Monday, 28 November 2011

Northern Art Prize, Leeds Art Gallery 21 November 2011

Sarah Brown welcomes us
Once again and after a bit of a mad dash for the train, I found myself attending a blogger's preview event in the company of social media specialists all organised by The Culture Vulture. This time we gathered in the glorious tiled hall at Leeds Art Gallery before being introduced to our host for the evening, Curator of Exhibitions, Sarah Brown. As one of the selectors for the Northern Art Prize she was perfectly placed to walk us round the work of the four shortlisted artists on display in the groundfloor galleries.

As an applied artist I usually find myself a little intimidated by the cutting edge of contemporary art but helped by Sarah's lucid explanations of each artist's motivation and working methods I really enjoyed our look round. The show wasn't due to open for several days so we saw some of the work in the process of being readied for display so this review is of necessity a little incomplete.

Richard Rigg 'Some Rest on Six Occasions' Detail
We started with Richard Rigg and his two telegraph poles whose tarry aroma filled the main entrance hall and which disappeared into the gloom of the upper floors. I always have a problem with artists who take unmodified, found objects and present them as art. Even Duchamp's urinal had a fake signature after all. Rigg's oddly titled work "I forgot what was said [etc]" served to make us crane our necks upwards and marvel at its height and wonder at the effort needed to install it but I think we needed to see it lit from above to fully appreciate its function of making us appreciate the architectural spaces of the gallery. It was a slightly disappointing start but the work we saw in the next gallery space more than made up for it. Here we saw four wildly different pieces all distinguished by the artist's remarkable mastery of the skill needed to make them. I am a huge fan of Rachel Whiteread and Rigg's hollow cast of a Victorian coat hook reminded me of her House with its evocative cast of empty spaces. As curator Sarah explained, it was as if the white box of the gallery space was hooked up and hung from the outside causing me to have a brief but rather dizzying vision of an alternate dimension beyond the walls of the gallery where we were all part of the exhibition! This surreal state of mind continued as we began to really look at the two pieces of furniture in the room. Both were exquisitely crafted but have no practical function. They made me smile with pleasure at the joke, carried out with such deadpan skill that you had to look twice before you saw the six joined chairs were impossible to sit on and the two mahogany writing tables one on top of the other could not be separated. A quick glance at a dark and rather mysterious cyanotype of a complex rope knot left me wanting to know more - always a good sign.

Leo Fitzmaurice 'Horizon' detail
In the next space we were confronted by the remarkable sight of about 20 landscape paintings from the gallery's own collection jammed one against the other in a choppy line from one end of the room to the other. This was the creation of Leo Fitzmaurice and it wasn't until Sarah pointed it out that I saw that he had lined up the horizon line of each painting all along the wall and that the subject matter progressed from early morning to night time. It was a truly clever and very playful way of getting you to really look again at these rather run-of-the-mill 18th and 19th century landscapes with their dramatic clouds, immobile cattle and languid peasants. By placing them so close to each other one's eye is naturally drawn right out to the edge of each work, parts that are normally unexamined and the flow of horizon and time gave an extraordinary sense of expansiveness as well as pointing up the shared cliches of these works. Fitzmaurice's companion piece, a slide show of modern urban landscapes showing inside a shipping container-like room wasn't working but I can imagine the juxtaposition will add real impact.

James Hugonin 'Binary Rhythm 2' detail
James Hugonin's complex and mind-bendingly detailed geometric paintings were our next stop. Sarah spent some time talking about the labour involved in the precise placing of each of around 55,000 coloured marks by the artist who will spend up to a year on each large piece. Fragments of the artist's working drawings showed the complex mathematics behind each piece with their tiny pencilled numbers and finely drawn grid lines. Stepping back, the paintings shimmer and seem to be revealing patterns which fade away the harder you look and I think I should have spent longer simply exploring this effect. Curator Sarah used the word 'hedonistic' at one point but after hearing about the artist's practice I saw neither joy nor pleasure, only obsession. I was strongly reminded of the slightly sick feeling I had when I saw the thousand upon thousand of tiny human figures hand-cut from red tissue paper by Chinese artist Lu Shengzhong in his 2007 installation 'Little Red Figure'. It's a feeling I find quite hard to analyse - I want to be impressed by the hours and hours of concentrated effort but I am also horrified at the sheer madness of the desire of the artist who undertakes such a herculean task. I also wonder who carries out all the domestic duties needed to support this sort of intensity of purpose. I think in the end I would have been better not knowing about how the pictures were made, thus giving me the chance to simply enjoy them on a more emotional level.

I had no such conflicting feelings over the work of the final artist Liadin Cooke . Her work is an absolute riot of colour and above all texture. Her work could not be called attractive but it packs an emotional punch even though sadly one can't heft the weight or feel the complex surfaces (or even take photos). With my background in traditional textile skills I was particularly drawn to her piece 'Miserable Object' inspired by an unusual embroidered sampler in the V&A. The latter records the sad life of its maker and her eventual redemption. Cooke's work is a series of wobbly parallel lines 'drawn' horizontally across a white background using red wax. The lines are like the readout from a heart monitor - almost flatlining but with just the tiniest flutter as the artist's hand wavers across the canvas. I saw in the piece all those endless lines of embroidery stitched by all those faceless Victorian women whose fate was to be as forgotten as Middlemarch's heroine.

Having called Cooke's work unattractive I should make an exception for the work hanging next to 'Miserable Object' whose title I failed to note. It consisted of a dark, smoky rectangle of crushed nettle leaves with a single pearl set into it slightly off centre. Simple, beautiful and intensly mysterious. Her unfinished piece 'Some Particular Place' lay nearby and couldn't have been more different. A really large lump of unfired clay, pummeled and shaped into a mass of chaotic spikes, whorls and crevices then sprayed with car paint in a rather nasty shade of metallic purple, it sat and brooded behind a protective screen like a malevolent sea creature. It will be fascinating to see how it changes over time as it slowly dries, maybe it even moved a bit while my back was turned, I wouldn't be surprised.

I am really looking forward to a return visit to the show now it is fully open. I am sure I will begin to see lots that I missed during this first brief look. The winner of the Northern Art Prize will be announced on 19 January 2012. We all disagreed about who we thought should win. My choice on the night was Richard Rigg, but having written this blog I'm not quite so sure anymore....!

