Hitting The Streets was a task set for the Foundation Diploma students from Northbrook Met (University Centre, Worthing) on a research visit to Brighton (May 2018). This also provided an opportunity for my own response to the theme.
Heather and John Corley developed Linden Hall Studio into a gallery space in 2014 and a visit to Transformations provides a good excuse to get out of the city and head for the Kent coast. Gazing out to sea from any location enhances our physical groundedness (literally) and we get a reinvigorated sense of that weird but ever-present phenomenon called ‘space’. Extended space is curious because of our own limited human dimensions, from which we perceptively judge all immediate senses of distance, size and scale. Distant space can be observed with some sense of safety, even if temporarily, as threats draw near. Looking to the distant horizon, especially when the sea has replaced the land, can evoke a mysterious sense of future times and places. Close space, within arms length, holds love and fear in equal measure.
Spatiality in visual art, especially painting, also provides an extending experience for the imagination, and the trickery of illusion (aided by the sophisticated perspectival inventions from Masaccio and Quattrocento painting onwards) has permeated the reception and reading of painting for a long, long time. Likewise, abstract painting engages with this experiential, psychological and forcefully visual engagement with notions of space. Colour and linearity, to varying degrees, are often a component part of this spatial scenario and Gary Wragg’s paintings have demonstrated this over several decades.
Sculpture is another matter, where form (involving volume, weight, mass and monumentality), rather than an abstract notion of spatiality, has dominated its production and development. Anthony Caro changed all that in the 1960s, with the fusion of material (typically steel) creating structure in space – as space. Robin Greenwood was a student of Caro’s at Saint Martin’s School of Art in the early ‘seventies and so a loosely woven School of Caro (from the New Generation and beyond) might still be discerned at times, despite the endemic plurality of late modernism/postmodernism that has created a mixed bag of avenues and cul-de-sacs for artists to explore.
Gary Wragg’s formative painting education was forged at Camberwell and the Slade Schools of Fine Art, respectively. Wragg’s abstract expressionist influences are clearly New York School (Jack Tworkov and Willem DeKooning spring to mind) but his paintings are unmistakably identifiable as ‘Gary Wraggs’ and reveal his personal relationship with the practice of drawing and Tai Chi.
Wragg and Greenwood have evolved from the same generation and the Transformations exhibition, curated by Sam Cornish, provides a welcome combination of contrasting yet complimentary works. At Linden Hall Studio, the two exhibition floors are filled with natural and artificial light throughout the day. This light (as if it were a medium of the architecture) illuminates so effectively and is a feature of the gallery that presents the works exceptionally well.
For a first impression, two of Wragg’s paintings have been placed in the front windows to give a taste of what will be inside the gallery. Above, on shelves, are six of John Corley’s glass ‘muffs’, or cylinders, of coloured glass. These are not part of the show but also hint at the colour and light that is a major feature of Wragg’s canvases. Entering through a double door, two of Greenwood’s sculptures have been placed to either side of this initial space and are bathed in natural light from windows above, where a mezzanine floor opens up the gallery space. Four of Wragg’s large canvasses (plus a tight configuration of eight small compositions on card that are from the same series as the works in the window) immediately create an impression of qualitative choice and arrangement. Although the building was originally a chapel, there is a comfortable domestic scale to the space and a staircase that takes visitors up to the first floor, with two more sculptures and over a dozen paintings, including three more large canvases, further hints at this homely aura.
There is much to see (39 works in total) and the surprisingly roomy walking area on each floor allows the viewer to stand back to find the correct viewing distance for each work. Except where paintings are purposely hung together (essentially the smaller compositions), the indicative relationship between paintings and sculptures in adjacent spaces are neither forced nor dependent upon each other. In addition to the obvious contrasts between painting and sculpture, Wragg’s colourful and light (in tone) paintings, and Greenwood’s dark and heavy (in weight) sculptures, creates a balance rather than a confrontation between very different works. The larger canvases relate to the sculptures particularly well as they occupy similar characteristics of size and presence, though any links will be circumstantial rather than programmatically devised.
