Hosted in Spain's Yusto/Giner Gallery, Ant Hamlyn's first overseas solo show wrestles with themes of love and death, fables and symbolism, all told through the medium of flowers. And not just any old flowers; these have been carefully made by hand out of materials including velvet and PVC.
The result is an uncanny series of works where ephemeral flower petals are rendered in fabrics that will last for generations. Wedged under giant slabs of perspex in the place of a normal glass slide, these sculptures turn something familiar into something odd, all while looking natural thanks to meticulous composition.
Speaking to Creative Boom, Ant explains that the botanical sculptures featured in this exhibition were created to explore the common storytelling motifs behind flowers. "I'm interested in the tongue-in-cheek, yet beautiful, nature of these tales," he says. "For example 'Loves me, Loves me not' and 'Ringa Ringa Roses' and their almost morbid joyfulness."
The traditional act of giving and receiving flowers is also at the heart of Ant's exhibition. "It's an act prevalent at birth, death, marriage, celebration, grief and everything in between," he adds. "Flowers, to me, symbolise a transient state, and these works are about trying to slow down the passing of time, freezing a delicate moment and preserving it forever.
"As with a flower press, we take a memory and press it before it dies. Forcing it to preserve in time. This combination of memory, nostalgia and time are fundamental concerns throughout this show and my wider work."
Made in himself in his studio, Ant describes the sculptures as a real labour of love. He starts by laying out the various fabrics beforehand, drawing the patterns, which are cut out and machine stitched.
"When I have the individual elements, I stuff them and hand-stitch them all together before they are pressed behind thick acrylic like real flowerpresses," he explains. "The fundamental concern is to ensure the pieces look natural in their composition, although each crease, surface, fold and form is meticulously planned and engineered."
Through this body of work, Ant expresses intimacy and distance simultaneously. These may be frozen moments, but they're expressly artificial, too, and rendered in an overtly unreal way. "This idea of desperately trying to preserve and celebrate a moment in time is really interesting to me, particularly in our fast-paced world," he says.
"Also, to me personally, due to recent family bereavements, I've never been so aware of mortality, and as with these artworks, one could either look at life with a sense of impending negativity or as a fleeting moment to savour. The work is hard and soft, intimate and distant, happy and sad – all at the same time. For me, it's about creating this cocktail of contradicting experiences because that's how we experience life."
Most works either merge velvet and PVC, a velvet counterpart or are made entirely from a high-shine Polyurethane (PU) fabric or velvet. Ant explains that by exploring materiality this way, he could play on the connotations of velvet as a luxury material and PU as a material associated with childhood through objects such as bouncy castles and inflatables.
"Things seen in velvet throughout history are usually behind glass cases and heavily preserved to give an air of grandeur, such as the crown jewels, for example," he says. "Nowadays velvet is used in household furnishings and more readily available, yet still alludes to luxury through its texture and vividness."
"I wanted to put these materials side by side to play off each other's material and conceptual properties. Then, press them together behind sterile, hard, cold perspex, encasing the compositions within. Thus preserving them as nostalgic, luxurious, playful and tactile moments."
Despite involving many different materials, the hardest part of the presentation was making sure the pieces existed in harmony with one another and retained a sense of continuity in the exhibition space. It is no mean feat when they all work in the same narrative while inherently being different.
"Each of the botanicals chosen for this show has intrinsic relationships with both love and death simultaneously, so it was important for me to approach this subject matter and context sensitively whilst also injecting a playful element into the works," Ant reveals.
"To ensure this, I spent a lot of time planning and designing the exhibition before any works were made. I mocked up where they might go in the space and worked backwards, allowing for spontaneity along the making process. But generally, much planning goes into exactly which works will be shown, and the works are then made for that particular show to flesh out the narrative."
However, the hard work and preparation paid off as the exhibition was a huge success. "This was my debut international solo show, and it has been an incredible experience," Ant concludes. "I was blown away by the support in Madrid, both from Yusto Giner Gallery and everyone who supported the show!"