Hew Locke creates alter pieces, works which tinker inquisitively at the tough nut of conventional representation, prising apart the ambivalence that lies at its kernel.
The Ambassadors, commissioned by The Lowry in 2019 before the first wave of the Covid pandemic stuck the film reel of daily life fast in its sprockets, intensifying the frames that were held there to the point of combustion, has arrived at its galleries just in time. Locke’s resonant statues of four black riders, harbingers of both nativity and apocalypse, offer a different kind of pageantry to the bunting of a waning monarchy. Conceived as envoys from the past, they seem to arise from the present moment even as they recognise its passing.
The evidence of recent times is that statuary is typically at its most potent at the end points either of its unveiling or its overthrow. In-between days, its symbolic power is less intensely charged; a background humming quietly insistent of an order of things that is anything but natural. In spite of its monumental intentions, it can be easy to overlook. Locke, though, has long paid it close attention. As the exhibition space quotes him as saying, “When travelling around Britain, the first thing I’m looking for are the statues.”
Viewed from a certain perspective, it could be argued that they tell a city’s story in marble and granite, its omissions as revealing of who is afforded the privilege of setting things down as its inclusions. In the main, its heroes are more likely to be imperial, rather than newly-minted, white men of wealth and power, not all of whom have hands unstained by blood. As it happens, before it was torn down and consigned to a brief water-burial in the Severn in 2020, there had been talk instead of Locke decorating the statue of Edward Colston, a likeness whose plaque highlighted him as “wise and virtuous” even as it elided the profit he had made from the slave trade.
Locke’s own statues take a different tack. Rather than depicting identified individuals, he explains that The Ambassadors stand for “many men and women”. Not quite life-size, while each rider is impressive in isolation, its impact is enhanced through being seen as part of a collective. That they are exhibited indoors is, perhaps, more a necessity than part of their design. There is a wonderful impracticality to the way that each is adorned, their details worked with an excess that never feels like superfluity in a range of materials that could surely not long survive the unforgiving moods of a British spring.
It is in these details that the distinctions of the two men and two women most fully reveal themselves. Of the four, it is only the last to be completed, after the impact of the pandemic had begun to exert itself, that cleaves close to the conventions of the form. Austerely dark, a female flag-bearer sits astride a mount with a corn-rowed mane, its coat barnacled with skulls. Her companions parade out of different back-stories; a red-turbaned trader, freighted with ambiguous wares, a rider in Rastafarian colours whose horse is blanketed in the language of flowers, and a female warrior richly armoured in brilliant hues.
Set against the wallpaper backdrop of enlargements from his series of defaced share certificates, and taking the long view of history, Locke’s work coaxes the viewer into widening the hairline crack between the way things are and the way that they ought to be. The light he thereby lets in, rather than polarising, is split by his prism into an entire spectrum of nuance, each colour a vivid possibility.
As Locke himself puts it, “I’m a big fan of complicated.” The trick is, he makes it look simple. The art is that he makes you look again.
All images by Jules Lister
Hew Locke: The Ambassadors is at The Lowry, Salford until June 25, 2024. For more information, click here.