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One of my favourite things about this idiosyncratic little Isle we call the UK is the quintessential seaside town. There are few other things which encapsulate so specifically the unique facets of the British psyche into one small microcosmic burst of sublime kitsch consumerism, freezing waters lapping on dirty beaches and cheap, melting ice cream cones (with a flake, of course). It’s fabulous. Tasteful is sometimes lovely; a middle-class cup of Earl Grey on a Victorian garden terrace in Cambridge can be all well and good, but really it has comparatively little soul. Stick me on Margate beach surrounded by gobby kids with parents no less refined, half-blinded by the reflections from the arcade frontages which prove that all which glitters is definitely not gold, and I’m in my element. I can’t help but assume you are all suspecting that I am a typical product of my upbringing in this respect. That I relish these, to some, distasteful scenes with glee because of their centrality to the 1980’s childhood of a working class Southerner. Correct. But it is not only this geographical circumstance of birth which causes me to grin as soon as my internal satnav senses I am within 10 miles of a sugared doughnut shack; British seasides truly are on their own merit singularly enjoyable.

Growing up in Dartford in the 80’s and 90’s, Margate was our closest beach and still a fairly thriving hive of domestic tourism at that point. We would plead with our parents to take us there, as yet uninterested in foreign climes or the lure of saccharine Disney marketing. The swingboats at Margate beach were the highlight of our summer. How tantalisingly simple life was then! As we got older, Dreamland, that disintegrating grandfather of theme parks, became the focus of our pubescent attentions. The lure of its death-defyingly ancient roller-coaster structures stoking the fire of our naive, thrill-seeking bellies. The what we considered subtle experimentation with the mating ritual, (which in hindsight consisted entirely of stalking a group of usually slightly older boys, acting as if we hadn’t noticed them and reaching the end of a whole day having never actually spoken to them) was played out around the grounds of Dreamland like groundhog day. We could get angsty conversational mileage from that kind of near-encounter for days.

Then one fateful day Dreamland surrendered to the inevitable and impending padlock of the health and safety regulators. A thousand teenagers loitered, bereft, with only the arcades for entertainment. But soon these began to wither away too, the effect of the 1960s emergence of cheap package holidays abroad becoming visible on the face of the town. Less families, less fun, less income; more unemployment, more pound shops, more crime. Seaside towns have always been particularly vulnerable to the effects of economic shift; their seasonal nature meaning winter is often as bleak as summer is bright. But there came upon British seafronts in that era a tidal wave of degradation, half-empty swingboats standing then as monuments to a lost age of contentedness.

Margate soon became known to those who hadn’t spent childhood days there as a bit of a dive, its slightly more well-to-do neighbour Ramsgate wringing the mileage out of its nouveau-riche marina facade and characterless wine bars, attempting to emulate the seafront harbours of its continental competitors. Margate stuck to its guns; sun, sea, sand and some truly great fish ‘n’ chips. As with so many other nearby towns it is now only just starting to see some semblance of a recovery. Interestingly, this regeneration is seemingly part of a pattern; a swathe of curious ‘cultural quarters’ beginning to emerge from the wind-battered frontages of these former summer holiday havens. Folkestone, Margate, Dungeness; all have been sprinkled with a relatively recent dusting of artistic and culturally important spectacle. Without further research I can only speculate as to why this might be, but educated guesswork would lead me to suggest the gradual migration of the middle classes from London might have had at least a partial impact. Commuter towns now reach even as far as the southern coast, much as a result of the bordering areas outside London observing a continuing rise in living costs. It’s obvious then (to some councils at least!) that you would try to appeal to the interests and expectations of London commuters; to put in the worthwhile effort and investment which might encourage them to stay in your culture-rich but comparatively affordable and close to home surroundings.

Down at Margate, the most visible and high-profile evidence of this artistic injection is the new Turner Contemporary, all classic Chipperfield wide and light exhibition spaces and orgasmic interspatial elements. But it may not hold this title for long; I hear on the grapevine a most exciting rumour. It seems grandfather time may rewind his clock for Margate and resurrect my childhood pleasure park, Dreamland, like an old but cocksure phoenix ready to swagger back into the consciousness of the town.

Of course the obvious artistic link to Margate is through someone who may well not agree with my sickly-sweet love for it; Mad Tracey from Margate, aka 90’s artworld darling and one of my personal favourites, Tracey Emin, her often biographical works shocking staunch upholders of the British taboo with graphic representations of the gritty side of life in the town during its decline. Or maybe she would? Without her difficult upbringing amidst the area’s grim social scene and degenerate male contingent would she ever have achieved such fame and fortune? Tracey Emin’s wistful recollections of the area in her artworks have greatly influenced how much I enjoy her work. Aside from respecting the brutal honesty of her cathartic subject-matters and refusal to bow to the mummified art establishment, I feel an affinity with her attachment to the town in which I spent countless fun-filled days circa 1989.

