North West Arts

I wrote these words last year when I met Penny at the Galley.

From the outside the space has no form. The door could be a gate to a yard or a garage. Inside it has qualities of both burrow and bunker. A long straight room where you can’t see everything at once. A slither of white walled space, in which we spend a one-hour segment of time.

Penny and I talk about language, the difficulties of verbalizing artwork. Her drawings suggest narratives but deserve freedom from words. They don’t start out fully conceived, instead growing slowly from her unconscious mind. They aren’t necessarily finished when she initially stops working on them, she revisits them over time, resisting overthinking, applying more marks, more pressure.

They are totemic; populated by figures that are more or less people, though they may be trees or birds, characters from novels that might have been. Aliens, birds, moon faces; all conversing, enquiring, embracing, or often just being. Mostly peaceful, but some of the titles hint at power-plays. All rendered in pen on paper in the artist’s distinctive mode; full of secrets and symbols that the artist keeps.

She doesn’t outright reject the interpretation that her drawings have a darkness, but it is the ambiguity of her work that she aims to make the only constant. It is not words, but rules that Penny really resists. Rules, definitions and categorization.

She trained as a fine artist so sits outside of the ‘outsider’ group (although shares the automatism they often practice, and which was bought into the canon by the Surrealists and Dadaists). Sometimes she identifies as an illustrator, although this epithet doesn’t quite fit. It suggests that text comes first, when in reality, if stories relate to Penny’s drawings at all, they come afterwards.

Penny has been drawing for herself since art school. She carries the three drawings she is working on at any one time tucked inside a book. The works suggest ritual and obsession so it is pleasing to discover these qualities are inherent in her working process. She draws at home, on her lunch break, or sometimes in the reading room of the library. Outside influences when they have occurred have served to provide a burst of confidence and permission to do whatever she wants without justification.

What does the future hold? Sat amongst around fifteen monochrome works on paper of identical size, one work – Animal – holds a clue. Penny has considered saying goodbye to black and white and embracing the world of colour. Another possible avenue is to translate the drawings into prints; from etching-a-likes into etchings themselves. She has also been inspired and excited by the possibility of dip pens and by researching the human brain.

Underscoring the potential for change and experimentation lies a practice that does not need to change: one that the artist is happy with. A means for Penny to process visually. To absorb thoughts and feelings – and faces, of family, friends or brief acquaintances – by osmosis onto the page. Progression, she concludes, is breaking rules. We should all be able to move more freely.

This subject – mental health – is usually something that we see explored through outreach and events rather than the core exhibitions programme at contemporary art venues. Could you say a little bit about the significance for you of seeing mental health centre stage in a venue like FACT?

Yes, I think it’s really important. The arts makes a big effort to be inclusive and approach specialist groups, people with disabilities or mental health issues and make the arts relevant to them. But sometimes this can perpetuate the idea that they are an ‘outsider’ group. So it has been really nice for me as a curator to approach this by asking, how does mental health affect everyone? There is that very popular quote you hear often, ‘one in four people will experience a mental health issue’ – actually I think it is everyone.  All of us experience mental health issues at some time in our lives, whether it is ourselves or a family member or a friend. So it is significant that FACT and myself have taken on this subject and presented it as something for everyone and not just for an ‘outreach’ community.

The relationship between mental health, art and technology is your on-going research topic.  Now you see the exhibition open to the public, do you feel that the process of curating it has helped to move your thinking on at all?

Yes, absolutely.  One of the most important things for me is the idea that art can help create empathy, or help you see something from a slightly different perspective.  We were doing an evaluation session this morning with some groups that regularly use FACT, and they were recounting their experiences of the exhibition. There was one individual in particular who was talking about [the piece called] Labyrinth Psychotica, which enables you to see the point of view of someone experiencing psychosis. He said that work helped him to think about what the experience of mental illness might be like for other people. I suspected and hoped that this exhibition would achieve that –and I am starting to gather evidence that that these works can help shift people’s perspectives and change minds.


Is the exhibition going to be used as a springboard or possibly tour?

For my future work I want to think about shared cognition. As technology advances there is this idea that we are all sharing our cognition more and cognitive processes are taking place in groups. I am really interested in what mental health looks like under these conditions.  And also artificial intelligence, I am really interested in the relationship between mental health and artificial brains.

