Friday, 28 March 2014

A Base Line for Regional Arts

I have found the recent news of London getting a far higher percentage of arts funding compared to the rest of the country interesting. On BBC2 earlier this month there was an excellent programme by Evan Davis 'Mind The Gap: London versus the Rest' that delved into the impact of London's growth at the expense of the rest of the country. This topic isn't new, the pull of the capital for culture, creative people and interest in creative activities has been felt here in 'the grey zone' for as long as I can remember, it just seems to be getting worse. So I was pleased when I heard 2 new projects in 'the grey zone' had secured the funding required to support regional artists. Last week I attended the launch of the project led by Reading based 'Outrider Anthems' Director Jennifer Leach who is managing a multidisciplinary programme about the life of WWI Poet Wilfred Owen in the south Oxfordshire town of Dunsden near Reading. And yesterday the invitation for the Private View of the project taking place at the REME Museum near Reading dropped into my mailbox, this involves 10 artists from OHOS and arjeea21 being commissioned to create new work for the Museum. This is great news, only a drop in the ever diminishing pool of creative support and interest outside of London, but I look forward to seeing their projects realised.

Fire Plane 1 by Pam Hardman
In my ongoing interest and support of the regions contemporary arts I finally made the time to get out to New Greenham Arts in Newbury. The exhibition 'Embrace The Base' is by Newbury based artist Pam Hardman and London based artist Andrea Hasler, joint winners of the Greenham Common Open 2012. The artists work is quite radically different to each other yet together they've created a strong exhibition exploring the political, social and cultural history of Greenham Common.

Pam Hardman looked at Greenham Common and it's sense of place. Her large etchings of the military bunkers overlaid with the blind embossed images of the watchtower, peace-camp posters, song sheets and traces of barbed wire were mesmerising. The blind embosses which required the viewer to catch the image in just the right angle of light were like looking back into the past, a fading memory of challenging times. Being local to the area she brings a sense of awe in the natural landscape, beautifully highlighting numerous areas and structures still remaining on the Common that speak of its chequered history.

Andrea Hasler jolts you back to the hard facts and cruelties of war through her sculptural pieces created in deceivingly feminine pink tones. Three wax figures stand in the first gallery combining aspects of nuclear explosions and human suffering, a historical statement of the casualties of war. But turn the corner to what seems like peaceful representations of the tents, so identifiable to the protests at Greenham Common, to be confronted with a putrid, visceral outpouring of emotion, I felt ill. I'm not sure if it was intended or a by-product of the work having been in place for almost 2 months but there was a surface slime, beads of sweat running down the sides and the trail of red 'blood-like' liquid had been stepped in creating traces of foot prints trailing away. Very powerful work.

Matriarch by Andrea Hasler
'Embrace The Base' runs until 11th April at New Greenham Arts, Newbury.

Monday, 10 February 2014

Sketchbooks and Studio space - sustaining creativity

I've been reading an interesting book recently titled "Living and Sustaining a Creative Life - Essays by 40 Working Artists" edited by Sharon Louden. Amazon's description reads "In this day and age, when art has become more of a commodity and art school graduates are convinced that they can only make a living from their work by attaining gallery representation, it is more important than ever to show the reality of how a professional contemporary artist sustains a creative practice over time". The book, recently published, is American but many of the struggles, experiences, and measures of success ring true for artists in 'the grey zone'. The essays convey the ways artists sustain their practice after art school, juggling between paid work (many are art teachers), family life, and the desire to be part of an active art community. Many struck a familiar note as they wrote of being outside major art cities, struggling to keep in contact with artists, galleries and curators while finding opportunities to earn a real living from their practice, but they manage.

Of course there are virtual networks, a related article was mentioned by an art colleague recently through our 'linked' connection. It's a 1991 speech that John Cleese (of Monty Python fame) gave about being creative, including his comments on giving yourself space and time, it's posted on the great web journal 'brain pickings'. This same colleague is also a contact in a 'real world network' which is helping several artists, including myself, keep our creative juices flowing. We are participating in a sketchbook collaboration between artists linked to South Hill Park Arts Centre here in 'the grey zone'. Each month we swap back and forth our sketchbook with nominated artists, this type of collective has been around for awhile but its the first time I've been involved in one.