But whether intentionally or not, questions were raised in Transformations: Do we look at and experience abstract sculptures the same way as abstract painting? And are our expectations different? From this pairing for the exhibition both forms of abstract art contain a sense of rhythm and flow within their respective linear configurations. Each artist appears to work intuitively and without strict expectation of the final outcome in a spirit of freedom for what might transpire in the creative process. Both work in series (which can falsely suggest predetermined forms) and there is also a tactile sense of materiality of the mediums (of paint and steel) that counters illusionism and figurative forms. Greenwood and Wragg are committed abstract artists who have never waivered in their personal quests to develop visually emboldened works within the field of abstraction.
One distinction, which equates the viewer with the work (as much as the artist’s intention), might be in the way the work is looked at or apprehended. Greenwood’s sculptures, which are made to be engaged with visually, and experienced in the round, can be viewed either standing still and in movement. Momentary compositions, made from pausing to take in and consider the work, are endless as even the slightest readjustment of positioning changes how a three dimensional form is seen. In Greenwood’s sculptures there is a mysterious, subtlety aggressive, ‘Gothic’ persona to the works. This latter designation may be rather superficially attached, but the metallic darkness, the sense of weight and the uncompromising nature of hard metal, pertains to the uncompromising nature of the works, especially those suspended from the ceiling. Looking up at ‘Kwoke 166’put the bundle of steel (with a little wood and plastic) into stark contrast with the spotlights on the ceiling and felt quite menacing.
Returning to notions of spatiality, with sculpture that is big enough, the viewer’s own physical space is encroached upon. Is this where sculpture can surprise or unnerve the viewer? Like another being before them that activates real space – not just headspace. And as the viewer moves around the forms, careful not to walk into or too dangerously underneath, the changing compositional framing of looking can never rest. With the sculptures there is the issue of gravity too – especially potent for Greenwood’s suspended forms. But also of weight, which in ‘Tree of Ornans’, lifts defiantly from the level of the floor with dexterous and agile movement that is surprisingly lyrical, as the fragmented industrial component parts become gestural branches suggesting arms and legs. It is balletic and poised.
Interestingly, Greenwood’s three suspended sculptures contrast with ‘Tree of Ornans’ more than with Wragg’s paintings. There is a tighter configuration, in the almost head-like suspended sculptures. The allusion to the head probably has more to do with their positioning off the ground/floor (131, 138 and 166cm). The viewer meets these pieces head-on, rather than at knee and chest level with the ‘Tree of Ornans’. The physicality of the sculptures fixes the implied bursts and movement of stilled implosion/explosion and rotation. By contrast, it is the viewer who must move around the works. The viewer becomes the kinetic component in a spatial performance.
With painting there is an obligation to stand still, rooted to the spot. The viewer’s eyes, and sometimes the head, will move as the gaze surveys and wanders. Abstract (visual) space will take the viewer in to its implied space, with the flat canvas surface as counterpoint. Wragg’s paintings, typified by his signature gestural calligraphy, instinctive and freeform colour combinations, and (almost) dangerously undone configurations of marks and shapes, are always expressively lyrical. The kinetic features are in the painting’s virtual space. The viewer is a little more physically passive.
‘PL5’, exhibited downstairs and ‘OTBDG, 2, Yellow’, shown upstairs, are two works of Wragg’s that could be juxtaposed with the sculptures as there seemed to enough air around the gestural configurations to describe forms in space. Behind and within a freeform dance of linear gestures, Wragg creates a sense of shallow space. But in each work various colour patches, splatters and gestural swirls sit on the surface of the visual field to deny the illusion of concrete, representational form.
I suspect that, by convention, the viewer does not look at abstract sculptures in quite the same way as abstract painting because expectations are different. Paintings suggest physical, geographical distances and ‘otherness’. Because of illusionistic functioning (‘picturing’) and inherent subject matter (“what/where is it?”), painting is somehow conjured from virtual realities. But sculptures are more overtly, formally, here and now – occupying the viewer’s own physical space. Does the viewer meet a sculpture – and observe a painting? Whatever conclusions can be made, Transformations poses questions that do not have to be answered with certainty, just as abstraction is far from over as a major genre in contemporary art.
This is an exhibition that cannot fail to intrigue. American artist, Brett Goodroad, has produced a major sequence of small ink drawings and they are displayed in various sequences in the largest room at the Phoenix Gallery for the Brighton Festival. Inevitably, the available space dictates a splitting up of so many works. One wall holds 15 drawings (or are they paintings?) and another presents ten works. There are also two drawings in one corner and a temporary wall with four on one side but just one on the reverse. Another dozen framed works adds up to a total of 44, so there is much to see.