Could you talk a little bit about the decision to present most of the artists together in gallery 1 at FACT?

There are other works in gallery 2 – Jennifer Kanary Nikolov’s Labyrinth Psychotica and an archive of FACT’s previous work in the area of mental health. On a practical level, that work needed space around it and [provision for] recovery time.  But I think when you are talking about mental health and technology you are very often talking about immersion and over-stimulation, being bombarded by lots of different information. It is a complex subject, which isn’t best dealt with by presenting a small number of carefully crafted artistic statements in a large empty space.  Putting a lot of work in one gallery allows people to join the dots, build narrative and experience some of that idea of over-stimulation

Because these are artists investigating the subject, rather than scientists or therapists, did you see the exhibition as an opportunity to touch on ‘fake’ or placebo treatments or therapies? I noticed that you included a historic electric shock machine.

The idea of fake therapy is interesting, because ultimately therapy is whatever works for you; everyone needs something different in terms of supporting their mental health.  The ECT machine I thought was a good inclusion because it demonstrates how we have historically used machines to try and modify our brains.  There is definitely a narrative thread in the exhibition about control and mental health. For example Quintan Ana Wikswo’s photographs of old asylums, a lot of the research that she did alongside them was about how asylums have been used for societal control. They were used for people whose behaviour wasn’t socially acceptable, people who were in a mixed race relationship or young girls that had got pregnant before they were married, etc, [were incarcerated] under the banner of mental illness. The ECT machine speaks to the same idea.  If people demonstrated behaviour that couldn’t be controlled, the machine was used to keep them quiet and knock the life out of them – so to speak.


There is also, in the exhibition, a strong thread about individual voices, alongside mental health as a theme.  Technology has become important in disseminating individual stories.

Yes absolutely, it is important. The title of the show – Group Therapy – came originally from considering the way that the internet has become the new talking therapy.  Blogging about mental health has come incredibly popular.  There is actually a short essay in the catalogue produced by a prominent mental health blogger.  The idea of technology allowing people to reach out to others that share their experience is really important.

I was interested to read on your blog about how you had been producing work exploring suicide in a high rise building and then had to confront your motivations when someone really did take their own life at that location. Mental health is an emotive topic, how have you navigated your way through it?

It is a difficult topic. As I say, I think everyone has some relationship to the subject of mental health. Everyone is their own expert on the issue. The artists who were involved in making exhibition would also probably say they all have some kind of lived experience of mental health issues; it would have been awful if we had curated the exhibition with artists none of whom had those experiences. The ethics of doing the kind of work that we are doing, like putting a psychosis simulator in the gallery, we have to think very carefully about how we manage it. But everyone who has [visited the exhibition so far] has been grateful for the opportunity to talk about mental health, perhaps in a freer way than they have before.

Are there any artists or pieces that you were particularly excited to secure for the exhibition?

There are so many! The kind of work that interests me most, personally, is work that crosses over between art and research practise or something that is employed somehow in a clinical setting. There are two pieces of artists’ work that this particularly applies to: George Khut’s The Heart Library, that is the piece that uses bio feedback to help users monitor their heart rate, he is a researcher and an academic, and the technology behind that piece has also been used in clinical settings – a version of it has been used to help support children about to undergo painful medical procedures, to help moderate their anxiety. The Labyrinth Psychotica by Jennifer Kanary Nikolov(a) is another example of an artist research project impacting clinical practice; it is taken around to psychiatry conferences to help psychiatrists who have never experienced psychosis. Those are really exciting to me – those projects informed by research.

There is also a new commission by Katriona Beales on the subject of internet addition. She is an artist who has worked in the past in Liverpool so it was exciting for me to be able to commission her to make a new work.

I think I am right in saying that the majority of artists featured in this exhibition are female. Do you think there is something about the subject matter that attracts female artists; is it your influence as a female curator, or just a coincidence?

Gender is something that is pertinent to the subject of mental health, in more ways than I am able to list right now. Looking at the list of artists there are four male artists and nine female. Issues around the body, self image, technology and mental health are [resonant with] women in particular: the way that women have been subjugated using mental health as a sort of alibi, the archetype of the hysterical women is very familiar to us all. At some stage we decided that we wouldn’t intentionally foreground the theme of gender as there is so much going on in the exhibition already. I didn’t set about deliberately to bring in a lot of female artists but these themes are [interesting and explored by] a lot of women and female artists.