Social media types engaging with art!
Thanks again to The Culture Vulture for the invite and to Sarah Brown and Leeds Art Gallery for hosting us. The Northern Art Prize exhibition continues until 19 February 2012. Visit the Leeds Art Gallery website for opening times.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Northern Freeze Show, Mill Bridge Gallery, Skipton 11 November 2011

Mill Bridge Gallery is Skipton's newest art venue, specialising in art photography and sculpture. Having been to their wonderful opening night in September it was lovely to be invited back to see their new winter-themed exhibition. The gallery is worth a visit for the building alone - a gorgeous late medieval structure, once an outbuilding or kitchen for a grander house on Skipton's High Street now long since demolished. The gallery's owners have done a marvelous job restoring it and the whitewashed walls and dark timber showed off the icy, snowy photos on display to perfection.

View from gallery garden
In an age when almost all the photos we see are digital, snapped on our mobile phones or compact cameras, it is a salutory experience to spend time with large format, pin-sharp prints. Tony Crossland's bleak snowy views of Ingleborough from the Turbary Road really brought this home. Every fragment of limestone was etched in the sharpest monochrome, while the blasted white slopes of the mountain stood out superbly against a faintly pink tinged sky. Daniel Shiel's pieces consisted of fascinating studies of frozen water. Some explored the swirling textures formed as the water solidified, others carried the shimmering reflections of unseen objects just out of shot. One particularly affecting picture showed the reflection of a bare winter tree which seemed to be trying to gather up armfuls of the dead leaves fallen and frozen into the water's surface.

Snow must be one of the hardest subjects to photograph given its lack of colour so it was interesting to see how the various artists had tackled it.I wondered if Brett Meikle had used lights and filters to produce his shot of a startling white sculptured snow drift set against a darkening evening sky of the deepest indigo and turquoise. Keith Craven's photograph Malham Tree looks rather ethereal set among the frosty grass but a closer look and the branches look rather odd  almost like streaks of electricity seared across the sky. The image is then reproduced on sheets of brushed aluminium which magnifies this rather magical effect.

At the preview
Another magical photo was friend Mark Butler's Cow Close Waterfall with its close up imagery of spray and  icicles and bright green moss. A reminder that winter can strike fast even before the summer seems to be over. Henry Meyer's black and white photos dating to the l940s and 50s record winters how they used to be. The one that lingers in my memory  was Blizzard taken in 1952 and showing a solitary figure hunched against the wind, trudging across a blurry snowy field. I felt cold just looking at it!

Alongside the winter photos are an excellent selection of other photographs, ceramics and sculptures some of the latter on show in the gallery's delightful garden overlooking the canal at the back. Do pay the show a visit if you find yourself in town, it's well worth supporting such a brave new venture.

The Mill Bridge Gallery is open Wed – Sat 10.30am – 6pm, other times by appointment.

Sunday, 9 October 2011

Rachel Goodyear 'Modifications of the Host' Yorkshire Sculpture Park 1st October 2011

My second visit to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park this year and again at the invitation of The CultureVulture to a special bloggers' preview. This time I was there to see Rachel Goodyear's new show in the Bothy Gallery called 'Modifications of the Host'. The weather last time I was there was glorious and this autumnal evening we were blessed again with the last sunshine of a short Indian summer. It was lovely to see Jaume Plensa's sculptures, catching the light and reflecting the sky and glass of wine in hand we were all a little reluctant to leave the view behind and go into the gallery. A short introduction from our hosts and Rachel told us about her work and importantly the collaborations she has forged learning new skills in porcelain and stop-motion animation to complement her drawing. It turned out that she has spent time getting to know the park and some of the work we were to see was inspired by her experiences there.

The Bothy Gallery is quite a small space so it suited Rachel's small-scale intimately detailed pieces perfectly. Slightly confusingly for the eager blogger, there were no labels in sight. I was wondering how easy it would be to identify work from my descriptions alone but then I noticed the laminated room maps with labels. It may have been the glass of wine but these weren't as easy to follow as they might have been and I spent some time twisting my copy around (along with my head) trying to work out what I was looking at!

'Bad Berries' Rachel Goodyear
'Escapologist' Rachel Goodyear

There was some useful introductory text but I had also checked out Rachel Goodyear's website beforehand and this quote from David Beech interested me the most: "Nothing is at home in these works, as if the world had been tapped lightly and everything had stumbled into unfamiliar positions". Once actually in the presence of her work I felt as if it was more like I had given a shove and ended up in a world not quite the same as the one I thought I was in. 'Restless Sleeper' was the first drawing to catch my eye - it takes several seconds to realise what you are looking at but you finally see a naked woman, apparently asleep and with a wild boar fused to her body. The blackness of the animal's hair stands out again the stark white flesh of the woman who twists her head to one side. The stiff legs and cloven hooves of the beast draw the eye and in my notes I wrote the words 'possession'; 'the devil' and 'succubus' - I was thinking of medieval beliefs in evil spirits who possess people's bodies while they sleep. Next up was a tiny porcelain head called 'Bad Berries' set in a wasteland of white wall. Tiny white berries protruded from the mouth and eye sockets in a thoroughly disturbing way while the head was wearing a set of long ears. I immediately thought of the film 'Donnie Darko' and then of Bottom in 'A Midsummer's Nights Dream'. Were they rabbit ears or those of a donkey? Humans wearing long ears appeared in several of Rachel's pieces it turned out and I began to see them as symbolising people who were somehow possessed by nature or maybe apeing being part of nature. In the case of 'Bad Berries', nature seems to have struck back in a very unpleasant way.

The random cruelty of nature seemed well-represented by the limp porcelain corpses of two birds on a white plinth titled 'Escapologist'. From the beak of one a pencil drawing of more bird corpses seeps and drips down the side of the plinth like all those other unnoticed generations of dead birds that each one carries in its DNA. 'The Perils of Falling Asleep in the Woods I & II' shows two porcelain creatures both of whom are being overwhelmed and absorbed into the forest floor. Their bodies rot into leaf litter and lichen.

