Goldfrapp are one of those bands where substance meets style to an often mesmerising effect. Beneath its palpably classy exterior, the music of Alison Goldfrapp and Will Gregory is a composite of tender vocals, electronica and exquisite lyrical imagery, apt to beguile the listener with its hypnotic other-worldliness. Like the true artists they are, Goldfrapp and Gregory mine rich veins of inspiration and translate them into their own, glittering seams, a process that began with the cinematic avant-garde of debut Felt Mountain in 1999. Since then, the Grammy-nominated band have been layering-up their influences album-by-album: retro dance beats in 2003’s Black Cherry; glam-rock in 2005’s Supernature, beautiful pop-acoustica in 2008’s Seventh Tree and 80s synthpop in 2010’s Headfirst. Their new album, the magnificent Tales of Us, released in September, is Goldfrapp gold, a swish, ethereal affair set with gems of pop wistfulness, which successfully fuses elements of Felt Mountain and Seventh Tree.
Tonight’s invitation-only gathering at The Lowry is here to absorb some genuine Goldfrapp magic courtesy of singer Alison Goldfrapp, as she launches a series of exhibitions called Performer as Curator which will see a number of high-profile performing artists given the opportunity to exhibit paintings, photography, sculpture, drawings, personal items – in short, any object of their choosing – which has inspired and informed their music. It’s a privileged opportunity to explore in more detail the creative impulses of a respected performance artist, and especially one of Alison’s calibre.
This being a rather special occasion (and a real treat for your reviewer), we’re treated to a short but captivating musical performance from Alison, accompanied by acoustic guitar and a string quartet. Four songs are performed, beginning with Seventh Tree’s (and one of my favourite Goldfrapp songs) Road to Somewhere, followed by three tracks from Tales of Us, including the haunting Drew, leaving the audience overwhelmed by the full-on assault of aural beauty. “That was the most nerve-racking thing I’ve ever done!” Alison declares as the set finishes, though you’d never have guessed. It was a spell-bindingly perfect performance.
After the performance, we’re directed to The Lowry Galleries to view the art Alison has chosen to exhibit. These meaningful touchstones of her imagination are a feast for the eyes, and on viewing them the source of inspiration for Goldfrapp’s musical other-worldliness becomes apparent. The exhibition is a mix of the personal, abstract, and the darker side of fairy tale fantasy, the product of a mind that has retained its childlike sense of wonder into adulthood and revels in dream-like narratives, one that can gather up the invisible outcrops and offshoots of inspiration that emanate from objects and spin them into tales. This is Alison in Wonderland.
The opening exhibit is a lovely, brooding portrayal of Little Red Riding Hood (artist unknown) all alone in a dark wood, save for the company of the supernatural, curving trees. Further along, there’s another painting of Red Riding Hood by Mancunian artist Henry Liverseege, painted in 1830, this time accompanied by a rather intimidating, teeth-baring wolf. A series of simple animal and figure drawings by Leonora Carrington reminded me of some of Alison’s doodlings in the Seventh Tree lyrics booklet, while Carrington’s larger effort, the Munch-like The Memory Tower, features a mysterious figure standing in the recess of an abstract, stone tower, with a crow or raven – both mythological symbols associated with many world cultures – perched above.
The work of English conceptual artist John Stezaker is heavily featured, with his trademark surrealist defacing of Hollywood black and white movie star photos. He’s an artist who has had a particular influence on Alison. “I love his use of found imagery, drawing on classic movie stills…there’s a sense of a new story being told by the artist and discovered by the viewer,” she explains in the exhibition text, which expands on the theme of Stezaker’s metamorphosing of art from classic photograph to concept piece, comparing it to the identity of the performing artist, which invariably undergoes its own transformation on the stage.
The delicate monochrome abstractness of Japanese photographer Toshiko Okanoue’s work also features, while the power of black and white photography is further explored with images from Francesca Woodman and Deborah Turbeville, including the latter’s evocative Winter in the Park of Versailles. By contrast, the striking colour shot Untitled, from Country Girls, 1999, by Anna Fox, the result of a collaboration between Alison and Anna, shows a pair of legs from the knee down terminating in a pair of striking red shoes and resting on a bed of intensely green bluebell foliage. There’s a similarly intense femininity about this shot, something Alison has exuded throughout her career, red shoes being symbolic of female power and sexuality while referencing a potent, fairy tale magnetism, as in Hans Christian Anderson’s classic The Red Shoes, for example.
Talking of fairy tales, there’s a lovely display of Alison’s favourite fairy tale books, including both the Blue Fairy Book and Green Fairy Book by the Scots poet, novelist and critic Andrew Lang, Tove Jannson’s classic The Moomins, and The English Struwwelpeter: or Pretty Stories and Funny Rhymes for Little Children, by Heinrich Hoffman. For anybody who loves old books, in particular their illustrations, it’s not difficult to understand or remember their impact on the imagination of a child; nor is it hard to trace a line of descent to Goldfrapp’s music that makes similar space for the adult imagination – as in their song Little Bird, for example, from Seventh Tree.
Alison’s surrealist and folklore influences are also to be found in the exhibition’s video offerings, which include David Lynch’s Lost Highway, Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man and Lotte Reiniger’s disturbing, captivating Hansel & Gretel. There’s also a short movie called Extract from Jo, co-created by Alison and Lisa Gunning, showing Alison running through a dark wood (surely something every self-respecting artist hopes to do at some point in their career). Similarly, the sculpture Rêvons d’Or by Anya Gallaccio, an upturned section of tree seemingly weighted down by shiny apples, testifies to a fascination with the symbolism of the organic form in general, the tree an occasionally spindly, sinister-looking element of fairy tale backdrops, but also a paragon of strength and beauty, while apples signify deception, as they have since biblical times.
Aside from paintings, photography and sculpture, Alison’s interest in the animal character is further expressed in the exhibition through the inclusion of taxidermy, including a snowy owl (from the Manchester Museum) and a blackbird, a charming collection of dog figurines, and a giant-sized owl drawing, Simon Periton’s Owl Doily for Philip Otto Runge, that to Goldfrapp fans will no doubt put them in mind of Will Gregory’s owl get-up in the Seventh Tree album photo sessions.
Moving around the exhibition, it was nice to see Alison mingling with friends in a quiet, unobtrusive way and taking a real interest in the exhibits, not seeking the limelight in any sense. And yet what this exhibition tells us is that Alison Goldfrapp is somebody with an appreciation of the metamorphic charisma of the stage persona, the power of storytelling, and the possibilities of infusing her music with elements of folklore and mythology in a very subtle way to give it the imaginative weight it undoubtedly has. Go and see this exhibition, you won’t be disappointed.
Review by Matthew Graham
Main image: Anna Fox, Country Girls 1999. From the series Country Girls 1996 – 2001 © Anna Fox, Courtesy Impressions Gallery, Bradford.
Where: The Lowry, Salford Quays, Salford
When: until March 2, 2014