You are now based in Sydney – are you going to be coming and going throughout the exhibition run?

I am going back to Sydney quite soon – next week! There is the possibility of something in this vein happening in Sydney and I will be continuing email conversations with FACT about the legacy for this project. It is important to FACT that this exhibition emphasizes their ongoing work in the area of mental health and their partnerships with people like Mersey Care NHS Trust . There is a genuine desire to continue to do meaningful work  around mental health.

Vanessa’s blog:

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Linda Pittwood: Hi Cornelia. My first question is: what has been your impression of the new Whitworth?

Cornelia Parker: I think it looks great. I knew it before and it used to be quite dark and the back of the museum was blocked off. You would go into dark rooms with suspended ceilings; now all those rooms have been opened up and they have lovely full height rooms and then they have been pierced in the back so that you can look through to the gardens. It is much more light and airy and the bits they have added round the side are just gorgeous. I am very happy to be doing this first exhibition.

That worked out well! How long have you been in a dialogue with Maria Balshaw about the exhibition?

Quite a long time really, two to three years, two and a half years perhaps. I first met her about three years ago and she was sounding me out about doing something in the gardens or a firework display – which I have done quite a few of as artworks – then about two years ago she asked me if I would like to do the inaugural show, which seemed a very exciting thing. The show was supposed to happen earlier, but the opening of the building was delayed. But it was worth waiting for. I think she has done an amazing job on not a huge amount of money.

Yes, it’s a really exciting thing for the city. Maria has talked about how your piece Cold Dark Matter made a huge impression on her at age 22. Did this add to the pressure as lead artist at the opening of the gallery?

A little bit! But pressure can be good, sometimes I work better under pressure. And I was given three beautiful spaces. I knew one of them was going to house the shed [Cold Dark Matter, above], the middle one was going to house a combination of different works from different periods, and that left the last room, which I wanted to make a new work for. It is very difficult to make a large-scale work without back up – that is why I think doing museum shows is brilliant. You get to realize something that you have had in your mind for a long time but not had the space or the back up to do it.

Can you tell us about that brand new work — War Room?

I wanted to make a work in response to the exploded shed, 24 years later. When I made the original piece it was partly in response to the IRA bombs going off in London, where I was living at the time and still live. That constant threat of the explosion. I had never touched anything that had been blown up, but you see it on the news and it pervades our lives, in fact it is getting worse and worse, there are more and more explosions in the world and we have the terrorist threat in Britain again. I felt I wanted to make something acknowledging war.

Whitworth Art Gallery -- image by David Levene

I had been talking to the [Imperial War Museum] about doing a war commission, which is still in the offing, and I went to the poppy factory in Richmond with a view to making a piece as part of the WW1 commemorations. I was struck by this material that I saw there, this punched out poppy paper, and I thought perhaps I should make the work for the Whitworth, because that was more present in my mind and it didn’t really fit into the war museum’s timetable.

So the idea was that the shed was blown up by the British Army and then at the other side of the war there is the British Legion making poppies, the money making industry for the dead. The shed is very dynamic and exciting and 24 years later you have a kind of chapel, a place with 3200 absences, poppy-shaped holes. A more sombre reflection on the other side of the explosion.

I think in general the WW1 commemorative pieces that have been the most successful are those that acknowledge the historical but bring in contemporary themes so that they resonate today.

Yes, the War Room isn’t really about the First World War. It is about the ongoing production of poppies, and the ongoing commemoration of the dead, a blood-red room following the explosion. Lit by four light bulbs so it is quiet and dark.

I also made a new work for the Whitworth called War Machine, which is a nine-minute film of the automated poppy factory at Ayleford, which is not where I got the poppy paper from. The machines work from 7am until 10pm all through the year apart from two weeks off.  They just pound out these poppies and send them all over the world, to 80 different countries. It will never stop, I can’t imagine it ever stopping.

Have you found it a reflective process – putting together new work with work from up to 24 years ago?

Yes, it is the first time I have shown the shed in an exhibition like this. It has been in group-shows or on permanent display at the Tate. It has been quite exciting to make a response to it. I am still working with those themes, it is not as though I have left it way behind. All the work from different periods in the show seem to sit quite well together. Thematically they make quite a cohesive whole – I am not as schizophrenic as I thought I was!

