Surface Gallery
East England

Sixes and Sevens is the collective name for a group of recent graduates from Nottingham Trent University. I have to declare an interest here, given that I’m a lecturer on the Fine Art course from which they came, but owing to the peculiarities of my timetable I don’t currently work with students in the final year of their study, and thus came to their Surface Gallery show with a certain critical distance. But another interval has already opened up given that it’s now some two months since the exhibition had its short run, a period in which I had intended to set down more immediate critical reflections upon these works and the artists who produced them: and so it is that I find myself at yet more of a remove than I’d ever intended…

Of course, such a delay comes down to the usual pressures for artists/writers/academics, when it seems that the realities of professional life conspire to erase one’s own creative and critical space. And in this I find myself thinking about the realities for this most recent crop of artists emerging from University, who would doubtless love to be busy with deadlines of their own. Like countless of their peers elsewhere, all trying to make sense of who they want to be now the institution has ceased to define them, they are making do with jobs in service or retail industries, inching their way into potentially more satisfying, but frequently lower paid arts administration or simply trying to subsist for a while on meagre benefits, whilst all the while worrying about their student debt. The name of this grouping itself, Sixes and Sevens, immediately evokes the uncertainty pervading this stage of creative life, and the exhibition title Part 1 apparently designates this as a first step on the road to their creative career.

In the press release, however, the group asserted their ‘uncompromising sense of optimism’ and on the evidence of the exhibition they are clearly a resourceful bunch, using whatever comes to hand as material or context for their continued practice. But despite this, there remained a lingering melancholia suggesting more mixed emotions. One work employed found promotional flyers as the ground upon which to paint, but transformed these contemporary artefacts into something curiously antique. Elsewhere a bag had been constructed from envelopes the artist has received through the post: despite the enterprising approach, I surely couldn’t have been alone in this work prompting a recollection of all the project proposals one writes when just out of university, and which return unwanted, thudding rejection through the letterbox? A similarly downbeat effect was at work in the piece All my ideas sound better on paper, though here it was the opposite reality: the dawning sense that the marvellous conceptual idea never quite emerges into the world as one hopes.

The show’s curatorial premise was never to present a uniform idea, but to allow this group to exist in its diversity. As a result we could see in one handy location many of the pre-eminent concerns of contemporary art practice: an investigation and re-working of the everyday; the knowing artistic reconsideration of Romantic ideals; a concern with folklore, myths and symbols; the concatenation of author, performer and spectator; the experience of expectation, disappointment and failure in making and viewing art… But despite the variety of approaches, practices and media, it seems that ultimately a coherent theme does emerge from the exhibition: Sixes and Sevens gave a clear view of what it means to be emerging artists in the second decade of the twenty-first century, burdened by financial difficulty, weighed down by art history and existing outside the UK art capital, but nonetheless still full of creative and critical ambition, and very determined to use collective strength to invent their own opportunities.