Exeter Phoenix
South West England

Last Tuesday saw my first visit to the Exeter Contemporary Open at the Exeter Phoenix. The annual Open is selected from submissions from artists from the UK and beyond and, I quote, ‘…aims to be a platform for the most talented and emerging artists and to reflect current themes and concerns in contemporary art practice’. I wish I had been to any of the previous Opens but I’m glad I’ve finally had a look, definitely a case of better late than never!

This year’s selected few are as follows, Chloe Brooks, Anita Delaney, Nisha Duggal, Aly Helyer, Brendan Lancaster, Oliver Lariviere, Ruth Piper, Siobhan Raw and David Theobald. Short listing it to 9 artists out of what I assume must be hundreds of entries must be no easy task, and does leave me wondering if the Exeter Open would benefit from being shown at a larger venue so that more could be shown? Or if less is more at least this exhibition benefits the artists and their work having more scrutiny from being viewed for longer.

A plus for me, is that the Open is pretty diverse, featuring painters, animation, film, photography and site-specific installation. Aly Helyer’s (pictured) paintings stood out to be my favourite work out of the painters in the show. Distorted faces, creatures, colours, patterns and shapes reminded me of a sort of garish/kitsch Francis Bacon or Picasso. It’s clear to see her inspiration of mythology, deities, creatures and mythology in the work. They were fun and in their imaginativeness also reminded me of the kind of illustration seen in street art. Brendan Lancaster and Oliver Lariviere are the other painters in the show.

The piece that I think I liked the best in this year’s Open was David Theobald’s ‘Walking holiday in Grindelwald’ (alas not pictured!) a computer video simulation showing an aerial shot of a virtual inkjet printer that’s slowly printing out holiday snaps from the artists’ holiday in Grindelwald (Switzerland). Not as boring as it may sound written here. The contrast between the artificial looking printer and the sharp, real-to-life realism of the photos its printing out is playful and I read as being questioning relationships between physical memory and digital photography. Anyway it was oddly mesmerising watching this process happen in the gallery context on a monitor that was resting on the floor against the gallery wall.

Ruth Piper’s collages (pictured) were bold, jazzy and a joy for the eyes. I didn’t want or particularly need to read that they are, ‘existential diagrams that are influenced by emotional narrative and psychological undercurrents’ in order to appreciate them, but each to their own. Also pictured below, Nisha Duggal and a still from her video animation, ‘The Invisibles’. In the video the artist is pictured in animated form signing to camera the folk/Socialist anthem, The Internationale. This was all a little bit lost on me and I admired the animation style more than the content and political/social message it was portraying.

Excitingly, there was one artist in this year’s Open that I had previously heard of, Chloe Brooks whose work I had previously seen at SAW’s ‘A Night of Light’ at Hestercombe last year. Chloe makes architectural forms in response to the space the work is shown in and often uses materials such as cardboard of MDF that are found on site or are recycled. In the Open, a column made from cardboard is inserted into the gallery space and an artificial doorway sticks out in contrast between the contemporary gallery space and historical architecture it is mimicking.

Further video art from Anita Delaney and photography from Siobhan Raw complete this year’s Open. Overall short and sweet and whilst there was plenty of good and original work there wasn’t really anything that inspired me and I left feeling like I would have just liked to have seen more! I feel like Exeter Open could be bigger and more ambitious without having to compromise on its selection process if it chose to show the work of more artists.