Cornelia Parker, Whitworth Art Gallery -- image by David Levene

Maria seems to love the fact that you and Cai Guo-Qiang, another exhibiting artist, both utilise ‘blown up’ materials. Do you think there is an interesting connection between yourself and the other artists on display for the opening?

[Cai] works with gunpowder, but his work is quite dissimilar to mine, similar materials but his work is much more painterly. His work is less quiet, my work is quite quiet really, even the shed which appears visually cacophonous. Our work comes from two different cultures, British and Chinese, but the work complements each other nicely. There is lots of other work on show, including Sarah Lucas, who has a whole room, I really love her work.

It is good to have a strong female force among the artists on display.

Yes! Just like Maria herself who is an unstoppable force and has done great things for Manchester. She is of course also the director of the City Art Gallery and she has raised money for the new venue for the Manchester International Festival. Culturally now, Manchester is really punching above its weight.

Manchester seems to be having a bit of a moment.

People are talking about the new ‘Northern Powerhouse’ – but it has always been a powerhouse! I did a show at the Cornerhouse in 1989, a really important show for me, and now I am coming back to Manchester. I grew up in Cheshire and Manchester is where I came to for culture, to see plays, and I have always been very fond of Manchester. And the Liverpool Everyman!

In your recent Guardian interview with Tim Adams I noticed he quoted your Whitworth collaborator, Nobel prize winner Konstantin Novoselov, who said that you were both working at the “extreme end of creativity”. Could you tell us a little more about working with him?

That has been remarkable – really good – we enjoyed ourselves a lot. We did things together that would have been impossible to do apart, which is always what a collaboration should be about. My invitation to him to try and make graphene from Old Master drawings was something we both got really excited about. He has a strong interest in art and the history of graphite as a drawing material, so it worked with his research but he wouldn’t have thought to do that.

I am doing a three-year honorary professorship at the Whitworth so I am going to carry on my relationship with him and with the gallery. There is a lot of unfinished business! Mary [Griffiths, curator at the Whitworth] and Maria have been like the midwives assisting me with the birth of all this new work. Women! All powerful women.

You often work in collaboration with other non-artists. Is this because it is vital to your practice or is it simply enjoyable?

It is a vital part although I don’t collaborate to produce every piece. I am not a studio-based artist, I just sometimes use it to put things in or undertake a messy process. I find myself being much more creative in conversation with other people. I prefer being on site making instant decisions. It is interesting speaking to scientists because they are not always sure what they are looking for; we just have a hunch that this is an interesting place to be. We play with materials until we find the right way into them and then make this quantum leap. It’s very rewarding – I don’t think I can stop collaborating.

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Hi Jamie. It’s very nice to meet you; I’ve been really interested in your work for a long time. How have you found Liverpool, and when did you arrive?

I arrived in April. I didn’t really know Liverpool, I knew Manchester much better. [The opportunity to come here] came at a good time, I had just finished a long project – Hiker Meat – that culminated in an exhibition at the Cornerhouse. I realised on reflection that project had lasted five or six years, although it changed continually throughout, and there was a moment when I realised that when I started it I was in my 20s, and I am now 36.

I’m a compulsive maker, it’s difficult for me to not do anything, but it was a good time for me to take stock and I needed some sort of change. I like the dislocation of coming here, not having a studio, not having a routine, not knowing a place, not knowing how to spend my time on a daily basis. So it’s been great. Starting [a new body of work] is always painful; I forget this when I am working on a project the strands of which started several years previous.

You have been the Bluecoat‘s 2014 Summer Print Studio Artist in Residence. Were you able to start something new during your time there?

The beginning of something often starts with a medium, an approach or a process that I am not familiar with. So screenprinting is what I did here. I have always been interested in screenprinting but didn’t know anything about it. I knew the basic principle of a mesh and image, but [I learnt] through practice and didn’t necessarily approach it in the most efficient way. That is essentially how I work, without much official tutoring or someone going ‘that’s wrong’ because sometimes those wrong things work out well with what I am trying to achieve.

There was no set goal of what was to be achieved in this period of time. The only stipulation was that you had to make an edition. I was conscious that I wanted to make pictures and I wanted to make them in a singular way as opposed to a repetitious edition-based way, which is the traditional way screenprinting is done. I wanted to interrupt that process.

