Thursday, 24 May 2012

Review Dave Gledhill


It’s difficult to isolate one element in this interim exhibition of University of Bolton MA students work (they will be showing at the University in September) as the key contributor to its remarkable quality. Currently enjoying a very eco-conscious refurbishment programme, Falcon Mill where the show takes place is an impressively sturdy looking building of its type and the gallery space has an unusually high ceiling and a wonderfully light filled and airy ambience. The guest contributors, some of them internationally known and the students themselves have risen to the occasion and the work is uniformly excellent. Any potential problems with the thematic mix of the project have been neatly circumvented by allowing each artist plenty of space to breathe and where necessary positioning distinctive works next to highly complementary neighbours. The hang itself is of an immaculately professional standard and reminiscent of displays in other major converted industrial spaces in the region such as Tate Liverpool. With its concrete floor and acres of whitewashed walls it also competes with newer ‘faux-brutalist’ commercial spaces such as Gagosian at Euston or Hauser and Wirth in Saville Row.

The combination of all these factors would be enough to reward the visitor even without the overwhelming sense of optimism that the site generates. Once this has been imbibed the art can be seen to be entirely consonant with this sense of cultural renewal; innovative, critical where justified, but always beautifully judged and most importantly, brimming with confidence.With northern town centre shop closures running at twice the national average, the cultural industries here need to work together with the private sector to produce mutually beneficial projects and initiatives. At Falcon Mill the coincidence of socially responsible redevelopment and a new spirit of self-reliance in the visual arts has been a fortuitous one.

When artists curate each other into shows there are often more oblique affinities to be encountered between their work than in many of the more institutionally generated subject driven surveys. There are common approaches here; Siobhain Moakes, Stuart Hine, Sharon Forrest, Tracey Shaylor and Ed Pien incorporate and acknowledge the mediation of photographic imaging in their work. Denis Whiteside, Ian Irvine, David Mach and Robyn Woolston produce witty de- and re- constructions of generic print genres such as the colour chart, the greetings card, the paperback cover or the architectural plan. The results are by turn, humorous and thought provoking. Kerry Phippen and Valerie Halliwell share a sense of personal mythology that manifests an emotive force in images of childhood and motherhood. Phippen’s mixed media pieces and Halliwell’s large canvasses explore the full range of expressive graphic and painterly effects and reclaim an emotive terrain largely abandoned in recent figurative painting. Jason Simpson, Adrian Moakes and Robyn Woolston use less traditional materials to convey the organic principles of growth, diversification and adaptation which in this setting take on a metaphoric force. Woolston’s installation interweaves building society billboard posters with supermarket elevation drawings, neatly conflating the economic forces that shape the urban environment. Pete Marsh and Stuart Hine employ an impenetrable chiaroscuro which is as crucial to the power of the work as the forms that struggle to emerge from it.

These factors alone would pull together a display as varied as this but then some of these ideas are in circulation and widely addressed. However, above and beyond this there is an extraordinarily confident sense of understatement in much of the work. Siobhain Moakes multi-panel aerial landscape of Manchester derived from ‘Google Earth’ twists, folds and contorts this prosthetic view of her hometown, employing  a spontaneous brushy shorthand to mimic the limitations of the human sensorium in processing this spectacular representation and by implication, the wider realm of digitised information. Pien’s blurred black and white photographs from a winter train journey evoke a similarly vertiginous disorientation to the familiar. Also working in monochrome, Sharon Forrest depicts a parade of Gurkhas that march towards, and on a second canvas, away from the viewer, camouflaged fatigues dissolving into hatched charcoal marks that infer a society unconvinced of the justification for conflict and unconcerned for the fate of its own veterans. Stuart Hine’s appropriation of the standing portrait format as developed in the high renaissance and extended through Velazquez and ultimately Manet, sees the artist subverting the class profile of this conventional genre while working with photo processing programmes to create a kind of holographic typology; eyes blackened out, body postures eloquent of pride, vulnerability and defiance. The vivid impact of these larger than life characters is echoed by Tracey Shaylor’s series of brushed aluminium photo-discs which churn with disquietingly fleshy forms, undistinguishable as limbs or organs but unmistakeably human. One can’t help but associate these brooding meditations on corporeality with ongoing debates regarding genetic research, an impression reinforced by the clinical perfection of the medium. Amanda Rae’s heads encased in resin produce a comparable effect of unsettling fascination. The ambiguity of these pieces links them with the other work on display, all of which celebrates a species of visuality that eludes literal translation and is all the richer for it.

Any artist curated exhibition of contemporary work across as wide a range of media as this that coheres visually, formally and thematically at one or another level is a testament to the spirit of co-operation and mutual support of the core organisers. In this case, an exceptional crop of MA graduates have engaged with unconventional media and processes whilst exploring complex issues in an open and non-didactic manner. The resulting work forecasts a return to health for the cultural life of the region.

David Gledhill

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