Exhibitions: All washed up: Len Shelley's surreal creatures, made from flotsam and jetsam, are uncannily human. Robin Dutt sifts the evidence

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The Independent Culture
We are all born beachcombers. There is something undeniably attractive about wandering along an anonymous strip of beach seizing on sea-battered wood and other detritus only to jettison them a little further along.

Len Shelley is slightly different to most of us. Combing the beach near his Hastings home, he returns laden with a selection of flotsam and jetsam - the raw materials he uses for his intriguing vignettes. This is not to say that he is an undisciplined magpie, however. Shelley selects and rejects with a quick eye and a deft hand. His natural sense of form and purpose means that he sees possibility in the most unprepossessing chunk of driftwood or seabird skeleton.

Originally a film-maker, specialising in puppet animation, Shelley turned to his current form of expression only a few years ago. Still, the link is clear. Each carefully made box is a window on another world - a surreal place where he throws together idea, animation and creates memorable and loveable characters.

Fish-heads with driftwood bodies, bird-skulls with smooth weathered torsos and strange rabbits with manic expressions aided by the use of doll's eyes, become members of the Shelley theatre repertoire. Almost all of these materials he finds by serendipity on the beach and gives them new life, mummified in situations they never expected to be in.

It may be easy to view Shelley's work as freakish - in the mould, say, of the Victorian inventive taxidermists. These fellows, always eager to create shock in a box, would manufacture curious yet just about believeable freaks. If they were really lucky, they would find natural freaks of nature. But Shelley is less interested in creating trophies and much more concerned with addressing some current vital issues.

'I am interested in exploring the fact that the relative prosperity enjoyed in this country today is a recent phenomenon,' he says. 'I feel that this is a precious state, with a dark and desperate world lurking not far beneath the surface.'

While, naturally, there is a black side to this work, that is not the whole story. Shelley instils each window with huge amounts of irony and tenderness, pointed criticism and poignancy - each like a frozen moment in a film. One can quite easily imagine the characters coming to life at any minute. These creatures also display touchingly human traits, so at once we feel at home with them, their bizarre and grotesque qualities and peculiar situations apart.

'These are street people, misfits,' says Shelley of his characters. 'In part, the boxes have an autobiographical element to them, or at least, I can identify with them. I often go to the extent of acting out their parts as well.'

The boxes force us to consider the contents much more than if they were merely placed on a plinth. Arguably, Shelley's work is successful largely because he creates a little theatre out of each set, and human nature is naturally voyeuristic. But to regard his pieces only as boxed curios would be a little too harsh. Shelley is obviously a very emotional and sensitive artist. His acute observation of the way we are is directly embodied in the oddities of his fishes and birds. Snatches of conversation he hears en passant become titles of the boxes, etched into the wood which can be by turns cryptic, funny or tragic.

It's Just Like Paradise She Said, features a fish poking its head out of a towering beach hut wheeled by an attentive birdlike creature. Its expression is full of wonder and excitement. Henry Finds Love shows a potential romance between fish and seabird through a thin wall reminiscent of that scene in A Midsummer's Night Dream. Snatched phrases, stolen sentences become the raison d'etre for these strange inhabitants of an impossible world. Curious creatures they may be but they also possess the spirit of a desperate and joyous humanity.

Len Shelley: one-man exhibition opens today at England & Co, 14 Needham Road, London W11 (071-221 0417) to 1 Oct

(Photograph omitted)