It seems almost bizarre to me that I will soon be showing 3 of my own photographs in one of the new art galleries in this town for which I hold such affection. Aside from the encouraging fact that these modern and exciting spaces now exist there at all, it’s interesting that artists from the South-East are coming to Margate to exhibit instead of heading into London and seems to me indicative of a gradual shift in collective focus onto non London-based art. It’s high time we began to look locally at the wealth of unrecognised and underdeveloped artistic talent on our doorstep, not solely in my hometown of Dartford and around Kent but further out and beyond. London art has been done to death, let the artistic era of the provinces commence!

A selection of my photographs will be shown, along with the work of some of my fellow Dartford Arts Network members (Kasia Kat Parker & David Houston), as part of an exhibition primarily featuring the paintings of Tunde Odelade at the Pie Factory Gallery in Margate. The exhibition runs from 8th May – 21st May and is free to visit. For directions and further information see their website and if you’re in the area on 10th May do come in and say hi – I’ll be there milling around from 10am – 6pm.

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Installation View. Photo: Stephen White

Installation View. Photo: Stephen White

I’ve always liked Sarah Lucas. I both envy her clever creative wit and admire her ability to piss a lot of people off just through honest artistic communication. To offend meaningfully can be an inert skill in itself, often misused and derided by many but undoubtedly a significant catalyst in the creation of conversation, dialogue, debate and sometimes venomous expulsions. Tracey Emin, whose very name has become a dirty word among some cliques, is a contemporaneous example of this type of artwork; honest, too honest for most, but her works are the results of sad and poignant catharsis, sifting chaotically and urgently through the memories of a troubled childhood and beyond. Sarah Lucas, although addressing similarly taboo notions of sex and society, does so with far less heart-rending effect. Her works intend to provoke, flinging an upturned middle finger at critics and misogynists. Viewing them feels a bit like how I would imagine watching the Sex Pistols live would; a vicious, funny but unsettlingly serious piss-take.

Lucas’s recent retrospective at the Whitechapel Gallery placed many older, familiar pieces alongside her current offerings. Well-worn but still fabulous classics such as Au Naturel quietly stole the thunder of recently completed wall prints, but in general the work continues with the subject matter and treatment she became famous for in the 80’s and 90’s during her time as a key member of the YBAs. Lucas treats her materials as punk musicians treated their lyrics; their presentation harsh and biting but ultimately forcing you, the recipient, to confront uncomfortable representations of a very everyday thing: sex, sexuality, the human body (or in the punks’ case, political and societal affairs).

Au_Naturel, 1994

Au_Naturel, 1994

It’s interesting what still makes us gasp today. In a tale as old as time (even beauty & the beast were at it in the end) it’s still sex which raises eyebrows and fuels the raging psychotic fury of Tea-Party loons, with half a second of nipple at the Superbowl inciting the blisteringly outraged complaints of half a million Americans. So despite our entirely natural urges and the booming global porn industry indicating that perhaps we should just give in to this one, it’s still, amazingly, a prime subject to ignite controversy. In some pieces Lucas uses skulls and teeth to represent the vagina, tapping into a commonly held belief that men are in fact afraid of it and highlighting the fact it is rarely positively portrayed. She’s certainly not the only person to call attention to this, feminists across the world have been saying it since the 60’s and actress Evan Rachel Wood recently made a similar complaint about public attitudes to the vagina following the editing out of a scene from her new film in which her character received oral sex “Accept that women are sexual beings, accept that some men like pleasuring women,” she said. “Accept that women don’t just have to be f**ked and say thank you. We are allowed and entitled to enjoy ourselves”. Facebook reactions to my sharing the artwork of avant-garde artist Casey Jenkins proved to be similar, consisting of a surprising (to me at least) mix of disgust, shock, anger and hilarity at the use of the vagina in art. Lucas challenges and mocks our repressed and discriminative stereotypes of sexuality through often brutal parody. Teeth as vaginas; scared of it now? A huge wall of penises; shocked yet? She cleverly references the insulting colloquialisms of popular culture with objects such as fried eggs and kebabs, transforming the slang from verbal to visual. Through forcing us to confront images which may embarrass us or which address negative stereotypes through distasteful representation, such as the sloppy fish for a vagina, she desensitises us to the very ordinary reality of our own bodies. Her less explicit works continue to explore sexuality, with humour abounding in pieces such as the headless self-portrait, which I at first took to be a balaclava, the exposed nipples staring brazenly at the viewer like the squinty eyes of a post-party raver.

