank. Thrill to the breathtaking dare-devilry of Human Bridge. All on show at the Mwldan. Step this way Sir. Madam.”
David Fielding August 2005