The arrangement has some chronological sequencing but the adjustment to the exhibition environment prompts a reading of the works both as a sequential narrative structure and as individual scenarios to be considered. This, as it happens, is appropriate for Toe Buoy. The implied linearity of the series (as in A to B or left to right) is given an added dimension, as the viewer is obliged to peer closely at individual works and can allow the eye to be drawn into monochromatic depths of inferred space. This tonal aspect lends itself to creating a sense of envelopment and atmosphere: a sense of place, albeit with some degree of mystery.
Placed in Goodroad’s virtual environments, the viewer must bring his or her own interpretation of events – or just take it in without the need for clarity of message. It’s a poetics of space that is presented, where one must ‘be’, rather than judge or search for specific meaning.
But of course, there is a context beyond the images. The artist is resident in San Francisco and is developing a reputation as a painter of landscapes. He works on his colour dominated paintings in his garden, in a local landscape that is often damp and misty. Of his painting he has said: “I want to handle colour like Ingres and end up in the Nabis.” This reveals Goodroad’s knowledge of art history and places him in a Modernist context (the Nabis acknowledged flatness in painting long before Clement Greenberg made it a dictum for painting).
To broaden his creative portfolio, Goodroad is also a writer. The exhibition title, Toe Buoy, originates from a poem that the artist wrote in 2015. In the exhibition leaflet the author has explained that:
This poem is one of a set of poems I have written over the past five years surrounding the fictional characters Elm and Aleen. The poems work around a central image of Aleen floating in an ocean and a boundary: the seam of water, the line making her contour. We see her toes, her skin drying in the air and the ocean taking it away from her.
The question is: Is Aleen about revery? Or of fish or mammals?
Aleen and Elm were painters who became sick because image and physical presence grew too much. She wrote: ‘when the world became oracular ecstasy left evening’.
A bowl of boiling
Or is Aleen about painting? About bringing things together: let things be air and water. How can one compose them to make them musical? Or their history, the raising colour: resting nude under a tree, a leafy wink.
‘Or, my lyrical elephant, carry a lover’.
Goodroad is clearly leaving his poetry open to interpretation, but a notion of reverie and submersion has dream-like connotations. Visual content in Goodroad’s writing appears to be Imagistic (revealing his interest in the Wisconsin poet Lorine Niedecker – an Objectivist, Imagist, Surrealist writer) and as might be expected translates into actual imagery in his primary role as a visual artist. In the quieter, visual medium of the painter, the unspoken but revealed can be as equally clear or obscure as the written or spoken word.
In Toe Buoy the painterly ink drawings have a sense of a state of becoming – rather like the process of under or over developing black and white photographic prints that were once produced in the darkroom before the advent of the digital medium. Some of the drawings even suggest multiple exposures, or the merging of normally disconnected events in a dream-state. This oblique coming together of imagery is relational in a cognitive and personal sense – but holds potential for notions of the collective unconscious that the Surrealist writers and artists explored in varying degrees.
From the natural world, through which Goodroad channels his depictions, his tonal use of ink shows that the surroundings are constantly in a state of flux and continuously evolving. Distilled from the artist’s imagination, these are not necessarily strange lands. The sense of place might be from Europe as well as North America. The first impression is of a disturbing Goyaesque ambience to the imagery. But these might be stills from a low-budget film noir genre movie rather than etchings from the studio of a European master some 200 years ago. The works also have an air of immediacy that is often characteristic of what is essentially a drawing process. Working with Japanese Sumi ink, a medium favoured by Manga illustrators, Goodroad is making imagery that harks back to the European tradition of narrative ‘in’ painting. The works suggest a roster of influences, from Tiepolo (especially his drawings) to Titian’s tonally adjusted chromatic range of chiaroscuro in figures and environments: or from Watteau to Surrealism via Constable and Romanticism to Frederick Edwin Church and the 19thcentury Hudson River School.
It may only be coincidental, but an intimate sense of the landscape – suggestive of Jean-Antoine Watteau, working a century before Goya, who produced fête galante canvases depicting outdoor entertainment and courtship, especially figures in wooded landscape – came to mind. But the Toe Buoy imagery is claustrophobic for the most part, especially when watery depths are depicted. In his introduction to the exhibition on the opening day, Goodroad said that ‘mold’ worked well as an analogy for the work. From this surprising off-the-cuff remark his organic approach to image making, in paint or ink, becomes apparent.