A room at the end of the gallery is given over to a projected stop motion animation called 'Woodman'. A strange scarecrow human with a sack for a head stands with his feet among dried and rustling vines, odd noises play and eventually mossy growths appear all over him only to vanish back into his flesh and clothing again in the blink of an eye. His blank dark holes for eyes stare out at you while the soundtrack booms and whispers, a man of the wild, gamekeeper, woodsman, men you rarely meet unless you are in the middle of a dark wood where maybe you are trespassing.

The Perils of Falling Asleep in the Woods
I began to see patterns in the work from this point - the humans with masked or hidden heads, that seem to be 'becoming' or possessed by animals; the bodies that bleed and rot back into their natural constituents and finally the animal world that seems to have been distorted and altered by the human. And dominating them all the little red pan-like horned creatures that dance and celebrate the fact that humans will never escape their ties to nature, in the end we all rot back into the soil. Sometimes we embrace it, most of the time we fight it. Rachel shows us that it will always defeat us. That hidden world that we often can only experience at night because we have driven it so far away from our normal lives, a hidden world that is still just waiting for us however much we deny it.

A truly remarkable and disturbing show then which has had me thinking for days now about that false veil we draw between the human and natural worlds. And as a final gift from that latter world, as I was leaving a huge crescent moon rose and far away in the dark I could hear geese calling to each other, not a human within miles of them.

Rachel Goodyear's 'Modifications of the Host' continues at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park until 3rd January 2012.

Thank you again to Emma The Culture Vulture for the invitation and to YSP for hosting us.

Thursday, 29 September 2011

The Joy of Food - Lund Gallery 25 September 2011

A summer of working on my own exhibition has kept me away from other galleries and boy, how I have missed it! Stella Adams-Schofield and I had our lovely preview of The Read Threads: Emerging Talent on Saturday 24 September and the very next day I was on my way to the Lund Gallery at Easingwold near York, clutching my preview invite to their new show The Joy of Food. I was definitely in need of a treat after months of hard work and was not disappointed. It's not the largest space in the world being converted from farm outbuildings and it was crammed with eager punters when we arrived. Juggling the price list, a glass of juice and my notebook while trying to see and identify the mass of work and avoiding bumping into people made it a bit of struggle and maybe not as relaxing as I hoped. But what a feast for the eyes, there was a marvelous selection of ceramics and glassware plus relevant textiles like Joanna Kinnersley-Taylor's printed tea towels and some lustrous linen cloth whose maker I couldn't identify.

Lou Rota mug
As a keen collector of studio ceramics I recognised several of the makers immediately, I already own one of Lisa Hammond's teapots and there was a wonderful range of plates, cups and jugs by Kaori Tatebayashi whose work I also already own and adore. But alongside the old favourites there was a whole feast of makers whose work I wasn't familiar with. Nigel Lambert's bowls and plates first caught my eye, thick and chunky with splodgy bold paintwork which I really liked and incredibly reasonably priced. Sandy Brown is a more established artist and her big solid bowl and handled vessel with their blue, dripped splashy lines were full of movement while being earthily solid. A huge contrast were the china mugs decorated by Lou Rota with outsized stag beetles and other creepy crawlies - they really tickled my mum and she bought one with rose buds and black beetles crawling all over it.

Jack Doherty tea bowl
We both also loved the incredibly detailed tapestries by Amanda Gizzi with their food-based subjects, particularly 'Pasta al Uovo' (hope I spelled that right!) - a generously proportioned woman is shown pummeling pasta while the hens responsible for the eggs crowd round and watch. More birds appeared on James Campbell's rather mythic vessels, a single swift flies high over a wind-disturbed lake while trees toss along the shore, a large black crow struts arrogantly in a field. Wonderful, and there was so much more that I didn't spend nearly enough time looking at because I was completely bowled over by the work of St Ives potter Jack Doherty and my mind was made up, I had to have one of his gorgeous soft smoky surfaced porcelain pieces. I eventually chose a small turquoise and grey tea bowl with the most amazing texture and depth of colour.

A thoroughly satisfying and beautifully laid out show then. The colourful cauliflowers and bowls of cherries may have been removed by now but I'd heartily recommend a visit even if you have to imagine your own food.

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Catherine Bertola at the Bronte Parsonage Museum, Haworth 15th April 2011

Rather to my surprise I 'won' a ticket for two to the preview of Catherine Bertola's new work in Haworth via a little competition run on Twitter by Art in Yorkshire - supported by Tate. I was delighted to receive them as I am already an admirer of the contemporary art programme organised by Arts Officer Jenna Holmes at the Bronte Parsonage Museum. I have also come across Catherine Bertola's work before as part of the V&A's Out of the Ordinary: Spectacular Craft exhibition which I saw January 2009 at the Tullie House Museum in Carlisle. Her site specific work 'Everything & Nothing' created from dust collected by cleaners and curators at the V&A was both beautiful and thought-provoking.

The Bronte Parsonage Museum offered the artist a very different opportunity to interpret a historic space. There are no brightly lit wide-open gallery spaces here, just small, dark rooms in an old house which have become a much-loved shrine to the lives and work of the famous 19th century authors. Catherine's response has been to create 'To be forever known', a sound installation which plays on a 6-minute loop in the dining room where the Bronte sisters wrote. There is plenty of interpretation available in the house to explain the laborious reading, recording, rerecording process which went into the installation but we were lucky enough to have Catherine Bertola explain it to us over a welcome glass of wine. For those not lucky enough to have been there, listen to this excellent interview online.
A Conversation with Catherine Bertola by Art-Talk

She told us about her impression of the house as a 'period set', a faithful reproduction of how the house might have looked but in the end not actually real. The only 'realness' is the space itself, unchanged since the sisters wrote on or walked round the dining-room table after their evening meal. Into this space Catherine read out excerpts from five of Charlotte Bronte's letters, recording them, then replaying them in the space and re-recording them until the words almost vanished and all that was left was the resonances of the sound in the room. And what strange sounds they are, the audio track hums and whoops and saws like a bad dream out of the BBC radiophonics workshop. The dining room is placed right next to the entrance door so there was a constant background noise of people chatting while they came in and out and I found it hard to hear more than these eerie synthetic sounds, not the "unintelligible whispers" mentioned in the interpretive leaflet. The piece is also very short and I have to say that a first listen left me quite disappointed. However, an odd alchemy took place as I explored further and I found that I began to listen much more closely to the sounds of the house, the creaking of the floorboards upstairs as people moved about and the ticking of the clock which I'd never noticed before. For the first time during a visit here I began to feel the house come alive, and those strange noises have continued to haunt me, becoming transmuted in my memory into an odd song like whale music.

