Faye Claridge is an extraordinary artist, using photography and film as her chosen means to freeze her handpicked subjects in time. In this series of work, the subjects depicted are a group of Morris dancers from Bedfordshire. Seated before a painted ‘paradise’ each Morris Man’s pose is defiant yet calm. Contrasting markers of time imbue each image with a sense of agelessness. During her residency with BCA Gallery, Claridge worked with the local Morris group over a number of months, learning about their relationships to the past and gaining an insight into their motivations for dancing.
As in previous work, Claridge has constructed the environment in which the sitters appear. The effect is a style that combines Old Master paintings with theatrical staging and is influenced by portraiture of the 18th century, in composition and in the intensity of the sitters’ stare. The men pictured in this series are wearing the traditional dress of Morris dancers, an ancient art form that is usually associated with pagan fertility rites. Uniquely, these men from Bedford instead dance in honour of their townsman John Bunyan, the celebrated Puritan and writer of Pilgrim’s Progress, who ironically discouraged music and dance. This particular group are strictly against women dancing Morris and believe this unpopular stance is important to uphold for the sake of the tradition.
The inclusion of ‘hooded’ portraits, and the series’ title; Only A Stranger Can Bring Good Luck, Only A Known Man Can Hang refer to the need for disguise when men were prosecuted and hung for performing ‘the Devil’s dance.’ Usually dismissed as harmless fun, these portraits show Morrisdancing as a far stranger social phenomenon that deserves closer attention.
Claridge’s work often provokes contrary responses of empathy, fear and intrigue. Through presentation techniques like large-scale printing and projection, Claridge gives her sitters a larger than life persona. The effect is one of power on the part of the sitter, encouraging an uncomfortable awareness of the subject-victim position.