Large, atmospheric photographs of the Welsh valleys comprise the bulk of Fergus Thomas’ exhibition at Cultvr Lab in Cardiff, The Faculty Divine. A reshowing of work displayed last November at a 12th-century Caerphilly church in the area they were taken, plus some older pieces from the Newport graduate’s body of work, this is a much more ‘traditional’ art space – domed cinema aside – and the impact it has on the photos takes a toll on their effectiveness.
The Faculty Divine takes inspiration from Welsh-language romantic poet Willam ‘Islywn’ Thomas. A Methodist minister who lived in the Sirhowy Valley, he wrote about seeking and discovering the spiritual and existential in the natural world. Excerpts from his poems appear on the wall in Cultvr Lab and inside the exhibit’s brochures. At the same time, Thomas echoes these themes with sparse iconography throughout some of his photographs (an incidental wooden cross appearing in a broken fence) and a heavier emphasis on atmosphere.
Using natural light and weather conditions and a painterly depth of field, he brings out an incredible feeling of wonder, magic, and eeriness in his subjects, both natural and urban or finding the natural in the urban: A wire fence caught in the dawn’s early light is crisp and vibrant enough to appear within touching distance; a house barely visible through the thick mist of winter is like a lighthouse lost at sea; a window dripping with condensation making the flats beyond ghostly apparitions. Even under the most cynical eyes, there’s an evident reverence here, seeing past the literal to the metaphorical and the sublime.
Even in the few portraits, including a single video installation randomly placed in a corner, the religious undertones within this context seem clear: ritual, judgement, sacrifice, and worship in the every day, from a woman sound asleep in a squalid room, bedside table lined with signs of addiction and comfort, to a man doing some form of sweat-inducing labour in dungeon-esque lighting, crucifix swinging around his bare torso. Nature or human being, Thomas’ eye is drawn to the humble and primal.
The most successfully presented are the lightboxes that scatter the floor like monuments. With a different image on either side, they invite the viewer to take a 360° view. The main ‘event’ is a triptych of flowing water that I wasn’t entirely convinced by: segmenting the same image into three felt less like an elevation and more like an interruption. The hanging prints, meanwhile, suffer from over-reflectiveness under the space’s bright lights, while some are so dark they’re hard to fully appreciate without being underlit.
The brochure – from the original exhibition – frames the work as “intervening [with] the historic space of St. Tudor’s Church, reconnecting the photographs with the area they were made”. Comparatively, the small, white room they’re in now feels constricting and far less immersive. Still, I’m grateful to have been able to see The Faculty Divine on my doorstep and would recommend anyone interested in some world-class photography doesn’t miss the opportunity to see Thomas’ stunning photographs in person.
Fergus Thomas: The Faculty Divine, Cultvr Lab, Cardiff, Fri 3 Mar
On until Fri 17 Mar. Info: here
words HANNAH COLLINS
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