Haunting is quite an appropriate word to use since it is clear that the artist is trying to recapture something of the life which people believe still lingers in the fabric of the building. Her companion work to the dining room installation is 'Residual hauntings', three black and white photographs taken on a slow shutter speed of the artist re-enacting some of the day-to-day activities and domestic tasks which once took place in these rooms. The resulting images show ghostly spectres descending stairs, planting bare feet on the kitchen floor or whirling around the dining room table. In an age where there is a plethora of fake paranormal television shows, these photos perhaps don't have the power that they might once have had, but they increased my conviction that behind this work is also an unstated reference to the world of 19th century spiritualists whose activities Catherine seems to be emulating, using science to make real the vanished sounds and souls that once filled these rooms to those who have made the pilgrimage. I have to admit I remain unconvinced by references to the artist's use of "...scientific methods...revealing the resonant harmonies and tones of architectural spaces" but the results certainly had the desired effect of making me think hard about the real meaning of preserving a house like this. Why do all these people visit the Parsonage if not to try to touch something which is in fact long gone. The spark of genius that once walked these rooms can now only be found within the pages of the Bronte's books but this doesn't stop people wanting to experience the atmosphere of the house that was once so filled with creativity. And this in the end is what Catherine's work did for me, I took away a great desire to hunt out my well-thumbed copy of Wuthering Heights in order to touch that genius for real once more.

Catherine Bertola's work can be experienced at the Bronte Parsonage Museum until 8th July 2011 and there are several exciting 'Conversaziones' coming up which the artist has organised as part of her 'To be forever known' project which I shall certainly try to attend.

Thanks again to Art in Yorkshire - supported by Tate for organising the tickets for me. They are actively promoting the arts in Yorkshire through their great new website Art in Yorkshire. Read more about the larger commission called 'Personal Tempest' that the Catherine Bertola work at the Bronte Parsonage Museum is part of on that website.

Saturday, 9 April 2011

Jaume Plensa at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park 6th April 2011

I felt tremendously excited by the opportunity to attend this special bloggers' preview evening at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, showcasing the work of internationally-renowned, Spanish artist Jaume Plensa. And I’m glad to say I wasn’t disappointed. YSP looked sublime on a gloriously sunny April day and as the evening progressed and the sun went down, Jaume’s external sculptures really came into their own, polished steel surfaces reflecting the sunset and then white lights inside seated figures mirrored by the glittering lights of a distant town.

The preview began with a chance to hear the artist himself talk modestly about his work in the Underground Gallery, framed by three of his extraordinary illuminated human figures crouched protruding from the walls of the room. Sadly the room’s acoustics were such that I didn’t hear much of what was said other than his concept that as humans we have auras that surround us and fill space and a quotation from Blake, “one thought fills immensity”. The words were immediately resonant as we stood with the three glowing figures looming over our heads carrying on their faces the first of the many words we were to discover.

YSP curator Sarah Coulson then took over and as we walked on from room to room, she attempted to explain more of the ideas that drive the artist, these include a deep love of humanity and a desire to create connections between people, both in a social sense but also between people and his work. It was interesting to approach the work with these explanations in mind. I have to say that I came away with some quite different impressions but that of course is the beauty of good interpretation, it allows you to make up your own mind!

Jaume’s work is mostly concentrated in the Underground Gallery with in addition, one piece hanging from the roof of the YSP Centre corridor and several large sculptures in the surrounding outdoor spaces. What follows here are just my first impressions after a necessarily short look round concentrating mostly on the indoor spaces, but I will definitely be returning for a longer visit very soon.

The four large rooms in the Underground Gallery might have been built to house the four incredibly diverse works on show in them. Jaume’s signature use of a wide range of materials in his sculptures was well-illustrated, demonstrating his words, “the material is never a direction, but only a vehicle.” The first room I have already described, the three hollow glowing plastic figures crouching on opposite walls like evil incubi. Stare at one and disturbingly you catch another out of the corner of your eye hovering in the dark space. Each is portrayed trying to cut themselves off from the world with their white waxy hands covering their ears or eyes or mouth, each an absolute expression of isolated anxiety. I was left wondering what terrible thing they were trying to block out.

In the next room, hollow illuminated plastic is replaced with the heavy timelessness of alabaster in a completely stunning array of giant, elongated Benin/Easter Island-looking heads hacked out of the raw stone. Some are like Michelangelo’s unfinished Captives, still emerging out of their roughly hewn blocks of stone, others are much more complete and float free. For an instant as my eyes adjusted to the gloom they shimmered like an optical illusion, glowing weirdly in their individual bright white spotlights as if they were holographs or projections flickering into life as some unseen switch is tripped. The alabaster is cracked and flawed while each face is polished smooth and the surfaces glitter in the harsh white light as you move around them. I thought the faces were all the same but Sarah explained that they are actually based on the digitally manipulated photographs of a series of girls. Jaume believes that women may be the future of the world and these quiet contemplative heads are displayed like fragments of a future civilization’s art laid out in a museum store, hence the wooden crates they stand on. For me they seemed more like a set from a film, a temple from a lost alien culture, eerie and other-worldly or perhaps powerful objects being readied to be packed away in a vast Raiders of the Lost Ark-type government storage facility.

The following room juxtaposes stone and plastic. Three giant white illuminated children’s heads are placed on a square carpet of tumbled marble rocks which have a floury white texture quite at odds with the smooth white plastic of the heads which face across their stone carpet towards each other but entirely unknowingly since they have their eyes shut. Across their smooth young features are ‘tattooed’ in raised letters words such as Hysteria, Insomnia, Disease and Hunger, all the ills that man is heir to along with all his sins, Desire, Wrath and Ignorance among them. Sarah described Jaume’s work as essentially hopeful, the words used here are from an Oscar Wilde letter describing the experience of prisoners in Reading Gaol in an effort to ameliorate the conditions. I saw no hope however. These children weren’t communicating with each other, they were withdrawn and silent, passively waiting to be scarred and damaged by the things we see written on their faces. Like all humans, they exist side by side but ultimately they will be isolated from each other by their individual experiences.