Jan Gaska's drawing (left) and my collage response (right)

I decided to use my sketchbook to do some collage work, which I enjoy but have done little of recently, and drawing as a response to the collage. I didn't share this description with my first swap partner, painter-printmaker Jan Gaska, so I was quite intrigued to get my book back at the start of February and see how he'd responded. I saw a comment he posted on twitter saying he "doesn't normally do collage but was quite pleased with the results" and he should be, they're wonderful. Within just a few days of getting the book back I wanted to find the time to respond to both his drawing and wonderful collages. This Sketchpad collective will be just one way I'll be sustaining my creative life this year.

Jan Gaska's collage (left) and my drawn response (right)

One of John Cleese's ingredients for being creative is to give your self space, regular readers of this blog will know this has been a challenge for me and others in 'the grey zone'. I have decided to take the plunge and invest in a purpose built 'art studio' at the end of the garden, future posts to follow on this subject. I have also been told recently of an artist planning to set-up a new studio complex with the potential for 14 affordable and easily accessible studios in Wokingham. If your reading this and want to know more about a space get in touch, I'll help make the network connection!

Friday, 24 January 2014

Sensing Spaces: Reimagining the built environment

I am an ardent observer of the built environment and continually draw artistic inspiration from architecture. I was hooked by its potential power while studying Art History for my BA, having an architecture student as my flat mate probably helped. When I heard of the Royal Academy of Arts exhibition 'Sensing Spaces: Architecture Reimagined' I knew I would be making the trip from 'the grey zone' into London to see it. So it was with great surprise and pleasure that I received an invitation from the RA to come along to a bloggers Private View before the official opening, and WOW it's an amazing exhibition.

I think using the word 'architecture' in the title is a bit of a mis-nomer though. It is an exhibition of installations on how we encounter and respond to 'space', the artists who designed these spaces are architects. I've heard architecture described as sculpture in mammoth proportions, sculpture excels when it effectively uses the 3D space around, through, or created by it, that negative space. This exhibition is very much about how these spaces effect and impact our senses, and it does so brilliantly.

detail of Pezo von Ellrichshausen installation with glimpse of RA gallery 

I was visually overpowered by the work of the Chilean architects Pezo von Ellrichshausen in a mammoth pine structure filling the main gallery, here the daunting feeling often caused by architecture is effectively recreated within the enclosed space. Yet climbing up the stairs to the balcony level opens up views of the dainty angels that ring the neoclassical gallery, a contrast of the large highlighting the small.

As I entered the galleries with the installations by Japanese architect Kengo Kuma my sense of smell was taken aback. Having never been to Japan but with lots of time in the Greek islands I knew that aroma the moment I walked through the curtained gallery. Here in this dark and hushed space were delicate intertwined bamboo twigs, lighted discreetly from below, which awakened memories of fields of swaying bamboo, damp from the warm night air.

Curator Kate Goodwin is inviting the public to use our sense of touch as well within this exhibition, contrary to the rules in most art settings. The colourful interactive installation by Diébédo Francis Kéré spanning two galleries will grow as visitors are able to choose straws to insert into the textured plastic grid structure.

entrance to the installation by Li Xiaodong

The repeated patterns of precisely measured wood twigs in the maze installation by Chinese architect Li Xiaodong were reminiscent of a slow meander through a forest, even with the cave like hideaways. Nearing the end, the sound of cobbles crunching under foot woke me from my musings, the use of mirrors and light playing with one's perception of place.

My favourite installation though was in the last gallery I entered, here I found that sense of awe that architectural space can give me. Grafton Architects, two women from Ireland, created a modern cathedral like space out of what looked like heavy concrete geometric forms, brutalist in style, suspended from the ceiling. And like the Gothic cathedrals across Europe, the effect of soft light streaming through openings, casting subtle shadows, was magical.


detail of installation by Grafton Architects

It was wonderful seeing the exhibition at night, with only a small number of visitors, but I am intrigued to re-visit the exhibition during the day and with the crowds. The smell of fresh pine and bamboo will be gone but the daylight and sounds of people in the spaces will provide a different experience, really looking forward to it!

