Exhibition review of The Unknown Solider by David Tovey

28 January - 16 April 2022, Rochester Art Gallery, Medway, by Leanne Yore (MA Curating)

When I arrived at Rochester Art Gallery I had no particular expectations. Rochester is an historic town with cobbled streets and a castle. Its gallery is in the centre of the town but could be easily missed or mistaken for the Information Centre. Walking in I was aware of the size of the gallery as at first glance as you can see most of the artwork on display. I only got to briefly look at the show The Unknown Solider by David Tovey before getting the chance to speak to Allison Young, the Curator and Director of the gallery. During the talk with Allison, she was able to explain how David is not only an artist but an educator, activist, formerly homeless and ex-solider. This exhibition is an insight into David’s struggles with mental health issues, homelessness, alcoholism and drug abuse due to leaving the Army, and having little support around him. Also, from the talking to her she was able to give more detail about the work and the meaning behind them, which I wouldn’t got looking at the artwork independently. As Allison talked it was apparent she had a close friendship with David as she started to get emotional talking about the work. This made me see beyond the art and to the life experiences and challenges David must have gone through.

The work within the exhibition varied in mediums such paintings, drawings, installation, photographs, letters, medals and used uniform. The photographs, letters and medals are David’s when he was in the army and was displayed within cabinets on the left side of the gallery. By having these pieces in cabinets, it felt to me like this time of David’s life was trying to be preserved and was a joyful time for him.

Entering the gallery, I could see these two large portraits staring right in front of me, one is of David and the other one is of a former solider David knew. The self-portrait of David caught my eye at first because of the sombre facial expression and the monotoned colours that was used. As I looked at the painting more I could see the pain and suffering that he experienced when this painting was created. The painting style and technique David used was exciting for me as I enjoyed looking at all the individual brush strokes within the work.

David joined the army at a young age, and everything was good until David realised his sexuality and within that time it was illegal to be homosexual. So, he decided to leave the army. But with this decision led him to develop mental health issues and led him to become homeless.

In the middle of the paintings is uniform that a solider used to wear. On the uniform is a piece of handwritten text explaining the mental challenges that solider faced after leaving the army and why they unfortunately committed suicide. When I saw this like many other people I was full of emotion trying to imagine how much pain that individual must have been in to take their own life.

As I continued through the exhibition and looked towards the end wall there was a large painting of a bird and the colour scheme of the artwork got darker. This showed that the exhibition had taken a bleaker turn and so must of David’s life within this period. At first it was unclear why there was a grid of drawn birds and a painting of a bird next to it, but as Allison explained birds are commonly used to represent drug use and abuse. Without having a personal talk about the exhibition. I would have thought these artworks looked a bit out of place and odd, but now knowing the significance of the work I think it adds to the overall experience of the show.

As an MA curating student at Kent University, it was interesting to learn how much goes into an exhibition that most people don’t think about, for example the colour and font of the vinyls on the wall, the hanging of the work and the solutions they as a gallery have come up with to solve certain problems.

Allison Young said that it was important that this exhibition started a conservation and left a legacy or impact after it ended. The exhibition was not intended to blame the military for the little support David had when he left, but to show that anyone from any background could end up homelessness due to a small factor of events. Indeed, David Tovey is active in giving talks and educating people about awareness of homelessness. So, as a gallery and with the help of the local council they have increased the awareness within the local area of homelessness, by giving council members and library staff training in how to help people that are struggling. Additionally, together they have put in an application to government for funding to make the culture sector a bigger part of the support system of the homeless. It is widely understood that opportunities to be creative improve people’s mental health as they are able to express their feelings and experiences in a personal and creative way. The gallery has had first hand experience of this, with local homeless people visiting and feeling inspired to create art themselves. The exhibition also provides a section that gives information in leaflets, posters and business cards about where to go if you are struggling with your mental health or homelessness or if you know someone that might be.

For anyone popping into the gallery off Rochester High Street can’t fail to learn about the struggles and journey of David Tovey, even if there is little text about the work. I would recommend this exhibition as it explores the struggles David went through in a personal but yet respectful way, which is suitable for all ages.

By this exhibition and gallery doing this it is allowing people to start to have an open conversation and know there is always help out there if they need it.

It will be interesting to see in years to come if the plans and support proposed from this exhibition will have any impact on the homelessness community and the community of the homeless ex-soldiers struggling with mental health issues.