The silence and sadness of that room was shattered by the next and final room where a dimly-lit circle of brass gongs hangs ready to be brought to ear-shattering life. The noise when people really got going was powerful in the most primitive and visceral way, I managed to record a short clip on my phone although it was so loud it nearly blew out the speakers! Listen!
I was immediately transported to the world of film again, this time to the temples and seductresses of Hollywood epics, like Samson and Delilah or Cecil B DeMille's Cleopatra. The quotes from the Bible’s ‘Song of Songs’ cast in clear resin on each gong underlined this feeling with its erotically charged story of the woman who searches for her lover.

In complete contrast to this powerful assault on the senses is the curtain of cut-out steel letters which sways and quietly tinkles along the whole length of the corridor which fronts the Underground Gallery. It is titled ‘Twenty-Nine Palms’ and contains sentences from a selection of the artist’s favourite authors.

Jaume Plensa 'Twenty-Nine Palms' YSP April 2011 from Karen Griffiths on Vimeo.
I liked Sarah’s description of Jaume’s concept of words lined up on the page as if in front of a firing line, which he then frees with a new life of movement, light and sound in his sculptures.

Verses from the ‘Song of Songs’ are also engraved on the steel doors of two glass brick built 'cells' illuminated with soft coloured LED lights which are located in the entrance lobby of the gallery. Step inside and you are completely isolated from the outside world, a soothing gift from the artist perhaps better experienced on your way out after all the visual and aural excitement of the rest of the gallery.

Escaping into the open air, words from many different languages appear on the skins of metal men solemnly kneeling and embracing a collection of trees. Or they form the actual skin of a number of steel sculptures, delicate kneeling forms with no faces, bleeding letters over their stone plinths. Each one like a shining Tower of Babel, chattering silently as the sun went down. As the artist says “I invite you to listen to these noises. I invite you to imagine silence”.

Jaume Plensa continues at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park until 25 September. Opening times and other details from their website

A big thank you to YSP for the opportunity to view and photograph the work and meet the artist and to Emma for organising it all.

Find a full set of the photos I took at the preview in my Flickr photostream

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

'The Art of Printmaking' The Butterfly Rooms, Saltaire 19th March 2011

View of Anna Tosney's exhibition
My second visit this year to the Butterfly Rooms’ little upstairs gallery on the main road through Saltaire. This time I was there to see the work of a long-time favourite of mine, printmaker Anna Tosney, along with that of a selection of other local printmakers (and one ceramicist). Anna’s work took over the whole of one of the upstairs rooms and it was a pleasure to see so much of it so well-displayed. A thoughtful introductory label described her technique as a mixture of drypoint and monoprint, the latter laying on the background and infill colours while the former is responsible for the scratchy textures and thick black outlines that are so characteristic of her work. Interestingly she also uses environmentally-friendly soy-based inks.

The heavy black lines described, vibrate with energy even when portraying still subjects while the monoprinting produces a simple palette of relatively dull colours perfectly suited to the rural subject matter of farmers, sheep and wild animals. All are sharply observed and the drypoint technique provides wonderful textured skies and woolly sheep coats which contrast the shimmering outlines. There is the occasional veering towards twee-ness, for example ‘ Goose Chase’ with a lamb being chased by three hissing geese but the lack of facial features and the flat cut-out shapes lift them above this. It’s quite remarkable how much energy and life she actually gets into the people and animals in her work given the 2D, almost cut out flat shapes. In one work a group of deer by moonlight have the faintest touch of silvery white on their rumps while ‘Deer 4’ has no colour at all and is almost Japanese in its simplicity, just a tiny touch of feathery detail in the grassheads surrounding the two completely motionless deer, poised just before flight.

My friend and I spent some time discussing her influences without really nailing it. We agreed that there was a hint of Japanese anime and some of the naivety of Jean Dubuffet and also perhaps of free-hand graffiti with the heavy black outlines and flat coloured infill, but it is certainly a question I would like to put to Anna next time I see her. My friend did like the work enough to treat herself to a delightful print of a wood pigeon (pictured left).

The rest of the exhibition was in the next door room with a wide selection of different styles and techniques on show. June Russell’s work was the first to catch my eye since I recognised it from the KAF Open Exhibition that I blogged about last month. She uses a mixture of techniques but my favourite from this show was ‘Holme Moss’ (etching and surface print) with its abstract representation of a pinky-grey swathe of scarred moorland. I also liked the more representational ‘Hedges in Cowgill’ which I first spotted at the KAF exhibition. Cath Brooke on the other hand showed a more coherent set of collograph/drypoint impressions of Brimham Rocks in blacks, turquoise and brick red. Being a bit of a geology nerd, I couldn’t help seeing a metaphor for the river delta origins of the rocks in the liquid flowing style of the lower half of each print with the solidifying gritstone emerging out of it in the solid lumpy shapes of the upper half. Or maybe I was just feeling a little light-headed because it was near lunchtime!

Catherine Sutcliffe-Fuller’s large prints certainly brought me down to earth. They were a long way from some of the ‘prettier’ pieces in the show. Peer into them and you see complex, slightly chaotic, definitely worrying, images. ‘Dixons Hollow’ has a distant cyclist vanishing into a looming woodland. In ‘Exposed’, two red-rucksack carrying walkers are seen heading into a maelstrom of weather on a mountain. Each print is flat in texture but full of energy and threat. Piers Browne is probably the best known of all the artists represented with a long and distinguished career as an artist-printmaker. His work has a lyrical, romantic air with its evocations of English summer days. ‘The Comet over Croagh Patrick’ with its silver moon peeping from behind a cloud called to mind the mystical visionary landscapes of Samuel Palmer, for example his ‘Cornfield by Moonlight’. Attractive work no doubt if a little backward looking for my taste.