Two Fried Eggs and a Kebab, 1992

Two Fried Eggs and a Kebab, 1992

Self-portrait

Self-portrait

My trip around the exhibition concluded with overhearing a fellow visitor whisper ‘is she a lesbian?’. I was (perhaps naively) surprised to hear this as her sexual preference had not even come close to crossing my mind, although the fact it came up at all serves only to hammer the point she is making about sexual stereoptying and association. Because although her work deals with this topic, it is not, unlike Emin’s work, primarily concerned with the emotional aspect surrounding sex, or even about relationships in any way. It is almost primeval in its exploration of our sexual selves and speaks to me virtually exclusively about social stigma and attitude. The day a carefully situated kebab fails to cause offence is the day our society will have finally learnt a valuable lesson. But what would Lucas teach us then?

Extract from Jules Wright and Thomas Zanon-Larcher's Lady of the Sea at The Wapping Project

Extract from Jules Wright and Thomas Zanon-Larcher’s Lady of the Sea at The Wapping Project

I’d heard of the Wapping Project before. As someone interested in the arts in London, it was almost hard not to. Exclamation at it’s evident all-round brilliantness gushed from every source, über-cool reviewers and members of various ‘in-crowds’ chattered excitedly about its innovative programme and siting. But inevitably, like a million other must-sees in and around London over the years, I had always failed to actually get there and consequently, regrettably, allowed it to drift from my subconscious to-do list. In a sadly ironic twist it’s impending closure means that I did finally manage to visit, after receiving last week an email from the project’s deputy director Marta tempting me with the sale of various jugs/bowls/glasses at bargain prices. The reason for the kitchenware sell-off being that the renowned restaurant based there, along with the rest of the project, will be no more after 22nd Dec, with reports claiming that complaints from residents about noise levels has forced the shutdown. Complaints about the complaints have also been voiced in increasing number, with creatives across the city mourning the looming date of its disappearance. On a brighter note of self-interest, this situation did mean that moi managed to swiftly baggsie myself a few cut-price treasures for my kitchen cupboards (every cloud and all that).

And so it was that I found myself, on a damp, dark Thursday eve in December arriving at Wapping, it being an attractively strange place oozing history and character in that nouveau-classy manner of much of the east docklands area; the palpable taste of new money ‘a la Shad Thames refurbed wharf architecture, but it’s modern flashiness still unable to conceal that dark undercurrent, the sense of unease a residue from centuries of rough riverside streets; crime, murder and the nearby Execution Dock instilling an aura of menace in the fabric of the historic maritime area. The breeze from the Thames feels old, almost as though it has been carried along from 1750, the spectre of Jack the Ripper lurking behind each corner, hidden on the dark and wet almost deserted streets which glisten under the subdued glow of the streetlights. I must admit, I loved it.

A 5 minute walk from the station along Wapping Wall brings you to an initially underwhelming industrial gated entrance opposite the famous Prospect of Whitby pub, but a tentative peek through the door reveals the dramatic facade of the old Wapping Hydraulic Power Station, windows emitting that syrupy phosphorescence of low candlelight and allowing just enough contrast with the dark night to give an initial glimpse of the restored machinery-clad interior. Once inside, I immediately enjoyed just being in the space (I’m a big fan of old industrial architecture) gleefully eyeballing the structure and revelling in my dreamy rose-tinted imaginings of its past days. Kitchenware collected, I reluctantly prepared to be on my way, the sense of foolish missed opportunity dawning on me and regret beginning to seep into my consciousness, when deputy director Marta eagerly pointed me towards a small door just off the main hall – “go and see the last exhibition” she said, “before we close for good”.

Stepping through into the dark entrance of the Boiler Room I was struck instantly by the unmistakeable smell of damp and cold; wet on metal and the past still hanging in the air, the pungency of childhood adventures spent exploring places where perhaps you shouldn’t be. Coming to the top of a staircase I saw below me a partially constructed wooden structure set upon a bed of sand, snow and gravel. Shafts of brilliant white light poked through what appeared to be window holes, illuminating the surrounding area and inviting me in and out of the dark cold gloom. Stepping inside felt a little like an intrusion; I was in that rather rare position of being the only person at the exhibition, meaning the suspension of disbelief was thrillingly heightened. It could well have been someone’s house, inside were benches covered in sandy blankets, the accompanying soundtrack intensifying the effect of the drama as you entered the space. One whole wall of the shack consists of a screen projecting the photographic essay shot by Jules Wright and Thomas Zanon-Larcher in Svalbard and (I discovered later) inspired by Ibsen’s play ‘The Lady from the Sea‘. The inside/outside setting of the installation parallels with the movement of the story through interiors and exteriors as it follows the Nordic couple, the quality of photography and direction recording their emotional turmoil visually whilst also relating it to us via physical atmosphere and sound.