I think I ended up making about 60 or 70 ‘things’, by things I mean outcomes, and about five of them were good. ‘Good’ is probably the wrong word, but there was some sort of bridge between the intention and the outcome. It took me a long time to build up my confidence in relation to the medium. It’s extremely exhausting. But that was important to me that labour intensiveness.

Will you be presenting the outcomes from the residency?

I had this show in Rome, which was scheduled to open the first week of October. The intention was that the work produced [at the Bluecoat] would go into that show but it all got so close to the wire. I was printing onto wood, to me they were the frontispieces of paintings and they were going to have a stretcher on the back. I ran out of time here so I shipped all the work and made the backs out there. That became the end point.

Jamie Shovlin at the Cornerhouse on Friday

[Also in that show I exhibited] drawings of hands that I produced here, using images of sculptures from the Renaissance, high Western art. These images are strangely aligned to Liverpool, even though they have nothing to do with Liverpool as a place, because as I didn’t have any internet access or anywhere to work when I arrived, I used to go to the Picton Reading Room a lot. And they have these oversized art books in there, really beautiful books, published largely in the ’60s… that are largely image based… and then this rather bitchy scholarship. Really judgmental. The drawings gave some context to what I was doing here [at the Bluecoat] where my hand wasn’t visible.

For the longest time I was engaged principally in process. Which at a certain point, thankfully, segued into something more conceptual, more compelling. I have never had an interest in historic sculpture, I am not sure if I do, but I do have an interest in history making.

Is the show in Rome a solo show?

It’s a two-person show [entitled C/O An alternate correspondence. It’s open now] at Unosunove Gallery with an artist called Philomene Pirecki, who is based in London. Her work is about continually reframing what she is doing. I was doing something similar, but she works directly in the space. I have liked her work for a long time. It’s a form of conceptual painting. It has this inherent idea of time and of place. Formally [her work and mine] work well together. It’s not something I normally think about — tone, colour scheme, we’ve got too much magenta on that wall, that sort of thing.

Naomi V Jelish  2004 mixed media

The old masters you are referencing would have worked with studios in a particular way, for instance, with assistants. Have you ever tried that?

I tried it! At one time I was making work that was more friendly to that way of working. But after a couple of weeks I was struggling to find work for them to do. [What I am doing now is] about contact with the thing whilst you are making it. Building up layers. They aren’t performative or purely durational, but time is very important. People often ask ‘how long did it take you?’ – it’s such a stupid question. Sometimes time does equate to value, but some of the best things I have seen took seconds to produce, even though there is no struggle in them; I am more towards the durational end of the spectrum.

When I was researching for this interview, words like ‘trickster’ and ‘conman’ came up often. I wondered how comfortable you are with this label? Does it refer principally to work you made a long time ago?

The word I dislike most is ‘hoaxer’; it reduces everything to that ‘ha ha I’ve got you!’ moment. Roughly speaking, I have done three projects you could call fake archives. The point of reveal has always been different. Naomi V Jelish (pictured, above) was my first ever show and there was the possibility to engineer an exhibition experience where the viewer wouldn’t know what they were looking at. The structure of the show came from the space; I knew I had two floors in the gallery to work with. One level was the archive of drawings, the ‘front’ of the story being told, and the other level was about the production of the story.

Then there is the Saatchi thing, which I am amused by…

The myth that Charles Saatchi perpetuated, that he thought the archive was real and the drawings were produced by a 13-year-old girl…

…This ‘myth’ as you say. I had never spoken to the press, I was talking to them genuinely and then they asked me ‘how do you feel about tricking him?’ I knew it wasn’t true but there was a game to play. It was my first show at a well-known gallery and Saatchi was there when I arrived, drinking a cappuccino. He told me [he was going to tell the press he thought the archive was real] and he said to me ‘this is going to be good for me and you.’ What was amazing about the experience, apart from the heightened interest in the work, was the insight into his PR umbrella. He gave a story about each artist in the show to a different publication — newspapers not magazines. My story went to the Telegraph. I now have in the archive genuine press clippings about the show alongside fake press clippings that I made myself. It’s like layers of an onion; he added several layers to the work.