Finally I should mention the work of the ceramicist Kath Bonson which at first sight seemed to have little connection to the work on the walls. However, a closer inspection revealed screen-printed images from her own photographs on the flat surfaces of the stoneware paper clay she uses to create her intricate forms. Again, a thoughtful piece of text placed the work in context. They form part of a project she calls ‘Cullingworth – a Sense of Place’. She goes on to explain that they represent her belief that there is no, one, definitive view of a landscape and that the various surfaces and shapes are an attempt to capture some of these interpretations. I particularly liked ‘The Viaduct’ which looked like shards of old cardboard box, printed with a multiplicity of views then torn and singed then finally reassembled with its tantalising glimpses of the old Victorian railway viaduct.

The show continues at The Butterfly Rooms until 8 April. Visit their website for opening times.

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Sunday, 13 March 2011

'Northweave', Platform Gallery, Clitheroe 12 March 2011

(c) Margaret Crowther
Clitheroe is always a great place to spend a Saturday morning with its superb coffee, shoe, wine and clothes shops not to mention some of the best quality charity shops for miles around! But the icing on the cake is the Platform Gallery located in the old railway station, run by the local authority and long may that last. This weekend I was there for the opening of 'Northweave', an exhibition by northern members of the British Tapestry Group. The last time I saw a BTG exhibition was Tapestry 08 in Halifax, a huge, high-quality show over two venues which dispelled a lot of my preconceptions about tapestry. Unfortunately, my first few minutes in Northweave had me feeling nervous - there were hints of the misshapen wobbly porridgey textures and crude geometric shapes and colours which remind me of school craft projects. Luckily those first impressions were quickly dispelled by the first of three superb pieces by Margaret Crowther who incidentally was one of my favourites at Tapestry 08. 'October' is made from woven and knotted paper yarn coloured the orangey-coppery brown of autumn leaves. Stare at it and within its intense deep surface you can see tumbling leaves and wind-tossed tree branches. There were also string-like yarn fragments that looked like rotted leaf ribs - I was reminded of Andy Goldsworthy's extraordinary Leaf Stalk Room at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park (2007-08). 'Meridian' was a smaller version of some of the 3-D work that Margaret is known for. In orange-red sisal, the detail and texture proved to be endlessly fascinating, staring at it for several minutes I suddenly saw a series of beautiful little curls along one edge that I hadn't noticed before. Stepping back, the honeycomb, folded object became almost animal-like, frozen and flopped over its plinth like a beached sea-creature barely holding up its own weight. Her final work in the exhibition was a stunning wall-mounted piece called 'Firemarks' - big, wild, chaotic with fluctuating shades of brown, orange and ochre rippling across its surface. Images of Iron Age huts with wattle walls; and dry Aboriginal landscapes came to mind along with the work of Nigerian artist Nnenna Okore. The broken curled edges had the brittle look of ancient Egyptian baskets preserved in sand. Superb work by any standard - she writes "In this creative process of weaving, knotting and wrapping I look for ways to express my fascination for the random growth and ordered chaos of the natural environment".

(c) Vasiliki Skepetari
This description might also have fitted the work of Vasiliki Skepetari. Her untitled piece was made from wrapped paper yarns from which she has created a series of hanging cords like thick tree roots penetrating through the roof of a cave but also like computer cables with the bright flashes of turquoise in amongst the bands of orange, brown black, beige and yellow. Tiny flashes of copper wiring underlined that interpretation - I thought of messages being transmitted down those wires or nerve pathways in a giant brain. She writes that trees and rocks inspire her, "Their textured surfaces reveal figures and shapes to me, I interpret them as messages coming from our ancestors through the centuries."

The next work to catch my eye was on an altogether smaller scale. Three framed tapestry 'fetishes' by Alison Carthy, two were mislabelled but once we'd got that sorted out with the gallery staff I fell in love with them all, one was mossy green with red blobs and a piece of silvery green lichen, another was themed around a moorland fire with a bird's black feather tangled in fiery red and orange yarns and the third was a grey fragment of woven wool with long dry pine needles pushed through it called 'Lodgepole Pine'. My own work currently revolves around ideas of amulets so I couldn't resist this piece of textile voodoo and bought it on the spot [photo to follow]. She writes about her work as follows: "Place is important, this being the land on which I stand. The work is driven by my concern about how I see mankind using the earth's resources with seemingly little regard for who comes next". Sounds just like a rag rug maker!

These were my highlights but honorable mention should also go to Beryl Hammill's 'Moor Lat 55N' with its pastel-coloured glimpse of a heather hillside and scribbled rush shapes like shorthand; Shirley Ross' 'Red Water' a very finely woven abstract evocation of red sunlight on grey water and Joyce Coulton's teeny tiny jewel-coloured scenes 'Underground' and 'Workings'.

In the end Northweave turned out to be an exhibition with enough really contemporary tapestry work to get even a sceptic like me excited so I'd really recommend a trip (not forgetting some shopping too!).

Northweave continues at the Platform Gallery, Clitheroe until 23 April 2011. Admission is free. For opening times see the Platform Gallery's webpage

Monday, 14 February 2011

The Butterfly Rooms, Saltaire 12 February 2011

My friend the ceramicist Lis Holt invited me along to this newly opened gallery space above a sweet little gift shop on Bingley Road in Saltaire. I already have several pieces of her work in my collection so was delighted to see her latest pieces. She is showing her work alongside that of photographer Daniel Shiel and painter David Starley. All three artists had organised a 'meet the artist' afternoon and I spent a pleasant hour in the two sunny, white painted second floor rooms, glass of wine in hand chatting to the artists about their work.

The first room was given over entirely to David Starley's heavily impasto oil paintings. En masse the effect was rather overwhelming especially given the strong smell of drying paint and the vibrant colours of some of the work. The more brightly coloured scenes, for example the poppies in cornfields were not to my taste but the more thoughtful work like the gloomy canalway at the back of Salts Mill or the grey, rain-shined cobbles of Victoria Road in Saltaire suited the weight and mass of the technique.

