Workstation (The)

Baxter and MacGabhann’s exhibition looks very inviting through the window of the Workstation, in the heart of Sheffield’s cultural quarter. The show feels strongly curated. Hanging the strikingly different work of Baxter and MacGabhann in intermingled groupings is a brave, yet successful decision. Playful and poetic sculptures interrelate with the colours and shapes in paintings and prints, and the differences give the exhibition a sense of being taut and alive.

Baxter’s paintings have a breadth of mark-making and surface texture. Some have thick, viscous paint, and look good enough to eat. Others are painted more thinly, such as the beautifully puckered colour-background of Untitled (object dreaming 4, 2005), which makes me think of experiencing music in colour, a sensitive experience held in tension with the raw red of the figure-shape in the painting. The ambiguity of subject matter within the paintings invites dreaming. Objects or figures are hinted at and trigger associations. Untitled (somatic portrait 3, 2005 ), could be two severed fingers, a pair of pink shoes, babies in swaddling clothes. The heavy black outlines of the forms make them seem very contained, yet their colour and texture is mirrored in the surrounding paint, making me think of the infant’s relationship to the world as an extension of itself. The richly textured paint and the journey of interpretation these pictures take me on, make me feel as though I too enter the "pre-discursive space of the infant’s object-dreaming" (Baxter). It is a warm and deeply human experience. It also makes me reflect on the complexity of play, particularly in relation to the paintings with more overt political references, such as Untitled (Paris riots, 2005).

My favourite of the sculptures is We who have always…(2006). The large bird-cage of this sculpture seems victim to contradictory forces. The array of brightly coloured balloons tied to the bars have their lifting potential cancelled by the top-hat standing on top of the cage. Inside the cage, the shiny, black, large leather shoes each contain half a pomegranate, which gives them the appearance of severed feet, and therefore of thwarted life, even though the pomegranate is a symbol of immortality. The push-pull of relationships within the sculptures make them highly charged and full of poetic delight.

MacGabhann’s explorations of ‘Self’ provide a striking contrast. His first group of three blue-prints remind me of criminal-record pictures. They are full-frontal, head and shoulder scan-images of the artist, each revealing and concealing different areas of the face, making them look both injured and obliterated, connoting images of torture. Their faded, trace-like quality and scratchy edges make them feel full of uncomfortable electricity. They give the sense of being trapped by external and internal forces. Later there is a black and white series where the artist appears to be both wrapping and unwrapping his own head. This makes me think of the processes of forming an identity. Again, these images are full-frontal, which gives the work an accusing quality, suggesting the external forces of culture contributing to the need for this masking/unmasking.

MacGabhann’s paintings have a more theatrical quality. The use of printed pattern overlaid with painterly marks comes together in strong colours to make unusually filmic images, perhaps referencing the language of horror.

This exhibition contains a depth and breadth of experience that takes time to savour fully. I found myself challenged, delighted and disturbed. Baxter’s work hums with aliveness, giving a sensually rich experience through paint and assembled objects, with joy and difficulty in tension. I found my imagination stretched and saw the world in a new way. MacGabhann’s work, particularly his prints, give an intense experience which is sometimes painful or hostile, causing me to reflect on hostilities in the world at large, and an unsettling and unsettled sense of self. It is rare to witness such an engaging exhibition of contemporary work, I look forward to seeing what comes next.

I am an artist living and working in Sheffield, currently artist in residence with the Sheffield Care Trust.