Stewart Cliff at Xxijra Hii
Xxijra Hii (pronounced 'Shy-Rah-Hi') is a new gallery space in a lovely pocket of Deptford in South London, part of Resolution Way, a row of galleries building a reputation as a treat for anyone wanting to fit in a load of culture in a small space of time (so, all of us then!). Xxijra Hii was the first space I encountered when I was doing something of a self-guided tour, and I immediately fell in love with the sculptural painting works of London-based artist Stewart Cliff. I had noticed them on Instagram prior to coming down, but they truly are a different story when viewing them in real life.
Pleasingly, the beige tones prevalent in the exhibition are something of a reset for the eyes, and allow for some blissful escapism through the practice of 'slow looking'. Deptford is a busy, loud part of town, and coming into this space where the palettes are muted down and the subject matter in the works are somewhat abstracted, unclear and misty, there is an overriding sense of calm. For me and my line of research, with my thinking rooted in how joy is manifested in myriad ways through contemporary art, it soon dawned upon me that the joy in Cliff's work, especially where a body of paintings is available to view in one space, is the gift of the unknown. From seeing them on Instagram, it was the smooth, somehow familiar appearance of the patterns on the canvases which appealed; yet coming to the gallery, I noticed the details that are lost through the screen. The motif of the owl is one, which requires further looking to spot in some of the works, but there are also details transferred from found materials that create miniature stories within the paintings.
Some of the works feel like they belong in a museum, not just as artefacts of the contemporary moment but due to the ways in which imagery from secondary sources are reproduced and depicted. The interesting and diverse shapes of the canvases root the works in the twenty-first century, especially one that I was told was shaped like the Windows 95 logo. Being able to actively engage with works in this way, through chatting with people sharing the physical environment, bring a level of understanding and appreciation that is simply not possible through the online viewing room function. Small elements of popular and nostalgia cultures bring a great deal of value, as well as unity among viewers. The piece taking the shape of the Windows 95 logo soon became a favourite of mine.
So, the joy of the unknown - with anxiety levels at an all-time high, fuelled by the ways in which late-stage capitalism, neoliberalism and primary contact via technology has stripped us of the certainties prior generations would have taken for granted (not to mention the pandemic), the way we view the unknown can feel distressing, disarming and often disturbing. However, with Cliff's work, it can be a challenge to fully comprehend the content of the works, but in a way that allows the viewer to be creative and think more broadly. This brings in the idea of slow looking, which is incompatible with the post-scarcity world of instant gratification that we are used to.
There have been moments over the past year, and longer for many of us, where it feels like the best the world has to offer is behind us. We cling on to memories as best we can, but they are just out of reach. I have thought on several occasions that trying to remember certain chapters of my own life feel like watching something on the television; they're not tangible, nor mine. I feel my most free when I am writing prose, but have often tried to use poetry to unlock the past through a romantic present that simply feels like it does not exist. Cliff's paintings are certainly visual poetry; the stories of blurred landscapes do not come without memories, without pain, without personal archives. Personally, I really appreciate the admission that the motif of the owl will mean different things to different viewers. Leaving the door of interpretation and memory recollection open allows for a refreshing view of the works, as well as being a poignant look back to the past while being securely rooted in the present moment of contemplation.