Phoenix Gallery
South East England

“First we shape our buildings, then they shape us” said Winston Churchill. An inclination, six or so decades later, is to add “or do they?” Floor Plan, the current exhibition at Phoenix Gallery in Brighton, appears to ask this very question. Alternatively the show is a collection of curious, pretty or intentionally not-so-pretty artefacts (depending on your taste) which sounds less feasible.

Naturally, and typically, the term architecture is used in a much wider sense than with reference to the design of actual buildings. Part of Floor Plan, an installation by Rowena Easton and Mark C. Hewitt, is made up of texts describing dream sequences or fragmented narratives. A significant section of the gallery is separated out and broken up using objects, boards and A4 stacks to present the writing. The two’s intervention here alludes to the crossover, this broader meaning, with the inclusion of language or less tangible structures. Mostly though Floor Plan is dealing with architecture in terms of a plainer understanding. It was not too surprising that an artist’s talk and discussion (on 23rd October), while revealing the themes and thinking behind pieces which make up the show, also frequently touched upon the subject of social housing and the plusses and minuses of various similar hopeful initiatives.

Rosalind Davis could hardly have avoided political references given that her paintings, multimedia works, were generated in response to organisations and structures commemorating Stephen Lawrence (the black teenager murdered in South East London in 1993 at a time of increased BNP activity). The subject matter includes a centre constructed in Deptford and other buildings in the area. On the other hand Davis’s twelve pictures, of varying dimensions and similar aspect ratios can be considered formally. There are certain analogies with Jane Ward’s big prints on canvas, hung nearby. Both artists dilute the solidity of the constructed landscapes they represent. In the case of Davis embroidery and cotton poplin are incorporated. Fifty percent of the canvas area in Jane Ward’s three prints is rendered as muddy secondary colour or a chromatic grey which contrasts with the flickering fine detail in the remainder. Each plays the game of demonstrating apparent craft skills and simultaneously counteracts this need to impress. Definitely both sets of images provide relief from the ubiquitous use by painters in recent years of pleasing Luc Tuymans style pallet. As it happens Rosalind Davis’s works are ‘relief paintings’ too though I doubt that pun was intended.

Louise Bristow, in a series of paintings created from 2004 to 2006, undermines comfortable understandings of scale and time. Nostalgia is a factor: comparisons with more idealistic periods in history are inferred. The differences are illustrated in a number of ways, for example different types of graffiti adorn structures in the images: meaningful, “Destroy DSEI” and “Stop the Arms Trade” versus the tagging style. Also in the pictures modernist forms and buildings are placed in the proximity of cheapo or dilapidated versions. So perfectionism is cited as problematic, though clearly that’s just one reading: there’s a polysemic quality in Bristow’s work.

At the artist’s talk Richard White told the intriguing herstory of how the particular building housing this exhibition (and Phoenix Arts studios) came into being. At the time, the construction project had to negotiate around the home of a Harriet Sylvester, aged 89, who refused to be bought out. White has worked into the edge of one room here, creating a human sized mouse hole. On entering we are faced with a narrow passage leading to a space which we can imagine Harriet Sylvester still occupies. I am reminded of the curious seventh-and-a-half floor in the otherwise pedestrian movie Being John Malkovich. I am reminded of Flan O’Brien’s The Third Policeman when the nameless narrator realises that he is in fact inside the walls of a particular building. The scale of the knocked out mouse-hole mentioned above matches with the door into Easton and Hewitt’s installation (or vica-versa) in that (adult) visitors are required to stoop or manoeuvre a degree to go through. One result of expending this effort presumably is that we appreciate more what we get at the other side.

At the entrance to the gallery hang Peter Bobby’s photographs. These are set up very much as portals (to other galleries in fact). The spectator is interpellated. Implicitly there must exist an optimal point from which to view these images. Vanishing points are at average eye height. There are no visual representations of people or figures (well: except in one, see if you can spot it) and this by the way is a feature in most of the other work in the exhibition. Stained mahogany frames house each picture enhancing the idea that this is a cultural gateway of some sort. In essence the concept revolves around an attempt to display galleries back in on themselves, a sort of feedback loop. To employ the phrase of Marshall McLuhan, who expanded on the idea of architecture in the 1960s: ‘the medium is the message’.

Absolutely Floor Plan amounts to more than the sum of its parts (which I’ve, in effect, listed above). In no order of importance, and mixing possibly trivial factors with weightier ones, the exhibition really gets to grips with the nature of Phoenix itself, its location, the fact that the gallery is glass fronted, its peculiar history and position in terms of the cultural life of Brighton, its wider reach and not to mention the always conspicuous floor made up of substantial square tiles (which shift a little when walked upon). In addition wider historical and contemporary concerns with both architecture and architecture are prodded at.