Interior of the wooden shack at the Lady From the Sea installation by Jules Wright and Thomas Zanon-Larcher

Interior of the wooden shack at the Lady From the Sea installation by Jules Wright and Thomas Zanon-Larcher

I sat there for a good fifteen minutes; a record for me I think. When it comes to moving artworks I usually find myself less engaged than in those which are static, maybe the controlling and over-independent facets of my personality find it jarring to be forced to look at something else, to be told when I have to move my gaze on. This set of photographs however, succeed in delicately achieving an unforced flow, lingering long enough on each image to make you eager for the next, but not so much that you get bored of it; adeptly sufficient in length for the viewer to drink in each lovely drop of it. The direction and curation utilise cleverly our brain’s ability to fill in the blanks; leaving the little shack I felt inherently that I knew the characters well, understood their respective positions, sympathised with both viewpoints and even hoped that they sorted their troubles out in the end. All that emotional response gleaned from 15 minutes in front of a set of still photographs.

On the way home, feeling extremely lucky to have had an unexpected private view of such a beautiful new exhibition, I mused on how I had ended up there. Fate? Was I meant to see the Wapping project at some point, a spurious roundabout kitchenware errand leading me there all along? I like to think that chance is a better bet than fate. Sometimes there occur poignant moments in life which materialise entirely through random fortuitous happenings and, like a cyber-finger enacting the proverbial Facebook poke, never fail to make me acutely aware of the importance of chance incidents within the bizarre rollercoasters of our daily lives. It was a circumstantial moment such as this in which I found myself last Thursday evening; unexpectedly sitting alone inside that cool, damp, wooden shack and revelling in my good fortune.

The Lady of the Sea by Jules Wright and Thomas Zanon-Larcher runs until 22nd December 2013 at The Wapping Project, Wapping Hydraulic Power Station, Wapping Wall, E1W 3SG 0207 680 2080.

For more information on The Wapping Project in its final days contact marta@thewappingproject.com

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Wall projections outside the wooden shack in the Boiler Room

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Interior of the shack with projection extract

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Who knew that poor little old Dartford, kicked and teased like the runt of the Kent litter, abandoned in droves by its own people in preference for the nearby shiny happy Bluewater and sneered at down shiny noses by outsiders, should now be found to be hiding such a wealth of undiscovered creativity? Despite living in the area for 29 years, I have in the past few months realised I have barely scratched the surface of what seems to be an impressive but currently sadly under-connected network of artists and art-lovers.

Dartford Creative, an initiative brought to us by Icon Theatre, aims to unearth and develop these links, stimulating that much-neglected erogenous zone of the area; its creative core. Thanks to the tireless and dedicated co-ordination of Nancy, Michelle and countless others involved in the programme, whose belief and optimism have succeeded in overcoming even the most cynical challenges in their path, the enterprise has resulted in an inspiring programme of art events running every Saturday until Christmas. The thinking behind the plan is effectively simple; this series of events is a starter for ten, intended to whet the creative whistle of locals and to initiate a dialogue which will extend to next year, and the next, carrying on the tide the potentially valuable trawl which will be unearthed through this exercise.

Dartford itself has a long and fascinating history involving no less than rebel kings of England, revolutionary leaders and a few famous Artist/Sirs of its own, including Sir Peter Blake who, for those of you who don’t know, designed the famous Beatles Sgt. Pepper album cover. In fact rather a lot of impressively significant events have touched upon the area, as well as some of the more insignificant but equally fascinating! I was, much like many other Dartfordians I imagine, sadly bereft of much of this information until researching for a piece in Dartford Living on the local gasworks. Upon beginning to dig for information I found myself enthralled at the stories I found, each painting a vivid picture of what the town had been, decades, or even centuries before.

Bringing this history to life is one important facet of the Dartford Creative event and will ensure that this knowledge is both stored and nurtured by participants, passed on and down to the next generation; a treasure hunt on 21st September explores local buildings perhaps usually passed by without a second thought. A beautiful 17th Century pub goes unnoticed day by day, while Victorian shop first floor facades gaze down on the high street mournfully, unseen by shoppers. Events such as the treasure hunt specifically aim to point out sites of local importance, but a running theme throughout the programme is the importance of highlighting of a side to Dartford which lies largely in our unconscious; the historical side, the artistic side, the worth-listening-to side. The effects of probing this point continuously, weekly, are that it will stick and grow. It will germinate and spread tendrils of thought which could lead, well, who knows where? I myself have already made nearly 10 fascinating new acquaintances with whom I’m in regular contact and will continue to be after the event finishes. How many could you make? You see the potential.