Sumi ink is a medium that dries matt, and on cold white Bristol board it lacks warmth. The imagery sinks in to the surface like they are secrets. Dark, indistinct and incongruous forms invite closer looking. In one particular image, initial obscurity reveals a naked figure in the gloomy shadow space. (An old friend once told me that he only dreamed in black and white – now I begin to understand the experience.) The unconscious is inferred where a poetic off-the-wall surrealism meets a narrative of the physical and the psychological: mixed with love and fear, homeland and wilderness. It’s all strangely perverse.
Some images give have clarity. Others resist a reading or recognition. But not every image is located in the realm of the imagined. For example, one particular image referenced the Sun Dance Ceremony that the indigenous Plains Indians of North America once practiced. In this ceremony pain is tethered as an inducement to vision – and to healing.
In a 2015 interview with writer Claudia La Rocco, Goodroad acknowledged the curative potential of his painting practice:
“I make the paintings and see illness and religion. I see that I am trying to heal something through my process, and that the solving is a part of this.”
Perhaps this related to Aleen and Elm’s sickness as painters in Goodroad’s poem? This might sound fanciful, but if healing in all societies is necessary, perhaps we need the painters, or more broadly, the creative and imaginative outpourings of writers, performers and visual artists to counter our increasingly technological and digitally controlled and neutered society?
The sequence of poetic illustrations demands that the viewer takes part in the storytelling by prodding at their own imaginative faculties. If you visit the show take your time to look at the work with an open mind – the reward might not be immediately felt, but the imagery will linger long after, and you can invent your own narratives and acknowledge your own creative powers.
There’s a certain persuasion about digital platforms. Despite their omnipresence and commonplace presence in our everyday lives, the prevalence of images on-line still gain some sort of elevated credence. Our computers and other digital devices place virtual galleries in our hands.
I first discovered John Taylor’s work on Instagram (or was it Twitter?) last year and have followed his work with increasing interest. Little more than a week ago a tweet alerted me to his latest exhibition and, even on an iPhone screen, where the diminutive 9X5cm portal presented a 5X5cm image, I was especially struck by the combination of abstract, minimalist compositions in ‘Nine Collages’. This was the necessary bait to coax me along to the Jeannie Avent Gallery.
In this small but light and uncluttered gallery space (just the one room of a former corner shop) these works that I initially sought out lived up to my expectations. Seeing and experiencing the ‘real thing’ was even more satisfying than the initial digital representation, particularly in the context of the exhibition that was something of a mini-retrospective. The ‘Geometric Incidents’ that make up ‘Nine Collages’ are relatively small works, but they combine perfectly in this grid-like configuration (maybe four would work fine as well, but 12 would be too many). As they are so small there’s a suggestion of intimacy in these collages. Initially, the implied spatial play is confined and locked-in, but after a while the flat colour-forms take on a teasingly monumental impact and reveal a more expansive, architectural sense of structure that suggests asymmetrical order in apparent arbitrariness. The shapely and geometric forms in these collages could have been a pared down version of a number of the more complex works on show that do not deny, but celebrate, some indebtedness to Ben Nicholson and the abstract wing of the St.Ives School.
For example ‘Sense of Occasion’ features a modernist exploration of space on the picture plane. In this instance the visual play is typically both contained and fixed but with indications of a larger scaled environment of planar forms. There is enough information to suggest an interior arrangement on a tabletop and an airy opening (on the right hand side) where the grey forms bring in breathing space for the viewer’s imagination. A central window or mirror-type rectangle might suggest a head and shoulders – or a large goblet or other vessel. It probably doesn’t matter which, but this virtual and implicit content humanises the potentially anonymous abstract configurations.
In another work, ‘After Barcelona’, these interspatial collusions also reveal Taylor’s predilection for a spatial harmonics that, through restraint and clarity, speaks quietly, though insistently. The constrained and limited palette of colour combinations is carefully juxtaposed (rather than undermined) by mildly surprising colour appearances. In this composition the light blue vertical strip, with a wavy edge, evoked my own abstracted memory of Barceloneta; and the brown structures suggested the tight alleyway spaces and tiled roofs of the Gothic Quarter. Or maybe there are suggestions of wooden furniture or tables in a small bar. This Hodgkinesque response, triggered by both the composition and the title, demonstrates that the personal is transferable, yet inevitably transformable.
