In Beaver Hills
Imogen Greenhalgh interviews British artist Richard Galloway about his new series of work made in Sweden.
When winter arrives in Dalarna, a region in central Sweden, the landscape turns to white. Life slows to a sedate pace under a blanket of snow. When I speak to Richard Galloway via Skype, it is midwinter, and he is holed up in his forest-bound studio, the nearest shop a drive away and the thermometer’s reading steady at minus twenty. Born in Northamptonshire, Galloway left London several years ago, seeking the space and freedom life in the capital affords only a few. At one stage in our conversation, he lifts up his laptop and brings it outside, beaming a white sky and a white expanse where land should be into my South London living room. I can make out a few buildings on the screen, low-slung, their rooves thick with fresh snow. He keeps his chickens there. There’s little else to see. For now, at least, it’s a landscape that fools the eye, muddling distance and concealing things. Everything pristine.
'Timberhousepress', A photo of Richard Galloway's Studio in Sweden. Photo by Richard Galloway.
'Timberhousepress' in the snow. Photo by Richard Galloway. The image of the Beaver seen in these prints comes from the motif of the local town Bjursâs. They have a very traditional community that get together to clean up after winter, cut the grass and dig up the weeds.
Venture into the world of Galloway’s art, however, and you alight on a different place altogether. In the past he has set his scenes against familiar urban backdrops – launderettes and busy pubs – imbuing them with eccentricity. But his latest series, Beaver Hills, takes place in his new and rather sleepier hometown. No matter – for the gimlet-eyed artist, it’s as alive with stories as the city he left behind.
As those familiar with his work will know, Galloway works in the Hogarthian tradition of carefully observed social satire. His gaze is acute, picking up on society’s foibles only to skewer them dexterously, and with theatrical effect. He works mainly with lino, scoring its surface to create scenes which teem with detail, and coalesce tragedy and comedy. But beneath the satire, there is a layer of empathy too. He plunges us headlong into a flawed and frantic world, but it is one of which he is wholly a part.
His newest series Beaver Hills articulates this dual tendency, embracing the world as he examines it for its shortcomings. The saga plays out on Galloway’s doorstep, narrating life in a small woodland town, the eponymous Beaver Hills, an idyllic and largely uneventful community off Sweden’s Route 70. At the work’s centre is a gang of teens whose antics ignite the plot.
A photo from inside Richard Galloway's studio. Photo by Richard Galloway.
The crux of the series (two largescale lino prints, plus a set of drawings and colour reduction print portraits) is the trouble these teens get into on their EPA tractors, a type of modified old farm vehicle which can be driven in Sweden under the age of eighteen. Knocked together at home using mostly spare and discounted parts (EPA was a popular, now shuttered cut-price store), the tractor is a rite of passage for rural youth – a ticket to autonomy, capped at a maximum speed of 30kph. ‘Your family get involved in helping you to fix it up but it’s about independence. If you live rurally, that’s important,’ Galloway remarks.
Like any Hogarth scene, polite social order tips quickly into gleeful disarray, as the tractor-driving teens steal the town’s beaver mascots and crash into the freshly-painted town hall fence. Chaos spreads into the work’s structure, organised into a kind of classical pyramid on the brink of collapse. And the action too, hovers on the edge of a dramatic resolution, with engine oil leaking ominously close to a campfire at the edge of the scene’s frame.
Rather than apportion blame, Galloway accompanies the scene with its foil, a second print, Korsvägnen. Showing an empty bus garage, it depicts a waste land of the most quintessentially Swedish kind. ‘Recycling is a massive deal here, and every week the residents overload these bins so there’s rubbish everywhere – Tetra-Pak cartons and wine bottles. It’s my little poke in the eye for the adults in the town - they’re not perfect either.’ Everywhere you look in this small, bucolic town, harmony dissolves into disarray.
But there is delicacy and artistry too, in these meticulously considered works, and alongside the linocuts, Galloways has created drawings and a set of colour reduction prints. The former lingers over the empty Route 70, criss-crossed with tyre marks left by the teenage tractor drivers ‘which burn intensely, then disappear. It reminds me of falling in love at that age.’ And the reduction prints radiate with intensity and humanity too, each showing a single subject posing carefully for a selfie. Like Catholic icon paintings, there is a coded language at work – symbolism for the Instagram age. But Galloway makes no claim to the sacred or sublime. These are simply the boys and girls of Beaver Hills. As majestic and mundane as the landscape in which they were raised.
By Imogen Greenhalgh
A freelance arts writer based in London.