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Large work

Review by Anthony Thompson

Occupying most of the walls of a splendid studio at the Slade School of Fine Art, where Vaughan Grylls has been Summer School Artist in Residence this year, are two very large works. They face one another. On the right are cut-outs depicting a large 19th century steam engined mail train being attacked by Indians on horseback with men aboard firing rifles and a machine gun at their assailants. Plastered all over the train are print-outs of emails between two American Jewish professors. One is a Trump supporter, although perhaps more a Clinton-hater. The other, his old and bitterly disappointed friend, accuses him in extravagant language, of being a Jewish Nazi. Grylls has been copied into much of the shouting, occasionally intervening to stimulate it - as if that is necessary.

On the left are cut-outs, also in monochrome, of Grylls's father's sermons. Herman Grylls was a lay preacher and would cycle to village churches around Lincolnshire with the artist as a child sitting on the back of his bike. The cut-outs are done so that there are black, rambling lanes going towards a variety of churches at the top of the work, with, nearer the bottom, pictures of a bike being ridden with a boy behind. The sermons are handwritten in ink in a steady, clear copperplate with very few corrections. It is a collage so it is not possible to read whole sermons, but what snatches one can read show a man with a fine command of English and an intense desire to illuminate his congregations. One senses that the florid style comes from a simple luxuriating in the English language rather than anything egotistical.

Although Vaughan Grylls does not explicitly make the connection of contrast between Herman's Sermons and American Mail, it seemed to me that the two works are in fact one. On the right we have the USA, loud, shouty, aggressive, in a state of crisis, with the possibility and the reality of physical violence ever-present. On the left is 1950s England, on the face of it, quiet, gentle, contemplative, at peace.

The sheer quantity of juxtaposition is difficult to take in. On one side - Cowboys and Indians, Trump and Clinton, train and horse, black and white (literally), right wing and left wing, Jewish and 'Nazi', friendship and enmity. But there is also between the right hand work and the left hand work, the noise of the steam engine and the attacking Indians, contrasting with the quiet of the English country lanes; the speed of train and horses against the slowness of an old bike, the digital age of instant emails against the patient art of prose, constructed sentence by well thought-out sentence, the print-out against the even copperplate handwriting, the two men in a kind of martial combat against a father and son in an unassuming, loving relationship; the violence, the war against the peace. Between these two works is the gallery space in which we can reflect on geographical, political, cultural and temporal differences. I think that Herman's Sermons and American Mail are beautifully done, so that purely visually they are a delight. But it is the ideas and the silence between the two that clutches and clings.

Anthony Thompson. September 2017.

″I still use the same approach to my work: I get an idea, think of the title and then make the work. So not much has changed since 1964″

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