On further reflection, particularly with access to this imagery after leaving the exhibition (another plus point with regard to digital reproductions), further looking and contemplation of Taylor’s paintings and collages confirms his talent for creating visual harmony. Interestingly, there is also a subtle sense of melancholia (ennui is too strong a term). Is there a positive, or amiable, form of melancholy? Are these the Abstract Voices alluded to in the title of the show? The works will have to speak for themselves, through the filters of the viewer’s personal experiences. Emotional responses to people and places have not only made the work – but are passed on.
“The ongoing development of my work continues as I constantly revisit, revise and explore abstraction. In my most recent works I have allowed my paintings to become their own voice. Simple shapes are used in a very simplified or modernist way. I believe that by following my emotional response to the process of abstraction I am responding most genuinely to myself and my integrity as the artist. This is a challenging and sensitive process, a process with which I feel an increasingly emotional and confident connection.”
Tabitha Steinberg and Ella Fleck are the co-curators of ‘Sorry I haven’t been’. After the successful opening I emailed the following questions to them:
Did you choose Brighton (Hove, actually) for any particular reason?
Brighton has a vast artist community that we were excited to engage with in a new way. We knew we wanted to do something in an untraditional gallery environment. We wanted to engage with the problems traditional art spaces are facing today and look at how we can work around that in a productive and critical way. We were lucky in being able to approach a friend who owns a vape business based in Brighton and ask if he would be interested in housing our gallery and he was. We’re very happy to be engaging in contemporary art outside London and it’s great that more contemporary art spaces are opening around the UK. There are also lots of galleries opening in coastal cities/towns – in Margate, Newgate Gap (which is in a Victorian toilet block on the beach) will open next year and Maureen Paley’s summer space Morena di Luna is just around the corner from us in Hove. Brighton also offers a very open perspective which is welcoming to artists with more experimental practices and ideas – something we always support. There’s a sentimentality for both of us as well as we have had family here and spent a lot of time here as children. One of us (Tabitha) also studied at Sussex University.
How did you locate the Mist Vape shop – it’s an unusual location for a gallery space?
As we say, a friend owns Mist and we were very fortunate that he was interested in our project. We see the fact that it’s located inside another business as a positive rather than a hindrance (which you can probably tell from the vape heavy design on our website). Of course, we’re trying to work around the lack of available space (especially in London) today but we’re also really into the unusual collaboration between this commercial business and our non-profit space. The vaping business is a really current phenomenon and it is interesting to see how such a contemporary business interacts with contemporary art. It raises questions about how art functions today, in terms of commerciality and commodity and how adaptive art and artists must be.
Do you have plans to organise more exhibitions in Brighton & Hove (and/or elsewhere)?
Yes. Currently, we are situated inside Mist Vape Shop for the foreseeable future and have an ongoing programme. Our current show with Jack Lavender closes on 16 March. We can’t say too much yet but our second show will open around the beginning of April and will be a group show of artists working at an intersection between art, clothing and fashion.
I first became aware of Jack Lavender’s work in Cura magazine in 2014; and later saw his work at Frieze London (2016) and his work clearly has a spirit of experimentation. Are there new developments in Jack’s work on display in this show?
Jack has always worked with sound, collage, drawing and found objects but in Sorry I haven’t been he has really pushed this into more of an installation rather than individual works – something he has not really done before. He has used his materials to construct an environment. Many of the themes are carried over from ongoing ideas in his practice, like objects imbued with memory, souvenirs and junk and this weird sense of spirituality that comes from such things. In 650mAh, he has constructed a space where you feel both like you’re looking into the future and looking back at the past and though this sense is similar to his show at BALTIC, the execution is totally different and new. He has also collaborated with Dul Fin Wah to make a full soundtrack for the exhibition which he has not done before. We always encourage experimentation in whoever we are working with. It was very natural for us to open with Jack as much of his work and aesthetic interests overlap with the aesthetics of the vape shop.
How would you describe the relationship between Jack’s visual content and audio collaborator, Dul Fin Wah’s sound pieces?
Jack and Dul Fin talked a lot about the installation and what type of feeling they wanted to have in the space in relation to ideas of memory and dreams. They discussed how a car could function as a vehicle to retrieve lost memories. Some of those conversations happened in a car. While it was important to have conversations around the themes of the show, Jack wanted Dul Fin to be able to take these ideas and generate something without limitations.