Going back to my original question about Liverpool, I wondered whether place is quite important to how you work? I notice that Cumbria crops up a couple of times on your CV.

The North-West actually as a region has been quite key. I’ve done three or four shows in Manchester, Liverpool and Carlisle. With the Carlisle exhibition – at Tullie House – that project was all about context and site. I was working with the curator Fiona Venables who is amazing, one of the best people I have worked with. She was trying to bring closer together two disparate strands of what the museum was doing – the collections, the research, the historic museum and the very ambitious exhibition programming.

The curators of the collections were very wary because of my reputation. I was there for three years, mostly gaining trust. They would be wanting to show me their best things and I would be interested in a tuna fish under a tarpaulin or an ostrich egg in a toilet roll holder.

I like the edges of collections, museums with an archeology of their own history. I wanted to tell the story of how objects entered the collection. Everything we see has been processed through some mind or collective mind, or its been fictionalised. People put emphasis on different things. This is why I didn’t see working in the museum as that different to my other work [such as the fake archives]. Even if it’s the most verified historical account, it has been shaped by people who always have an agenda.

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A non-profit, evolving, critical art collective hailing from Leeds, Black Dogs have been prodding and dissecting our ideas about the art world for the last ten years. The group — founded by Andy Abbott and Dave Ronalds in 2003 — approach art as a space in which to experiment with and question social, economic and political ideas.

Key moments include their 2010 exhibition for Tate Modern’s festival of independent art organisations, No Soul For Sale — which saw them ask, ‘How Not To Sell Your Soul At No Soul For Sale’, encouraging other exhibitors to visit their pop-up pub to share their experiences of receiving no pay or expenses — and 2004′s Arte Et Labore and Technically Wrong exhibitions at the Cloth Workers Hall — turning Pizza Express into a space for ’young’ artists in Leeds to exhibit, and having to take the entire space down on weekends.

Hi Andy. How do you think Black Dogs fits into the wider arts infrastructure in Leeds? (i.e. do you have any key partnerships? How do you complement the more mainstream arts activity in the city?)

Andy Abbott: We do less stuff in Leeds now than we used to. When we started out, there was much less in the way of artist-led spaces or initiatives, or opportunities/spaces in which ‘young’ or less established artists could show work. So we made our own opportunities, and did what we could with the means and resources available to us.

We took more influence from the DIY music, activist and squatting scenes in Leeds than the institutional art stuff. That said, things like Situation Leeds public arts festivals in 2005 and 2007, and the early Light Night festivals from 2006-2008, felt like exciting and inspiring things to be part of. At that moment, it felt to me that a different kind of art might have been brewing in Leeds, one that reflected the lack of a conventional Art World presence in the city; that was more socially-engaged and political.

No Soul For Sale, Tate Moder, Black Dogs

As the more prominent arts organisations have grown and developed I think the art scene in the city has become more standardised. I think Black Dogs works best in places that are marginal, a bit weird, unconventional and that have an alternative narrative to the (culturally driven) neoliberal city. In those places, art can still surprise and engage new audiences in different ways of thinking about and approaching the world. So we’re mostly doing stuff in Bradford and elsewhere now! There’s still some great stuff going off in Leeds but I think the sort of art scene that has grown in the last few years has made it a less interesting place for us to work.

Do you think that artists make a conscious choice between DIY and gallery representation? How do you see these two approaches working together (or not?) 

I don’t know much about the ins and outs of gallery representation, but there’s a minority of artists (some of us included) who prefer not to pursue a ‘career’ within the Art World and for whom the Do-It-Yourself approach and ethos is a political position. That minority is made up of people who might disagree with the commercialisation of art, the manner in which institutions are run, those who believe in a different form of organisation, and people for whom self-managing and self-organising simply suits them better. Of course there’re plenty of people out there whose approach to DIY is that it is simply a necessary first stage in getting in to the Art World proper and for whom the political inferences are unimportant.

Black Dogs Book Fair

What are the advantages and the challenges of having a non-hierarchical, loosely formed group?

I’m always a bit wary of the term non-hierarchical being used to describe how we operate. Hierarchies exist within the collective — some people lead on certain projects or elements of the collective — but we try to be conscious of these and shake them up when required. Likewise the open and loose membership is in actuality for the majority of the time the same few people meeting together and making key decisions about the direction of the group — but we try to disrupt this when things are in danger of getting staid and repetitive. Being non-hierarchical and fluid are challenges in themselves, things that we can’t achieve fully but that we aim towards without letting the manner in which the group is organised/managed overshadow the art we make/do together.

