Pioneering installation artist Judy Pfaff made the journey from New York to Wiltshire to create the biggest piece of installation art seen outside the Tate.
Her ‘painting in space’ fills Messum’s Wiltshire, a contemporary art space housed in the UK’s biggest mediaeval barn in Tisbury near Wilton.
Judy Pfaff is a MacArthur Fellow whose work is in MOMA, the Tate, and museums worldwide. She pioneered her huge, visually vibrating installations in the 1970s and this is her first exhibition in the UK.
She said: “We live in an unsettled, unstable world. It is raucous and staccato […]. An installation, with its total openness, allows me to plunge into that spacey void and edit the chaos into a dramatic and sensual environment.”
Inspired by Stonehenge, Salisbury Cathedral and the ancient forest of England, her installation responds to the spirituality of Wiltshire, where archaeologists continue to discover prehistoric sites of worship.
Judy said: “I met Johnny Messum at an opening in New York and he said he’d like me to do a show in England, in a medieval barn. I came here for two days to see if he was telling the truth. I looked at the place and it was beyond breathtaking. There is something special about this area.”
Gilly and Richard Strang at nearby Manor Farm, Ansty, were instrumental in helping Judy assemble the installation. Many components were shipped over from New York in a 40ft container.
Judy said: “They had the space, the equipment, the good nature and the skill set – I don’t know of a more capable amazing couple ever.
“I’ve never had an exhibition in England and this is astonishing – this is as good as it gets. It’s intimate in a way that surprises me – I feel like I’ve found a home.
“It’s a dreamy building and I hope this will be nodding a homage to the land, to the people.”
The medieval barn originally belonged to the powerful medieval Abbess of Shaftesbury, but since Henry VIII’s reign it was rented out as a farm building. It is part of the Fonthill estate – once home to the wealthy eighteenth century art collector William Beckford.
Messum’s Wiltshire joins a cluster of contemporary arts hotspots stretching from the Tate at St Ives, Hauser and Wirth at Bruton, Roche Court Sculpture Park in Salisbury, the Lightbox in Woking and the David Roberts Arts Foundation in London.
Johnny Messum said: “The barn became untenable as a farm building but it is an important building and hopefully using it this way opens it to the public.
“Making is a non-verbal language and something that is ubiquitous to us all. With the energy of making, Judy responds to the landscape in a very unique way.”
Ancient and modern come together in this 70ft installation. It is a unique experience alive with the spiritual, within the peaceful and profoundly historic atmosphere of this beautiful barn.
The enormous wild form of a sycamore tree and two walnuts reference austere cathedral architecture. Metal stencils filled with chalk powder create conceptual geometric circles.
Judy was born in England and spent her childhood exploring rubble piles in post-war London, creating decorations inside bombed-out buildings. She moved to Detroit at 12 and this exhibition has been an emotional rediscovery of the country she left behind.
She said: “Art has been my whole life – but it was never really a choice. I was so bad at everything else they threw me into art classes and it was something I could do. I liked it and I didn’t run away from it.
“In Detroit I was the only white pupil in the whole school and there was a black art teacher who protected me and got me into a very good high school – the same school Diana Ross went to – and there were three art curriculums.”
Her career saw her rise from being a teaching assistant in the Design Department of Yale University to holding over 100 solo exhibitions and installations in galleries and museums worldwide. Her largest installation to date was the 1998 São Paulo Bienal which was the size of a football pitch.
The exhibition runs until November 26. Details on www.messumswiltshire.co.uk

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