Heels, soles, and other parts of mutilated and discarded footwear from India, Cuba and London, part of the Down at Heel exhibition, will continue to be on view throughout December. The exhibition of photographic works by John Cowpertwait has been extended from its initial run of the four weeks of November to the end of the year.
Images of discarded footwear found in India, Cuba and London line the walls of the Fazenda Café Gallery in Spitalfields throughout November 2015.
A refreshing antidote to this summer’s splurge of exhibitions in larger institutions relating to the fashion and manufacturing aspects of shoes, Down at Heel – photographic series by John Cowpertwait takes a different approach by looking at footwear at the opposite end of its life cycle.
At an event in Covent Garden in July 2015 staged under the heading ‘Roundtable Conversations: Discussions about Art and Life’, panelists and audience members examined one group of photographs in the Down at Heel series – Down at Heel (Karnataka) – in detail.
The debate showed the breadth of different reactions these evocative images can elicit – for example, some observed a dark shadow of personal and urban decline, decay, destruction and death in the work. In contrast, a number of audience members responded to the work with joy, being reminded of the sense of liberty experienced by taking off your shoes and running free. Others felt it raised questions about the disposal and recycling of everyday items, while also noting the way the forsaken footwear took on anthropomorphic qualities. One panelist highlighted the inclination within the work towards listing, categorising and cataloguing. See how you react.
Down at Heel (Karnataka), 2009-10 is being displayed with two additional recent works in the same series – Down at Heel (Cuban Heels), 2012 and Down at Heel (City Heels), 2015.
Down at Heel (Karnataka), is shown in two versions. Hung in a suitably bedraggled, “rough” fashion, befitting the subject matter, the arrangement of the individual images hints at the hillside paths where the discarded footwear was found. Down at Heel (Karnataka) comprises images taken over the weeks straddling 2009 and 2010. The bulk of the footwear was found along the tracks and trails of Hampi, a rugged, enigmatically beautiful boulder-strewn site of ancient ruins in Karnataka state, southern India. Images towards the end of the group were taken over one afternoon during an ascent of Chamundi Hills on the outskirts of Mysore, where pilgrims visit the hilltop temple.
Sandals (or chappals as they are known in India) dominate the Karnataka group contrasting with Down at Heel (Cuban Heels) which includes mangled heavy duty boots worn by the guajiros who till the fields of Valle de Vinales in Pinar del Rio province, a hilly agricultural area in the west of Cuba. The footwear was found along the paths that weave between the oxen-furrowed fields of rich red soil in which grow tobacco, coffee and sugarcane.
Down at Heel (City Heels Cobbled) comprises heels found in the urban streets of the City of London financial district, remnants of the expensive footwear worn by City workers which, rather than being discarded, warrant repair by the replacement of heels and soles.
These found images were encountered by chance while wandering, unpredictable intersections with the journeys taken by the previous owners of the footwear. The items were photographed exactly as found, without rearrangement or relocation.
Down at Heel – photographic series by John Cowpertwait is at Fazenda Café Gallery, 13 Leyden Street, Spitalfields, London E1 7LE throughout November. Open 8.30am-5.30pm, Mon-Sat.
The Fazenda Cafe is near Petticoat Lane market. Liverpool Street, Aldate East and Aldgate tube stations are all around 5 mins walk away. London overground station Shoreditch High Street and Rail station Fenchurch Street are also close by.
Down at Heel was curated and installed by Nikki Gibbs & John Cowpertwait for Psi Art Projects, a collective that facilitates the realisation of arts-related projects, working with artists to bring their work to a wider audience through an online presence, exhibitions, publishing and other means.
Cuba-ist! Image of Contemporary Cuba by John Cowpertwait takes its title from a play on the name given to the works and practitioners of Cubism, an art movement that could be characterised as bringing together contrasting views of a subject in one image, creating fragmentation and abstraction. A supplementary inspiration for the title is the image of the word “IS” founds on the side of a dilapidated train engine in the wrecking yard that lies incongruously adjacent to the Capitolio Nacional, the dome of which dominates the Havana skyline (Train Yard (IS), near the Capitolio Nacional, Havana, Cuba 2012 (from the Series Accidental Abstracts, Cuba, 2012)).
For the Cuba-ist! exhibition, twenty-seven individual images have been selected from ongoing series and presented in eight clusters, which can be re-configured, added to or subtracted from to offer the potential of shifting perspectives on Cuba.
John Cowpertwait travelled around Cuba for two months at the beginning of 2012. His work observes contemporary Cuban society from the position of an outsider, paying particular attention to the use of hand-crafted signage across all facets of society. Given the general absence of advertising in Cuba, this signage is the main means of visual communication and is utilised primarily to promote state-sponsored messages.
This is particularly evident in the images of the ubiquitous and benign Big Brother Christ-like presence of Che Guevara who looms both large and small, seemingly around every corner. These representations of Che are largely based on the famous photo Guerrillero Heroico, 1960, by Cuban photographer Alberto Korda (1928-2001), which, as a reworking by Irish artist Jim Fitzpatrick produced in the late 1960s, could be found on countless posters and t-shirts across the world.
As well as the official steel outline images of Che that adorn state buildings (as shown in the series Trinity, Cuba, 2012), his face is often individually produced in situ on walls and the sides of buildings by largely anonymous local artisan painters who add their own unique touches, resulting in a plethora of similar but subtly different portraits (shown in the series Che, Cuba, 2012). Cowpertwait re-captures these images photographically, rendering them as digital and print reproductions, describing his works as “photos of paintings of a photograph – a small contribution to the extensive and ever-expanding library of images stemming from what is, arguably, the world’s most famous photograph.”
Cowpertwait is also attracted by the dilapidated condition of buildings and vehicles, repaired and reconditioned using an enforced make-do-and-mend approach, and how this throws up intriguing juxtapositions of materials, colours and shapes, resulting in a compelling tapestry of “accidental abstracts”.
Cuba-ist! was curated and installed by Cinzia Castellano & John Cowpertwait for Psi Art Projects.
With a successful career in marketing and design under his belt, John Cowpertwait reinforced a lifelong commitment to the arts by supplementing his degree in English Language & Literature with an MA in Art Criticism. After a spell teaching, he progressed from talking and writing about art to producing it, combing his love of travel with the creative pursuits of photography, drawing and writing. His work reflects a continuing engagement with both the functions and materiality of display, signage, advertising and propaganda, and investigates the shifting interplay between images that produces new meanings, significances and ambiguities.
Psi Art Projects functions as a collective to facilitate the realisation of arts-related projects, working with artists to bring their work to a wider audience through an online presence, exhibitions, publishing and other means.