'Sensing Spaces: Architecture Reimagined' is on at the Royal Academy of Arts, London from the 25 January to 6 April 2014.

Monday, 13 January 2014

A New Year, a new shade of art grey

I've been laying low lately as this blog caught a dose of spam over the holidays. It would be amazing to get 1,000's of daily page hits from readers interested to know what is happening with contemporary art in 'the grey zone', but I'm not that naive. The blog is now back to a more plausible number so I figure it's time to look at the art year ahead. As a regular reader of a dozen or more art e-journals every week I have been filling my calendar with what may be a bumper year of heading out of 'the grey zone' and into the black hole of London. Better start budgeting my pennies for the more expensive train fares.

work by Anslem Kiefer
I've already booked tickets for 'Sensing Spaces: Architecture Reimagined' opening on the 25th of January at the Royal Academy, a topic of interest to my own work. But there are two other exhibitions I want to make a point to see also opening this month. 'Hannah Höch', inspirational for her collage work and a real master at photomontage is at the Whitechapel Gallery, and 'David Lynch: The Factory Photographs' is at the Photographers Gallery. I am a fan of his movies and 'Twin Peaks' so the description of his photographs catching the "detritus and decay of these man-made structures" has only added to my interest. And this is in just the next 2 months! There are major exhibitions at both the Tate Modern and Tate Britain, the Serpentine Gallery, and the British Museum I'd like to catch later on in the year. In the autumn its back to the Royal Academy for the solo show of Anslem Kiefer. I travelled to Paris in Dec '12 to see his show at Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, going into London will at least be cheaper.

But what's coming up this year in 'the grey zone' I ask? We don't make the radar of any arts journals so I had to do a bit of trawling through various web sites. Having participated in the selection process I am looking forward to seeing what the artists from OpenHand OpenSpace create for an exhibition at the Prince Phillip Vehicle Hall at the REME Museum in Arborfield over the summer, especially the work of Reading artist Sarah Britten-Jones. South Hill Park in Bracknell has 'Imaging 3D: Sculpture Series' but it's marketing it as "3D imaging techniques on display objectifying sculpture", that puts me off a bit. SHP are also hosting Reading artist Jon Lockhart in the latest iteration of his ongoing project 'The Boundless Museum' which I reviewed last autumn. The only listing for New Greenham Arts in Newbury is the show opening at the end of the month 'Embrace the Base' which looks promising and runs until April, plenty of time to make it out there. In March the Peacock Gallery in Earley, Reading is hosting the exhibition 'A Place to Live' by London artist Trevor Burgess which looks at facades of urban housing, hmmm. 

Of course there will be the usual round of Open Studios, Art Trails and Art Fairs, the bread and butter for many regional artists. They are good for fine craft work, some art but nothing to challenging or questioning, mostly decorative objects for the home or office. There are also a few pop-up galleries still around in Maidenhead and Reading, usually on short notice and tend to be an outlet for selling work as there are so few available for artists. Unfortunately the More Arts venue on Peach Street in Wokingham is now closed, subject to a similar fate as Gallery@49 in Bracknell, fewer venues for solo shows, installations, or less commercial work this year in 'the grey zone'. Please drop me an email on anything interesting and a little out of the ordinary regarding contemporary art happening in 'the grey zone' and I'll try and check it out!

2014 is looking to be a hard year for regional artists for lots of reasons. Making or seeing contemporary art in 'the grey zone' is just getting a little more difficult, we pale into insignificance when compared to even our neighbouring counties, not to mention London. 

Sunday, 8 December 2013

Public art from the past and for the future

Discussions on public art in 'the grey zone' have made the local news recently as the demolition of the northern section of Bracknell town centre nears its completion. This area encompassing The Broadway and Crossway is where I and several artists had studios for 7 years, thanks to Bracknell Regeneration Partnership. When we moved into the empty shops back in 2006 I started a series of drawings of the place to capture the buildings and their distinctive details that dated this 1959 'new town'. I also delved into the history of some of the original public artworks trying to discover if they had titles and the names of the artists who made them. One piece was of particular interest, a concrete panel typical of early 60's brutalism. I couldn't find any records of it in the library but conversations with a few elderly locals surmised it may have been a 'corporate' artwork produced by the developers/builders at the time referencing the major engineering company whose headquarters were nearby. Alas this 'unknown' public artwork, which I captured in my drawing below, is now part of the rubble mountain according to the press release.

