This exhibition is dedicated to the memory of Michael Stanley, Curator of Ikon before becoming Director of Milton Keynes Gallery and then Modern Art Oxford, who died tragically in 2012. Co-curated with David Austen and George Shaw and structured loosely on Rex Warner’s 1941 war-time novel The Aerodrome, a book that made a great impression on Stanley, it includes many of the artists he worked with.
Stanley was born and brought up in the industrial town of Widnes, Cheshire. His early experience of art came because, as he explained in 2010, "I was brought up in a strong Roman Catholic family, so seeing art in churches was inevitable, though in most services I'd be distracted and draw a detail of the Station of the Cross or something on the back of the hymn sheet." Tate and the Walker Art Gallery, nearby in Liverpool, were formative influences, and at the age of seventeen he won a scholarship to the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art in Oxford, where he worked in many media, including Super 8 film, as well as bronze and recycled materials, and his degree show in 1995 was highly acclaimed.
A number of freelance curatorial projects subsequently led to Stanley’s appointment as Curator of Art at Compton Verney in 2000. The two year stint at Ikon, 2002-04, saw him getting into his curatorial stride before he flourished as Director at Milton Keynes and Oxford - 2004-09 and 2009-12, respectively - putting a distinctly imaginative and ambitious stamp on the artistic programmes of both. Stanley was held in great affection by colleagues and artists, who regarded him as one of their own. Jenny Saville, for example, whose first solo show in a British public gallery took place at MAO in the year of his death, described Stanley as someone who “wasn’t scared of history or of being radical. He was as likely to be enthusing about working with a sculptor in his nineties, [as] raising funds to facilitate a young filmmakers’ vision. His poetic sensibility, combined with a can-do attitude where everything’s possible, is what made him so magnetic and convincing.”
Warner’s Aerodrome, written during World War 2, is an allegorical novel whose young hero is faced with the disintegration of certainties about his loved ones and with a choice between the earthy, animalistic life of his home village and the pure, efficient, emotionally detached life of an airman. Its dystopian vision was very influential on writers such as Orwell, Burgess and Ballard. In fact it is full of the imagery we think of now as Ballardian: modern dystopias, bleak man-made landscapes and the psychological effects of technological, social or environmental developments. And in light of current affairs world-wide, including the rise of terrorism, listening secret states and drone warfare – symptomatic variously of a serious challenge to the democracy we too often take for granted - a rereading of Warner’s book, as the point of departure for such an exhibition, could not be more timely.
The exhibition is supported by The Ampersand Foundation, Gagosian, Henry Moore Foundation, Modern Art Oxford, Outset and Thomas Dane Gallery. Thanks also to Michael Stanley’s family for unstinting generosity.
An Exhibition Dedicated to the Memory of Michael Stanley
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