Daniel Shiel 'Corrugated Iron 2'
The walls of the neighbouring room were more lightly hung with Daniel Shiel's exquisite photographs of both natural and man-made surface textures. The eye was caught by the extraordinarily beautiful patterns formed by the decayed surfaces of peeling paint, bleeding rust and bleached wood. Daniel uses the computer to further point up these patterns by creating collages and mosaics of the photographs. I particuarly loved the work called 'Saltaire iron and stone collage' showing a series of old iron staples set in lead rusting into their stone settings. It came as no surprise that Daniel, like me, trained as an archaeologist, he writes that he  "... considers the rich textures, patterns and colours evident in many everyday objects both natural and artificial: details often unseen and overlooked at first glance. The themes at the centre of my work are associations with the past, decay, destruction and loss."

Lis Holt 'Wave' next to Daniel Shiel collage
Lis Holt pots
It seemed that some of the rusty staining from Daniel's photographs had somehow made their way across into some of Lis Holt's normally mechanically-perfect matte blue glazes. Her Wave forms were all the better for it and all her pieces showed well against Daniel's work. Many of her vessel forms are inspired by those of ancient Aegean pottery and the full-bellied pots and single bowl displayed effectively in a deep recess beside the room's chimney breast looked as if they had been excavated from a sunken trading ship with their mottled or crusted surfaces and simple wave-like repetitive decoration.

The exhibition at The Butterfly Rooms continues until 26 February 2011. Details from their website 

Thursday, 10 February 2011

'Pairings: a conversation' Farfield Mill Arts & Heritage Centre, Sedbergh

I didn't have nearly enough time to appreciate this wonderful exhibition when I visited last weekend but thought I'd share a few highlights anyway as I'd really like to recommend it to everyone. 'Pairings' is co-curated by Alice Kettle and this comes as no surprise as I saw the beginnings of the idea, bringing applied artists from different disciplines together, at her 'Clay & Thread' display at the Harrogate Knitting & Stitching Show in 2009. At that exhibition she had worked collaboratively with two ceramicists, Helen Felcey and Alex McErlain (brilliant YouTube video of Alex making pots here) both of whom appear in the Farfield show too.

The Pairings project is an interdisciplinary project conceived by Alice Kettle and other tutors at Manchester Metropolitan University, it went from one involving textile artists and ceramicists "responding to each others' marks and forms" to one involving 18 pairings of artists from a wide range of disciplines from glass to metalwork to writing.

The pairing that caught my eye immediately was that of Sharon Blakey and Ismini Samanidou "a conversation between cloth and clay". The linking theme shared by the two artists was that of antique looking spoons, gorgeous monochrome woven textiles with rows of spoons were placed underneath dark clay spoons, washed grey and cream, each flowing into the other. The textiles also had panels of scribbled words, I wondered if these were the conversations. The ceramic spoons were like archaeological artefacts, twisted, dark and broken, the textiles on the other hand appeared to have been produced on a Jacquard loom using digital programming. In spite of this the textiles achieved a similar appearance of being antique and used, indeed one lime green, orange and cream piece was worn in holes reminiscent of the work of Chiyoko Tanaka, a well-known Japanese weaver who grinds away the surfaces of her textiles with stones and bricks. The 'damaged' woven piece was mirrored by a similarly-coloured square plate with an impressed textile pattern in its delicately coloured surface. There was precious little information to go with the work of the individual artists so I was delighted to discover a blog later by Sharon Blakey in which she provides a great deal of background information on this collaboration, for instance that the spoons are based on those from the Mary Greg collection at the Manchester Art Gallery and that some of the scribbled texts are copies of Mary's inventory of the collection. Read more here

I've already mentioned Helen Felcey's collaboration with Alice Kettle at Harrogate. Here she is partnered with David Grimshaw using 3-D printing technology to recreate a slip cast cup using a variety of modern materials. Their task was "trying to make sense of the made object through exploring modern technologies". Visit the Shapeways website and search for 'slip cast cup' to order your own!

Ceramicist Duncan Ayscough had chosen to work with felt artist Helen Belcher. Three paired sets of clay and felt vessels were arranged side by side. In one the felt and the clay colours were a closely matched burnt orange, the warm colour and matt surface of the clay and felt perfectly matched, the felt cradling and cuddling up to the clay. In the next set, cold turquoise-glazed vessels reminiscent of Edmund de Waal's work contrasted sharply with the similarly coloured felt ones which tried to hug the shiny surfaces warmly but seemed to slide away. In the final set, black, hard, rough, matte clay vessels sat beside rather limp soft white felt ones which tried and failed to mirror their solid black shapes. A simple display but remarkably interesting in its use of texture and form.

Kirsteen Aubrey, Victoria Brown and Jane McFadyen rather broke the mould by working as a threesome "creating shapes that envelop each other in glass, felt, pewter and thread". They had worked together far more closely than many of the other artists putting something of themselves into each of the pieces on display which together formed an exotic, sensual collection of rounded fruit- and seed-shaped objects, thick 'rinds' of red or white felt enclosed glass 'flesh' studded with glistening red glass beads like pomegranate seeds along with shiny twisted hollow 'stems' and 'calyxes' in crocheted wire and silk yarn. Quite delightful.

Finally, I can't leave without mentioning the pieces by Alice Kettle and Alex McErlain as previously seen in Harrogate, here described as "a conversation through sketches in embroidery and clay". I'm not a massive fan of Alice Kettle's huge, densely embroidered pieces but here the partnership with the ceramicist seems to have freed  her to produce work with a delicacy and lightness of touch I usually find missing. One embroidery hangs loosely with sparsely rendered images of a vase turning gradually into a woman's body through repetition. It is a lovely, light piece and links beautifully with Alex's tiny repetitive biro sketches of vessel forms on the insides of brown envelopes which are displayed nearby.

So, a thoroughly inspiring exhibition redolent with generosity and creativity which I have really only scraped the surface of in this blog. My only niggle? The lack of  accompanying visual material. A catalogue is available from self-publishing website Blurb for £25 I discovered after a bit of Googling, however it didn't really seem to reflect much of the work on display at Farfield and for those of us on a limited budget and banned from taking our own photographs, some postcards would have been appreciated!

'Pairings: a conversation' continues at Farfield Mill Arts & Heritage Centre until 3 April 2011. Opening times and other information can be found on the mill's website.

