Platform A Gallery
North East England

Keeping it real – In Teesside and East London

By Kate Brindley

Although born into a family of cutlery makers and factory workers, I feel rather dislocated from making and manufacture. This isolation may be rooted in the generational dominance of the mystery that is financial services, which makes nothing but dominates everything and is most demonstrable in this current government’s deficit reduction programme. Living and working for the last four years through the deepest recession since the 1930s, in post-industrial Teesside, has provided me with a fresh appreciation of what it means to make art and to see how the act of making is still necessary, whilst navigating the current erosion of basic, and hard-won, equality.

I would suggest that the group of artists who have curated and exhibit in ‘North South Divine’ are grappling with some of these same vexations and contradictions. Issues that characterise our shared 21st century experience in the UK and in the art world we chose to inhabit. Their strident investigation into, and reaction to, the dogmatism of modernism is laced with warmth, witticism and a self-deprecating humour which speaks to me. With the conscious weight of 20th century art theory framing their practice, they punch out, commenting, humouring, and referencing, suggesting that we too keep holding up the mirror.

The artists play with the domestic and public space. In art and civic worlds that still privilege the heroic and virtuoso associated with the masculine, they question the dominant narratives of art and society. Boa Swindler takes the stuff of our covertly misogynist culture she calls ‘everyday sexism’ in her witty ‘Music for Brainwashing’ series. Through her palette of seemingly democratic language and found images, she reveals how we are all colluders in this culture of demeaning.

Annie O’Donnell’s playful, plastic sculptures are the height of ‘Teesside Rococo’ in their bright improvisation and gaudy approachability. With reference to her lineage in Billingham, capital of plastic products, O’Donnell takes the working class everyday and creates new narratives about herself, where she is from and what we view as the monumental, so familiar in urban settings. It’s as deeply rooted as Hepworth is in Yorkshire in the use of the vernacular but it’s a new sort of romanticism, one born- out of the Smiths generation of the anti-heroic, which is both generic and specific to her roots.

This same jocular, ornate quality can be found in Chiara Williams work, who is equally as obsessed by objects and materials, found and manufactured, although here there is a more overt set of signifiers at play. She uses copper wire from televisions to form beautifully coloured flowers, with all their association to the feminine and to the Venus and Aphrodite myths which still persist in our post feminist world. Her ‘Birth of Venus’ lays this bare, with its plump, glistening yolk on ultramarine pigment. The most precious of painters’ pigments, associated with the virgin’s mantle, sits in a compact, the everyday device found in handbags. Nothing is too banal to escape her commentary.

In Kate Davis’s work the sensual and intellectual meet as she combines manufactured materials with the natural to create eloquent metaphors. She says ’the stuff of living is not enough’, and so through her work she searches for other knowledge. She combines elements that seek to show us a glimpse of the unseen world, imagined and possibly divine. Lemons are a recurring motif, their luscious colour and waxy texture are seductive as is their symbolism of sexual duality. Lemons make reference to mythology, yet remain reassuringly everyday. Mirrors too recur as they do with her pupil, Chiara Williams. They remain a symbol and a challenge for artists to reflect the world back to the viewer.

Painterly matters are being explored by many of the artists in this exhibition. Painting, the ultimate modernist language is challenged and utilised on a number of fronts. Phil Illingworth’s work speaks about abstraction in his use of organic and manufactured self-referencing objects. Colour is key here, to delight and to tease us. With Tony Charles, the surface is all important as part of the subject of his ‘paintings’. Charles’s years in steel manufacture show a deep passion for the material he uses. He paints, erases and finishes with a slick sheen, but don’t be fooled that this is an uncritical affinity with industrial material. The erasure of a painted composition with a grinding tool discovers tensions and divisions between practical purpose and aesthetic decisions. This activity challenges the artist during the process and questions painting in general, resulting in a presentation of an industrial process as much as an abstract visual language.

Alison Wilding is an under-celebrated figure in the current British art scene, so it is gratifying to see her work represented in ‘North South Divine‘. Her invitation to show again in Middlesbrough following her beautiful exhibition as part of the 1996 Cleveland Drawing Biennial, is also a welcome return to an artist who clearly understands the physicality of choosing and placing materials together in her powerful autobiographical work which speaks coherently of duality.

Material and meaning also seem to be as one in Deb Covell’s paintings, these laboriously worked beautiful objects are somewhere between paintings and sculptures, with materiality again being the topic. Covell, as with Davis, is interested in the ephemeral, she creates spaces to pause and breathe, her practice ‘attempts to bridge the gap between the ordinary and the familiar with an often idealistic quest for beauty and purity’. (1)

North South Divine is a confident dialogue and collaboration, between the artists at Platform A and WW Gallery. The stage is London and Teesside, the players are deliberately cross generational. Kate Davis and Alison Wilding are invited as respected, established figures to join the conversation about unity and divide. Their commonality is the visceral[2], they return repeatedly to the manipulation and critique of materials in their dialogue. Their spirit is independent, generous, mutual and respectful but with a desire to interrogate. Their style is subversive, cheeky and smart. Their shared endeavour is how to make meaningful work and in this quest they want to show us the power structures of art and civic life within which we operate, to think about what is tacit and covert, to illustrate the physicality of existence as a site for the imagined and to demonstrate that artists still have much to say.

” The reason I keep coming back to art is that it does feel like a place where a central focus is to look at ourselves in our environments and offer different narratives which will give different perspectives on what could be, as well as what is.” (2)

1. Simon Grennan ‘Ply Series’ 2011

2. Kate Gray, Collective Gallery, Edinburgh. ‘Gallery as Community: Art, Education, Politics’

Editor Marijke Steedman