Since the project launched on 10th August we have already seen a 50’s style street party, clay model making, the launch of the much-anticipated film competition (which will culminate in the winning film being shown in the eye-wateringly cool mini solar cinema), and, brightening up a rather rainy day last Saturday, ukelele lessons from inspiring teacher Steve Ball. Coming up this weekend is your chance to find out about the history of the street you live in and contribute to the town’s own Blue Plaque programme. If you have any sense at all you’ll be down there each and every Saturday without fail, bright eyed and bushy tailed at 10am like a dog on a promise for some buttery toast. But for those of you who might, like me, be a freakishly over-organised planner and not be able to make this one, don’t panic. DON’T PANIC. There’s the treasure hunt the week after that,  then Mr E’s intriguing theatrical museum on the 28th and much, much more to come. Let me not hear you say ‘Oh that’s not for me, I’m no good at art”, as is often the standard, negative protest from the crowd; if even the dog can get involved in playing the ukelele (see photos), I’ve not doubt you can manage it too.

Expect to see a few more posts on this, intended to both keep you up to date and to nag you like a spoilt 10 year old until you defeatedly submit to getting involved, and are within minutes running around gleefully covered in paint/clay/ukeleles etc.

Dartford Creative runs every Saturday at One Bell Corner from 10am-3pm.

Informal artist networking meetings are taking place at the Bull & Vic on the high street (opposite Lloyds bank) on the following dates:

  • Tuesday 17 September, 7-9pm
  • Saturday 28 September 4-6pm and
  • Saturday 5 October,  4-6pm

All welcome. Please come, I want to meet you all!

To enter the film competition see the details on the website and submit your entry to Vimeo by 1st Nov.

Locals learn how to play the Ukelele...even the dog was lulled to sleep by the sweet tones of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star

Locals learn how to play the Ukelele…even the dog was lulled to sleep by the sweet tones of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star

Clay model making

Clay model making

A clay face materialises out of the table...

A clay face materialises out of the table…

Ready for the next group of eager Ukelele students

Ready for the next group of eager Ukelele students

Free popcorn while you paint - what's not to like!?

Free popcorn while you paint – what’s not to like!?

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A mini-gallery of some of the work produced so far

A mini-gallery of some of the work produced so far

Kids getting their hands deliciously dirty with the clay models

Kids getting their hands deliciously dirty with the clay models

Steve Ball inspiring local residents with his Ukelele renditions of Guns N Roses

Steve Ball inspiring local residents with his Ukelele renditions of Guns N Roses

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An unofficial addition to the creative vibe of the event - just down the road, local street artist Gee injects some life into the drab hoardings of the derelict shops waiting for development

An unofficial addition to the creative vibe of the event – just down the road, local street artist Gee injects some life into the drab hoardings of the derelict shops waiting for development

Street art by local artist Gee

Street art by local artist Gee

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(c) Cristina Boyton

Commuting in London is almost always a chore. A necessary means to get from a to b via the quickest possible route, the quality of conditions usually sacrificed to save those precious extra 15mins. Some days it’s bearable, some days it’s fun (usually post-alcohol consumption) but other days, like last Thursday in fact, conspire to unravel your generally good nature until you reach a twitchy, hysterical, borderline murderous state. 33 degrees outside, god knows what temperature down in the bowels of the London tube network. On a day like this a swift service is surely expected. Extra effort made to ensure things run smoothly; to reduce fainting, dehydration, sweat-transferred pandemic inception etc. No? No. Delays on every line. Well, every line I needed, anyway. An hour and a half later I emerged, blinking into the sun like an overawed mole, grateful for my escape into freedom like a rescued miner.

On arriving, shortly after this, at the Gallery Cafe in Bethnal Green, I was awarded for my struggle a little slice of cool calm, a haven of friendly vegan relaxation amongst the heady chaos of the area. One much-needed Pinot in hand, I turned to look at what I had come here to see. Cristina Boyton’s photographs of the Circuit in Nepal are immediately striking, before the subject matter even comes into focus. The blue hits you first, contrasted sharply against grey and stone. Saturation vs monochrome; a visual language which runs throughout the set of images and seems to link with the concept explored in the subject matter. Rich vs plain, luxury vs poverty. The Circuit is a now-famous hiking route in Nepal, renowned for its stunning scenery and ticking every ‘perfect trail’ box. Obviously, as are our wonderful human tendencies, when we find something of stunning natural beauty we tend to either hunt it to extinction, westernise it to extinction, or in this case, are so desperate to each have a piece of it, that we end up exploiting and destroying it.

This is potentially the fate of the Circuit and it’s indigenous inhabitants, who carry on with their daily grind alongside kids kitted in Berghaus on their gap year, the latter blissfully unaware of the damage they may be doing just by being there. A rich, commercialised, western contingent trampling loudly through this quiet, agrarian landscape. Gaudy vs restrained. To this end I must admit I was slightly disappointed that the sizing of the photographs wasn’t actually reversed. The mountainous landscape images, though very pretty, were less compelling than the human studies, although those which captured the town in the foothills succeeded in exemplifying the dramatic sense of scale which must surely dominate these views in the flesh. The shot of the pensive young boy is undoubtedly the strongest image, a nod to the innocence of this area and the modest lifestyles taking place in the shadow of the mountains. A woman in the next image counts beans, engrossed in her work, the bright tones of her clothing picking up the blue of the majestic landscapes. Shots of villagers milling about the dusty streets instinctively drew my gaze deeper, closer, to see more clearly their expressions and perhaps decipher a dialogue through a meaningful look.