'Forgotten' - a mixed media drawing by Janet Curley Cannon

There are several other artworks from the same period including a mural depicting a historical allegory of the town that are better known, these pieces have been saved to be re-sited according to the news. There is also the announcement of a £200k budget for new public art in the re-generated town centre. Public art expenditure and what is deemed is good public art, or not, is an ongoing argument just about everywhere, Bracknell will prove no exception. I personally dislike a lot of public art for it's blandness. To paraphrase an article in The Observer from 2008 by Rachel Cooke, We have a growing need for statement in public art and it is perfectly obvious why. To watch the news, you'd think we define ourselves only by how and when we shop. When the tills ring, all is well . . . urban Britain increasingly looks the same wherever you go, but a place still has a pulse, a beating heart, even if listening to it grows trickier. This is when public art comes into its own. The best isn't just beautiful or moving in its own right; it can tell a story about a place, capture its visceral essence in a way the ad men can only dream of.” 

The local debate has already started, it will be interesting to see how it progresses over the next few years. A sentiment voiced by local artist Jonathan Greenyer to involve the regions artists is one I and many others will strongly concur with. So often with these projects in 'the grey zone' they go to artists from London brought in by consultants, or become 'community projects' with the end result a painted mural by local school children. There are professional, experienced artists from the region who given an opportunity may be able to capture this new phase in the town's history, creating artworks that can sit proudly alongside the art from the past and hopefully be remembered well into the town's future.

Sunday, 17 November 2013

Art brings out the 'Spirit of Place'

Attended another excellent symposium recently, as before it took place just beyond the boundaries of 'the grey zone', this time in Farnham, Surrey. It's a University town to the south of Berkshire's borders with a lot going on for the arts. The University of the Creative Arts has a campus there with its excellent reputation for the applied and fine arts, I try to see the degree shows every year. The University is active in the local arts community supporting various programmes both on and off their campus. There is also Farnham maltings, a thriving arts centre with a focus on theatre, music and craft including studios for 'makers' but not much contemporary fine art. For that visit the excellent New Ashgate Gallery, a non-profit contemporary art and crafts gallery that effectively combines the commercial gallery/shop space with programmes that support regional artists and students from the University. It regularly presents thought-provoking contemporary art like the work now on view by Newbury based AXIS artist Flora Gare.

Historical Farnham
So I was on the UCA Farnham campus for a symposium on Site Specific Art hosted by Unravelled Arts, an organisation currently working within National Trust homes such as The Vyne. Polly Harknett from Unravelled Arts spoke of the 'chronological chaos' behind unravelling the history of a place through art and craft technique while Matt Smith explained the 3 themes regularly emerging from their projects - Class, Gender, and Sexuality. Joining Unravelled was Lucy Day from Day+Gluckman talking about several of their curatorial projects working with artists in the context of site and place. A thoroughly entertaining but rather surreal afternoon speaker was artist Lindsay Seers who used audience participation to discuss her numerous site-specific projects. The most informative talk of the day was by National Trust's Contemporary Arts Programme Manager Tom Freshwater.

Tom manages the programme Trust New Art and its 3 year plan (2010-13) to bring contemporary art into heritage sites. I have had the benefit of hearing him speak on several occasions including the Artquest - For the Love of it* conference last spring, read a review of that talk here. Tom is an excellent speaker and clearly discusses how the National Trust is engaging with contemporary art and artists as a way to bring old stories to life. There are a selection of videos of their various projects on YouTube, worth watching for any artist thinking of working in a site-specific context. He explained why the Trust with it's reputation for heritage, beautiful homes and vast green spaces would want to work with contemporary art and summed it up as "a continuation of a property's spirit of place." Tom indicated that their next 3 year plan is currently being worked on, I hope in this age of arts austerity that the National Trust and it's visitors continue to trust new art!

Contemporary art projects currently running at National Trust properties include 'Unravelling the Vyne' and Transition Gallery's Wintergarden at Sutton House, Hackney, both open until 22 December 2013.