So the artwork is a catalyst for the soundscape?
We wouldn’t say that the soundtrack and Jack’s objects are separate from each other. They are more parts of the same thing. It’s the relationship between the physical work Jack has made and the audio work Dul Fin has made that make Sorry I haven’t been.
Coming from left-field: The future for the arts, in a broad sense, seems to be one that will specify and encourage more collaboration and cross-over between forms of expression and individuals. Maybe in line with positive notions of free access (including non-gallery spaces) and a meltdown of power-based hierarchies in a Post-Capitalist reaction to the Neo-Liberal agendas of the so-called free-West. Does this strike a chord for 650mAh?
We think it’s striking a chord with everyone currently but it’s another question as to whether anyone knows what to do about it. We’re being told that everything’s in turmoil (especially in the UK) but who knows what all of this will mean in 20, 50 or even 100 years? We’re not sure about the meltdown of power-based hierarchies – in actuality, is this happening at all? We guess cryptocurrency is the most likely way out towards free access and decentralisation but so was the Internet.
Well, we live in exciting times! Thank you – I look forward to the next show at the Mist Vape Shop.
Walk from Brighton into Hove. Enter the Mist Vape Shop. Edge carefully through the throng of guests – are they here for the show, the vapes or the beer? Continue to the back of the room, turn the silver handle, push open the door and enter the exhibition.
What might you expect?
Is this a carport or a funeral parlor? A shrouded form, about the size of a small charabanc, takes up most of the floor space. Is it really a car? A waterproof, protective car protector covers the squarish, stolid form. Nothing moves, but it does not look heavy or monumental. A sheath of sorts creates a sense of mystery – but it has a feeling of commonplaceness about it. The perverse pleasure of not lifting the sheet to see what’s underneath overpowers any attempt to take a peep. Strange contradiction.
At each end of the greyish form two vaguely eye-like slits might be considered as a sad and a happy cartoon face. From the world of theatre it’s comedy (Thalia) and tragedy (Melpomene). Both were daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne. The latter was (is?) the Greek Goddess of Memory. Have we met before?
Standing on top is a singular, thin Chinese figurine. He’s certainly not Greek – but appears ancient nonetheless. Is this a shrine? He is anonymous, but strangely sentinel. He has authority. People giggle.
Around the form that is approached with an attitude of unexpected awe, the air is coloured purple and is comfortingly atmospheric. The LED monochrome light source from the floor produces a deep violet to lavender, misty dreamscape. The space around the form is rendered airy and cushion-like. It’s an eternal dawn or an evening twilight.
An ambient soundtrack created by audio collaborator Dul Fin Wah! emanates from the centerpiece of the installation. What we see, hear and feel is one integrated whole.
Are memories dream-like?
The artist Jack Lavender is here; along with Tabitha Steinberg and Ella Fleck the co-curators. We’ll talk later – I want to form my own interpretation of this event. But I don’t want to understand. I want to take a ride: destination unknown.
Open: 13 January to 11 February (closed on Mondays and Tuesdays)
In preparation for writing a review of the H-A-R-D-P-A-I-N-T-I-N-G exhibition at the Phoenix gallery in Brighton, Ian Boutell allowed me a sneak preview of the some of the work as it was being arranged for display. As might be expected there was still much to do just four days before the opening event, but the essential decisions on placement of the many works had already been decided after a couple of days of ‘tweaking’. The signs were good for what might prove to be one of the visual arts highlights of 2018 in Brighton as good quality, contemporary painting is lacking a regular stage in the city.
Habitual visitors to Phoenix Brighton will probably be well aware of its history since it was established by a group of artists in 1992 with the primary aim of providing low cost studio space. Today the Phoenix has charitable status and is the largest artist run space in the South East of England, providing workspace and opportunities to share experiences for over 100 hundred local artists, designers and craftspeople. Situated near St. Peter’s Church, barely ten minutes walk from the beach (to the south) and a little closer to the main rail station, Phoenix Brighton provides studio spaces, short-term project space for community groups and supports a gallery and education programme. This brings together professional artists and the general public in a friendly and creative environment – but even more is being done to forge additional and meaningful associations.