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(c) Cristina Boyton

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(c) Cristina Boyton

It’s no surprise then that Cristina’s forte is documentary photography of a social nature. With a background in media and photography, her projects focus upon relationships; people, places, routines and tradition. Her usual “style and preference is to spend time with people”, getting to know her subjects closely before and during prolonged shoots, often over months at a time, and so capturing certain aspects of their individual lives and personalities in specific detail. This particular set of photographs however, were necessarily immediate, with shots caught at sudden and opportune moments on a journey through the region. It adds a certain magic. The honesty of the images are what makes them so appealing; no studio, no set-up, just the reality of life in this spectacular, yet threatened landscape.

Within the surroundings of the small, endearing Gallery Cafe, with its large windows at the back overlooking jungle-like greenery, the smell of baking wafting from the kitchen and service with a very friendly smile, the exhibition was given an interesting twist, evoking certain sensations it may not have, had it been shown in a traditional white-walled gallery setting. One customer pointed out that the images made him feel ‘cool on a hot day’, the moist blue tones and high-altitude scenery projecting the sensation of a swift fresh breeze sighing its way through the cafe table legs. And indeed, the life of the place; the chatter, the laughter and the clink of bottles, somehow make you feel as if you really are there, as if you are sitting in this rustic little cafe not minutes away from the clamour of Roman Road, but high-up in the Annapurna Mountain range, gazing out over this endangered community for perhaps the last time.

The Circuit is showing until 31st August at The Gallery Café, 21 Old Ford Road, Bethnal Green,E2 9PL www.stmargaretshouse.org.uk

All photographs are copyright Cristina Boyton / www.smallfontphotographer.com

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(c) Cristina Boyton

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(c) Cristina Boyton

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(c) Cristina Boyton

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(c) Cristina Boyton

Cornelia Parker - Unsettled 2012 - 2013 Wood found on the streets of Jerusalem, wire Dimensions variable

Cornelia Parker – Unsettled 2012 – 2013
Wood found on the streets of Jerusalem, wire
Dimensions variable

Pure mathematics is, in its way, the poetry of logical ideas – Einstein

To many, she is the creator of the infamous ‘exploded shed’, a phrase which certainly elicited a knowing (and generally approving) head nod when explaining to friends where I spent my Saturday afternoon. But Cornelia Parker’s work is far more than a sculptural gimmick and her latest show at the Frith Street Gallery (not actually on Frith Street I can attest, after much traipsing around in hellish London heat), is testament to her insightful exploration of the physical and intellectual societal framework we inhabit.

Entering the gallery, I felt initially triumphant that I had not caved into my clawing instinct to give up and head home, after a difficult journey through central London in summer heat, riding a wave of nauseous hangover and unable to locate the gallery address. This feeling of success began to ebb away as I looked around and concluded instantly that the place must be mid-renovation; piles of wood, exposed concrete floors, until I noticed that the planks of wood were floating. Magic. Or so it seemed until I put on my glasses and saw the wires. My initial reaction, however, sums up in many ways the beauty of Parker’s works; the simple magic of her pieces stun me in the way pure maths might a rocket scientist. Concise, honest, her work is delicate in form even when robust in material. The utter beauty is in the restraint; not lifting the wood high from the floor (perhaps 2 inches) she causes your brain to become confused. Peripherally the planks are standing on the floor, but a direct glance reveals they are suspended. The wires of course show it as not being truly levitational, but their linearity actually only add to the illusion, visually driving the planks further toward the floor and contrasting the horizontal of the concrete over which they hang. It was only after a circuit of the gallery that I discovered the intended meaning behind the work (although I enjoyed it just as much without knowing); the wood was collected by Parker in Jerusalem, a traditional holy land often blighted by war and poverty, the material bringing back with it the stories it holds and the scenes it has witnessed. Broken wood also representing the life cycle, it speaks to me of mortality and family ties.

