Given how most artists are shielded by a coterie of assistants and PR aides, it comes as a surprise to discover that Maggi Hambling is to pick me up in person from Saxmundham station. When I step out of the train on to the platform, the Suffolk-based painter – comfortably dressed in donkey jacket, paint-daubed trousers and trainers, her gem-blue, kohl-rimmed eyes gleaming under silvery curls – is unmistakable. More striking still is her car: a vast Chrysler saloon that Hambling has had remodelled to suggest a vintage gangster motor.
Hambling’s expressive portraits, sculptures and seascapes may have made her a legend of postwar British art but few would consider her a contemporary artist. That modernist lineage makes her presence this morning even more surprising. Here to ferry me to a preview of her latest work, our destination is Snap, a contemporary exhibition whose roots are grounded in the conceptual practice that Hambling has always shunned.
Now in its second year – or, as organiser Abigail Lane puts it, “in a second album situation” – Snap is part of the Aldeburgh Festival of Music. It was launched by Lane, an artist herself, in collaboration with artist Sarah Lucas. Though key members of the Young British Artist generation, both Lane and Lucas have abandoned urban living for the serenity of rural Suffolk. They were not alone; other artists to make permanent or temporary bases there include Ryan Gander and photographer Juergen Teller (who showed at Snap last year).
Today, the shady, reed-fringed Suffolk wetlands that once captivated Constable have offered refuge to such a remarkable line-up that Snap can bill itself as an exhibition of local artists yet deliver art of top-class international quality. Participants this year include conceptual painter Glenn Brown, who went to school in Suffolk; Matthew Darbyshire, who attended Ipswich School of Art; artist/composer Brian Eno who lives in the Suffolk town of Woodbridge, as well as Ryan Gander.
It is that regional focus that allows for the inclusion of Hambling, who was born in Suffolk, and moved back there in 1998. “It’s an unlikely group,” admits Lane, when asked why she chose to widen the parameters beyond her cutting-edge peers. “A Ryan audience is not a Maggi audience,” she continues, juxtaposing Hambling with the 36-year-old Gander, renowned for his ludic, ephemeral puzzles. “But then Maggi’s doing something completely out of character and that’s exactly what Snap’s meant to be about.”
Hambling’s new work is a departure in every sense of the word. As Snap unfolds through the semi-derelict Victorian buildings of Snape Maltings, whose renovated concert hall has been home to the Aldeburgh Festival since 1967, the pristine galleries to which the painter is accustomed are nowhere to be seen.
Instead, she ushers me into a warehouse scored with rusty girders and encrusted with pigeon droppings. In the centre, an orgy of sounds – gurgling, crashing water, terrible yet ecstatic cries, a sensual love poem – emanate from a stone vent in the floor. Above it, one of Hambling’s seascapes – a waterfall of leaping blacks, greys, whites and sparkling Fragonard pink – appears like a vision summoned out of the watery depths.
Hambling freely admits that the installation “is the first time I have ever made anything like that”. Yet she had long been fascinated with the Bacchanalian rumbles made by the seawater as it smashed against the underground sluice at nearby Thorpeness. Having failed several years ago to record it herself, she leapt at the chance to work with Snap production manager Tom Taylor, whose technical expertise is responsible for the chill clarity of the recording.
Such serendipity is a leitmotif at Snap: the result, perhaps, of Suffolk’s singular genus loci. “I had wanted to make a piece about Orford Ness for a long time,” says film-maker Emily Richardson, who used to holiday in Suffolk as a child and moved to Woodbridge five years ago when she had her first baby. “It’s a really mysterious place,” she says, of the decomissioned Ministry of Defence site. “There were all sorts of rumours about it. People used to say it was full of nuclear arms, or Chinese prisoners of war.”
For Snap, Richardson has projected photographs of Orford Ness on to the far wall of a junk-filled scrapyard against a soundtrack of bird calls, radio broadcasts and eerie winds. As you gaze at the sinister, moss-slicked interiors and desolate flatlands, the ghostly squeaks mingle with more sonorous cries from Hambling’s installation on the other side of the alley, as if the younger artist has invented a dark, post-modern sequel to the painter’s romantic odyssey.
Unlike the vaster, more impersonal biennials and triennials that are so ubiquitous these days, Snap’s intimate size and evocative setting foster a plethora of such dialogues: between modern and contemporary, between one work and another, and between the art and the landscape itself.
For example, Matthew Darbyshire and his collaborator Scott King have created a series of identical installations, entitled “Ways of Sitting”, which juxtapose mischievous texts (a fake diary of Jackson Pollock suggesting that he secretly longed to draw Disney characters) with aperture-like openings that frame two more dignified permanent residents at Snape Maltings: the “Family of Man”, a sculpture of gauche yet graceful stone figures by Barbara Hepworth, and Henry Moore’s sinuous “Large Interior Form”, both of which stand on the lawns near the concert hall.
With music as Snape’s presiding deity, it’s little wonder that sound installations play a key role this year. Still a work in progress when I visited, the presence of Brian Eno’s composition Iceland – never released before and honoured with a room of its own – is a coup for Lane.
Yet to attain Eno’s iconic status, Suffolk-based artist Mark Limbrick has produced a work that outstrips the older master in visual wit at least: he has run a wire between two sculptures of old-fashioned phonograph trumpets so that the ambient sounds produced as it vibrates appear to emanate from their vintage throats.
Yet again, these felicitous conjunctions are accident rather than design. Liberated by Snap’s bespoke character and perhaps her own artistic anima – Tracey Emin once said Lane “could show the contents of her fridge and it would be fantastic” – Lane has deliberately shied away from imposing any kind of brief on the participants.
The result is an occasion for artists, emerging and established alike, to experiment. Most ambitious, perhaps, is the walled garden created by May Cornet, a 37-year-old artist based in Suffolk for the last three years. Inspired by the sight of ferns struggling to grow out of bricks piled within one of the Maltings’ deserted courtyards, she has transformed the space into a garden for wild flowers – “I wanted to use them because they are normally invisible” – whose roots flourish without an inch of soil. “All the experts told me that the project was impossible,” she says cheerfully. “So I thought: let’s go!”
Lane claims that as far as she is aware, no art was sold at Snap last year: “It’s not commercial at all,” she says. Indeed, rather than a glossy, invitation-only private view, the launch day is open to all.
As so much of the contemporary art world is hijacked by a multimillion-pound global industry, Snap’s singular balance between homespun style and world-class substance seems even more precious. Ryan Gander – en route to the five-yearly Documenta in Kassel, Germany, while we shivered in the Suffolk drizzle – summed it up with a work that resembled a fake billboard. Gazing out out over Moore’s hieratic bronze to the mirror-still reedbeds beyond, his poster is emblazoned with the slogan: “This Place is Everything.”
‘Snap’, Snape Maltings, Aldeburgh, Suffolk, opens June 9 and runs to June 24