Saturday, 5 February 2011

'Endings and Beginnings' Arts Factory Open exhibition, Love Keighley Gallery 5 February 2011

This year, Keighley Arts Factory has decamped from its main gallery on North Street and taken over an unoccupied shop in Keighley's Airedale shopping centre. The Love Keighley Gallery is all part of a town centre regeneration effort which is all too familiar in shopping centres throughout the country and pop-up galleries as they are often called are a sad reflection on the local economy. Today's preview was a jolly affair for all that and well attended by artists and friends. We will see what the rest of the town's residents make of it over the coming month.

Shops are not always ideal venues for art shows but this one with its
corner position and large glass windows showed off the work fairly well although the glass also meant that the hanging area was necessarily restricted so some work was less than ideally placed high off the ground and not so easily viewed. One artist who suffered in this respect was Linda Harrison. Her 'Beginnings' work appeared to be the tooled cover of an old book which had red tabs placed like bookmarks behind it but the piece was hung so high it was impossible to see what the words printed on them were and whether they were significant. Her 'Endings' piece on the other hand was an easy to read photograph of a wall of old glazed tiles and peeling white paint, simple but I'm a sucker for images of decay and wear.

This is why I was also drawn to the work of Stephen Capstick showing images of old peeling painted doors, one 'Untitled I' with a battered tin-plated letter box, the other 'Untitled II' with a rusty hasp and padlock. Again, they were too high for me to get a really good look and I couldn't tell if they were prints or manipulated photographs, but at £50 each I suspect the latter.

June Russell's three pieces were definitely prints and all very accomplished. 'Autumn Chimneys' was a delightful lino print rooftop view through leaves while 'Hedges at Cowgill' a simple monochrome etching and aquatint showing a drystone wall and single silhouetted tree.

Perhaps the most accomplished artist in the show was Janet McLelland whose gloomy, powerful landscapes caught the eye of all three of my guests. The photo shows them in the centre of the shot, one above the other. Janet writes in the catalogue, "In these three made-up Landscapes I evoke renewability of Land, endless circles of Beginnings and Endings that are yet to be portrayed". I'm not entirely sure what that means but for me they spoke very directly, the centre one of war-torn landscapes, the mud of the Somme with its artillery shattered trees and rain-soaked skies. The bottom one seemed to be an image of a powerful river silvered with moonlight surging past a dark forbidding forest. Again, very reasonably priced at around £100 each.

While the quality of the rest of the show is variable there is enough decent work here for me to recommend a visit. For reasons set out below, make the most of it as it may be your last for a while in Keighley.

The show continues until Wed 23 February, the gallery is open Mon-Thurs 10am to 4pm Fri 10am to12noon Sat 10am to 3pm

Postcript: While at the preview I learned from the curator Jo Whitehead that Leeds City College is closing down the KAF gallery on North Street. It will be sadly missed.

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Giles-Peyton-Thompson ‘Aspects of a Collection’ Craven Museum & Gallery, Skipton 18 January 2011

Another friendly preview at Skipton’s Art Gallery and a fascinating exhibition which rewarded the extra time I spent getting to know it over the evening.

The three artists have spent the previous year in residence at the museum, with a free pass to access the entire museum’s collections. As most people know, only a fraction of a museum’s holdings are ever on display at any one time and museum stores are true Aladdin’s caves as all three of these artists has clearly discovered.

A first glimpse of the resulting work, mostly painting and print, proved a little disappointing. It appeared to be a show entirely made up of simple representations of artefacts from the museum’s collections, kitchen implements, clogs, children’s games and so on. However, as mentioned already, upon closer inspection, an entirely different story emerged.

Joanna Thompson’s work made the most immediate impression. ‘The Relics’ is a series of medium-sized acrylic canvases with peculiar museum objects dangling or placed centrally against an apparently whitewashed wall with torn fragments of garishly patterned wallpaper applied to it. In her blurb she describes how she was inspired by strange-looking, surreal, mysterious objects in the stores, it was irrelevant to her what the function of each object was, instead they began to take on a life of their own. Surreal they certainly were, some of the items began to look like slave chains or instruments of torture with spikes and hinges. Each item was painted as if a strong light was being shone onto it throwing a dark shadow against the white background as if in a horror movie or an interrogation room. A collection of paintings showing giant butterflies pinned through their thoraxes was equally unsettling.

Sarah Giles’ paintings are on a much smaller scale. Again she portrays life-like images of museum artefacts. There is a slight optical illusion, at first sight I believed that she had miniaturised normal-sized objects, a pair of clogs, a set of dominoes, a teapot, however, the museum has helpfully set up a case with some of the objects in nearby and it turns out that the items are in fact as small as they are painted. The illusion has been created by placing each object in a relatively large empty space. As Sarah describes “There is sometimes sadness in the work, a sense of loss, something missing suggested by uncomfortable spaces.” Handling the objects, once loved and played with and now abandoned forever have clearly left their mark on the artist.

Helen Peyton has gone a step further than the other artists in that her work is not only inspired by but also actually made using a museum artefact – a huge 19th century Britannia printing press. Unlike the other two artists, the objects she chooses to illustrate are much more familiar, at least to the older generation of visitor. They are the objects of post-war modernism and prosperity, the Bakelite television, the 1950s gramophone, the enamelled cooker. The muted creams, turquoises and greens of the reduction lino prints are quite beautiful and perfectly redolent of the period. The inks used have produced a shiny surface to some of the prints which harks back to the shininess of the new enamel and formica surfaces of those once modern kitchens, sparkling and clean after the griminess of the coal-heated Victorian kitchen. The butterfly collection has also caught her eye and there are a number of decorative prints showing cut-out silhouettes superimposed one on the other.

So, all in all, an exhibition that is definitely worth a second look. Closer contemplation uncovers the eeriness behind the realism of Giles’ miniature objects surrounded by empty space like abandoned children, lonely and frightened, or Thompson’s quaint curios, turned into instruments of interrogation, hidden in cellars with whitewashed walls and torn wallpaper and unshaded, brightly-burning light bulbs. Peyton’s prints are perhaps the least disturbing with their unashamed nostalgia for the domestic objects of our parent’s youth but even they with their hints of technical drawings, front, side, top and back of the Bakelite television for instance, remind us that the factories that produced these symbols of prosperity so readily, had only a few years before been mass-producing weapons of war.

The exhibition continues until 2 May 2011. Further details here

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