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Actually, quite a lot of Parker’s works strike a chord in me not unlike fear. By pointing to childhood games, particularly alongside the previous work, she pokes an inquisitive finger into that inherent terror most human beings hold in the depths of their belly, that of their own insignificance in the wider viewpoint when set against the vast backdrop of Time. Our fragile mortality. Her casts of pavement cracks remind me instinctively of Rachel Whiteread, but although the similarity in process links them, the point seems entirely different. While Whiteread casted ’empty’ space, provoking questions about spirituality, matter, physics, materiality, Parker’s work casts the space around, above and between. It produces a version of the real thing, a bit like an off-centre shadow. Her floor pieces are impressions of the streets below our feet, inspired by her love of childhood hopscotch; the brushed metal material making them seem both delicate and dense at the same time. Again, their minimal suspension from the floor has an arresting effect, with the shadows cleverly cast and mirroring the idea that the object itself is a metaphorical shadow.

Cornelia Parker -   Black Puddle (Rhoda Street) 2013 Black patinated bronze 109 x 118 x 6 cm

Cornelia Parker –
Black Puddle (Rhoda Street) 2013
Black patinated bronze
109 x 118 x 6 cm

Above and adjacent to the floor works are hung what appear at first to be abstract paintings. Peering closer I think myself to be initially wrong and conclude they are mixed-media collages. At the end, reading the guide text, I discover I was wrong again. They are in fact close-up photographs of the exterior of a prison wall. An investigation into cracks, they complement beautifully the linear language of the other pieces, and continue the theme of enlivening seemingly banal spaces. Taken shortly after a maintenance effort to fill widening holes, the images record the layman’s version of Parkers’ method; the filling of cracks for safety management is suddenly transformed and presented to the viewer as abstract expressionism.

Cornelia Parker - Prison Wall Abstract (A Man Escaped) 2012/13 12 x Digital pigment prints on Hahnemuehle Photo Rag 308 gsm 76 x 60 cm 82 x 65.2 cm

Cornelia Parker – Prison Wall Abstract (A Man Escaped) 2012/13
12 x Digital pigment prints on Hahnemuehle Photo Rag 308 gsm
76 x 60 cm
82 x 65.2 cm

Beautifully linked, visually understated, metaphorically loud and aesthetically sublime, I thought the show couldn’t get much better until I concluded with Bullet Drawing (Crosshairs) 2013, a set of geometrically- inspired pieces constructed with melted down bullets thinned and threaded through paper. With their offset mirror image again evoking the shadow, the works have a distinctly sexy aura and made me feel both exhilarated and utterly Zen looking at them, a very Kubrick moment occurring as I considered how their striking and magnetic simplicity seemed to relate both to our most basic primordial origins, with also a distinct nod towards the space age; purity, clarity, the future, the past. A captivating journey covering mathematics, geometry, architecture, structure, material and power; Cornelia Parker’s new work is a must-see.

Cornelia Parker – Frith Street Gallery. Until 27th July 2013.

Cornelia Parker - Black Path (Bunhill Fields) 2013 Black patinated bronze 340 x 250 x 9 cm

Cornelia Parker – Black Path (Bunhill Fields) 2013
Black patinated bronze
340 x 250 x 9 cm

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Cornelia Parker - Pavement Cracks (City of London) 2012-2013 Black patinated bronze 206 x 152 x 9 cm

Cornelia Parker – Pavement Cracks (City of London) 2012-2013
Black patinated bronze
206 x 152 x 9 cm

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ALL WORKS COURTESY THE ARTIST AND FRITH STREET GALLERY, LONDON
PHOTOGRAPHY: STEPHEN WHITE
MK - Lady with Hole, 2009 Image from Wellcome Collection

MK – Lady with Hole, 2009
Image from Wellcome Collection

Art Brut: is visual creation at its purest – a spontaneous psychic flow from brain to surface

Outsider Art: has been used increasingly loosely and can often now refer to any artist who is untrained or with disabilities or suffering social exclusion, whatever the nature of their work

source: Raw Vision Definitions

Outsider Art, or the more aptly-named Art Brut (raw art), has always been the genre which fascinates me the most. Its methods and theories are born of the same basis as my own values regarding art production and criticism. Its outputs never fail to fascinate me, conveying in often cryptic form inherent emotions and opinions through a direct outpouring of expression. The genre seems to be having something of a renaissance recently, with the intense Koestler Trust ‘prison art’ shows at the Southbank, the very in-vogue Hayward Gallery hosting the Museum of Everything at their current Alternative Guide to the Universe exhibition and of course Souzou; Outsider Art in Japan, which finished at the Wellcome Collection on Sunday. Outsider Art hasn’t been this fashionable since Basquiat in the 80s. Good. Lovely. But although almost every facet of it strikes a chord with me, I’ve also always been a tad dubious about the label and its use, or misuse, in the separation of art and artists.