Although well known as one of the major visual arts venues in the city (in addition to Brighton Museum & Art Gallery, Fabrica, ONCA, Coachwerks in Hollingdean and the University of Brighton, Faculty of Arts in Grand Parade) in many ways, the Phoenix Brighton is still an evolving institution with huge potential. With a view to taking the organisation to another level, last year the trustees appointed Sarah Davies as Executive Director to develop the range and scope of existing resources and to further develop a well-established public profile. This will clearly be a demanding task, but various developments (including the Exhibition, Spotlight and Forum programmes) are already enabling the Phoenix to engage the resident artists and visiting arts professionals with positive public engagement, enabling the charity to maintain one of its central aims.
For example, H_A_R_D_P_A_I_N_T_I_N_G will link the Exhibitions programme to the now regular Spotlight initiative in which Phoenix artists showcase their work and professional practice with opportunities for the public (and the other resident artists) to ask questions about any aspect from the daily life of the artist (thereby demystifying any pre-conceptions) and the conceptual basis of their work. The next Spotlight will be based around a tour of the show with five of the exhibiting artists: Ian Boutell, Philip Cole, Stig Evans, Johanna Melvin and Patrick O’Donnell. The artists have advertised that they will be discussing their practical working processes and what motivates the creation of their work, as well as exploring shared themes and affinities as painters. The selection of work will, in effect, aim to provide a visual forum for a wide-ranging and potentially rigorous dialogue around what might be considered as ‘non-expressionistic’ (or ‘controlled-gestural’?) abstract painting. We shall also see if the ‘show and tell’ session raises questions, and provides answers however tentative, concerning the continuation (some might say, re-emergence) of abstract painting vis-à-vis the pluralistic range of media and formats in contemporary art – or even of the so-called ‘death of painting’. At least that’s my assumption.
Interestingly, in H_A_R_D_P_A_I_N_T_I_N_G the temptation to exclusively show work by Phoenix artists alone has been avoided by inviting three other participants. Of particular interest for followers of hard-edge abstraction is Tess Jaray RA, who is represented by Karsten Schubert in London. There will just be one of Jaray’s works on show (a screenprint, ‘Minuet’ from 1967, which was at the framers when I visited), which I am expecting to provide an historical touchstone for the exhibition – despite not being a painting. The two other guests are London-based, Johanna Melvin and John Bunker. Melvin is primarily a painter (with a printmaking background), whilst Bunker works in a collage process with painted and printed papers and other materials. I do not know if there is an agenda here, but future collaborations with similar institutions around the country are possible – or even further afield if the Brexit decision plays out as less negative and narrow minded as it appears.
I briefly mentioned the Forum events above, and linking this exhibition to a recent Phoenix event was the Curating: a Concept in Transition forum. This wasa day formed of presentations, group discussion and debate, “…designed to explore the new possibilities that emerge when artists, researchers, curators, educators and their publics join forces to examine and re-specify what a gallery can be, what an artist is and how the borders between curating and creating might be tested and stretched.” (See link below.)
The four resident artists/curators in H_A_R_D_P_A_I_N_T_I_N_G (Ian Boutell, Philip Cole, Stig Evans and Patrick O’Donnell) have demonstrated, in a small but meaningful way, that distinctions between creating and curating are now overlapping. This is not unusual nowadays as curatorial practice merges with studio practice as two aspects of a contemporary artist’s life. Undoubtedly there will be many reasons for this, including limited access to commercial gallery opportunities; the influence of professional practice educational imperatives in higher education; and an inherent social-engagement agenda that motivates artists to share their practice in a positive community spirit that runs counter to some negative aspects of modern life. They also provide evidence (as if it was needed) that a range of professional expertise exists within the Phoenix studios that will, undoubtedly, continue to be nurtured by the Phoenix as an institution, which has the potential to lead the showcasing of contemporary visual arts in the city, not just for a local audience but for the many visitors who visit this unique coastal resort.
To quote David Garcia (Vice Chair of Phoenix trustees), this show should go some way to supporting the current aims of the “Phoenix (as) an organisation in transition… Phoenix wants to think again about how we programme and use the gallery… The more recent shift in the role of curator will influence programming too, curating itself has become democratised, everyone is able to engage with personal curation projects such as ‘curating’ their Facebook page, also the function of the artist in relation to a curator should be explored.”
Well, here’s the exploration – not only of curating but also of painting – which is better than any digital or virtual format. H_A_R_D_P_A_I_N_T_I_N_G is the real thing, and I very much look forward to reviewing the exhibition for Abcrit after it opens. (Link below.)