Even in an exhibition about art from a culture I know very little about, I can see stylistic riffs running throughout many of the works which would probably help to classify them as ‘outsider’. One such example is that of smallness and intricate detail which can often, but not always, be linked to introversion and a lack of confidence. I can use the case of a student at Artbox as an example of my experience of this: 3 years ago Chris, on encouragement to put material to paper, would almost always begin a detailed and creative scene in the furthest corner of the paper, using up often only about 4cm2 of an A4 page. It was 2 years before we realised the significance of that technique, as Chris gradually opened himself up to us and to his own artistic expression; he can currently be found sweeping brushstrokes across A1 sheets blindfolded whilst listening to music. Transformation. Many people don’t emerge from the cocoon in the way Chris did; for some, the lack of confidence and fear of opening up continues to manifest through their works. Norimitsu Kokubo’s intensely detailed city scenes, Yumiko Kawai’s intricate embroidery and Shota Katsube’s army of tiny twist-tie figures are all examples of this style. A preoccupation with size also features in other works such as ‘Mother’ by Takako Shibata; a poignantly ever increasing and subsequently disappearing-off-the-page portrait of the artist’s absent mother.

Takako Shibata - Mother Image from Getty Images via The Independent.com

Takako Shibata – Mother
Image from Getty Images via The Independent.com

Shota Katsube - Untitled, 2011 Image from Wellcome Collection

Shota Katsube – Untitled, 2011
Image from Wellcome Collection

Norimitsu Kokubo -  The Economically Booming City of Tianjin Image from Wellcome Collection

Norimitsu Kokubo – The Economically Booming City of Tianjin
Image from Wellcome Collection

Outsider Art is sometimes defined as being produced by those who create spontaneously, without the influence of the establishment and art culture and without a commission. This is almost only ever partly true. Prison artists for example have often been very much informed by culture and are aware of the established market. But you can see the general idea ie. they’re not fresh meat straight out of St Martin’s, sitting in a South London studio tearing their hair out in a dramatically melancholic search for the inspiration to win this year’s Turner Prize. Outsider Artists are usually those who have come to the practice through somewhat ‘anti-social’ means; they are often incarcerated in a prison or mental health institute, but by no means always. Art therapy would fall under the ‘Outsider’ classification, but in art therapy the artists can be from any walk of life and in any situation, eg.divorce, depression, rather than necessarily prison-based or mentally ill. So if the scope can include Art Therapy and definition is therefore not reliant on any specific life situations, it follows that inclusion in the Outsider Art category must be more focused on the means of production.

Art Brut, Outsider Art, Souzou – Raw Art. Art by means of immediate and direct expression, an outpouring, art from the soul. I see what the categorists are trying to do through this definition, but although part of me agrees, another part doesn’t. In some cases it is possible to distinguish fairly easily between types of people, situation and production style, eg. the difference in work and means between a graduate art student trying to pay the bills and a lifer in prison extracting some cathartic relief from art production, but what about in an instance such as between Paul Gaugin and Vincent van Gogh? One a manically depressed recluse who cut off his own ear in a fit of rage (allegedly), the other considered to be, although perhaps not entirely straight-laced, a fairly well-balanced traditional artistè. Despite fitting most of the criteria for an ‘Outsider Artist’ van Gogh is not generally included in this grouping and was also producing art for recognition, for money, as was Basquiat in the 80s even though he was classed as Outsider.  In parallel with this, many artists in the Souzou exhibition contradict the classification by creating works influenced by cultural tradition or are known for their work and have sold pieces. Through social and charitable initiatives such as Artbox or Centerpieces (I’m lucky to own a fabulous ‘outsider art’ piece by Rich Zyzanski) this is actually more and more common, and not at all a bad thing. Does this then diminish from their ability to produce a direct expressive outpouring through artistic production? I don’t think so. Surely these rigid boundaries of definition cannot meaningfully apply to all artists without diminishing their individuality? Our very human obsession with labels and boxes leads us to the point where we ignore the essential grey area, the blurring of the boundaries and as such, the system files in error. Is it about time to de-compartmentalise art or should we step up the factioning to create a more meticulous framework? Either way by its very nature one size does not fit all when it comes to Art Brut.

Yumiko Kawai - Circles, 2009 Image from Social Welfare Corporation Yamanami Atelier

Yumiko Kawai – Circles, 2009
Image from Social Welfare Corporation Yamanami Atelier

Nobuji Higa - Naked Woman 10, 2011 Image from Wellcome Collection

Nobuji Higa – Naked Woman 10, 2011
Image from Wellcome Collection

Ryoko Koda - Untitled, 90-00 Image from Wellcome Collection

Ryoko Koda – Untitled, 90-00
Image from Wellcome Collection

Takashi Shuji - Telephone and Water Jug and Roller, 2010 Image from Wellcome Collection

Takashi Shuji – Telephone and Water Jug and Roller, 2010
Image from Wellcome Collection

Ryosuke Otsuji - Okinawan Lion, 2010 Image from Wellcome Collection

Ryosuke Otsuji – Okinawan Lion, 2010
Image from Wellcome Collection