With that in mind, could you tell me a bit more about some of the art that you and the wider group produce?

In recent years, we have moved from putting food and drink and music into galleries, to organising parties and putting art into that context. Some of the group who are based in London are doing a research project looking into the politics of parties, party scenes and hosting in art; its called Wish You’d Been Here… In Bradford/Leeds we organise club nights with a critical edge under the name Bare Plume – these events combine food, cocktails, bands and films e.t.c. Quite a few of us are involved in playing music and being in bands as well as art production.

The idea of mapping occurs quite a lot in what I – and some other members of the group – do. It’s because we are geeky and we like maps, but also because in making participatory events that prompt a conversation is what is important to us, but then you want something to exist afterwards. Some examples of this are theFestival of Pastimes and the Saltaire Cat Map. They both invite people to look at spaces in a different way.

What have been Black Dogs’ key moments?

Arte Et Labore and Technically Wrong exhibitions at Cloth Workers Hall (2004)… there were no spaces available to ‘young’ artists in Leeds at the time so we turned the upstairs of Pizza Express into a gallery — having to take it down on weekends. Consequences at Whitehall Waterfront (2006, that then became Project Space Leeds)… Our worst exhibition that made us reconsider our approach and helped us realise bigger is not always better. And also in 2006: A Night Down The Pub and Black Dogs Panto. Two events we put on for a laugh that were much more successful than our ‘proper’ exhibition that year!

No Soul For Sale (2010). A project we did at Tate Modern that raised a lot of questions in the group. We ended up building a replica of the pub we met in in Leeds in the Turbine Hall. And Black Dogs Quarterlies (2013) — a series of publications that helped the group to operate across the UK.

Who is your audience?

We have different audiences for different projects, many of which respond to a specific area or community/communities whom we like to get involved in the development of that project as participants or agents. I think there’s another level of Black Dogs’ audience out there — those who have followed the group and are interested in our overall practice, as well as those that buy our publications — but I’d be hard pushed to say who they are, and we don’t really take that into account when making decisions about what we’re going to do next.

What is Black Dogs working on right now?

We’re working on a radio play of a project we did in Bradford last year. It started out as a few meetings gathering together people that had been involved in Bradford’s counter-cultural scene in the late ’60s and ’70s, especially those that had worked with or come into contact with Jeff Nuttall (who wrote a book called Bomb Culture and taught at Bradford College for a while). These conversations helped form a guided walk around an area of Bradford that had been earmarked as the city’s ‘cultural quarter’ in regeneration plans, which ultimately never happened. Hopefully we’ll have the radio version done in the next month!

How do you see the group evolving over the next 10 years?  In terms of projects, geographies and participants?

It’s hard to say. We’ve never had a long-term plan and I think it’s important to keep the option of ‘Black Dogs’ dissolving or changing beyond recognition open at all times. I think as long as people feel some affinity with what we’ve done in the (recent) past, however, and there’s the drive for participants to use their spare-time creatively and in collective projects, then Black Dogs will keep on keeping on.

First published on

Certain works of art embed themselves in the international consciousness, in a way that eclipses the artist’s life and transcends the circumstances of their making. In Piet Mondrian’s case, it isn’t so much one painting that does this as the ‘look’ of his mature oeuvre.

His legacy could be seen not so much as one of a painter but of a design style – appropriate given his affiliation with the De Stijl (Dutch for ‘the style’) group in the early decades of the twentieth century. This makes him stand out, even when compared to other extremely well known artists associated with one work, such as Edvard Munch and The Scream or Leonardo da Vinci and The Mona Lisa.

Much of what is written about Mondrian can be traced back to his essay Neo-Plasticism in Pictorial Art, which was first published serially in the Die Stijl journal in the 1920s. The term ‘Neo Plasticism’ loosely translates as ‘new art’, and refers to Mondrian’s pure abstract style and use of black lines and blocks of primary colour.

Perhaps the more interesting story here has been identified by art historians such as Nancy J. Troy, who says that to study Mondrian is to shine a light on the relationship between popular culture and the canonisation of art. However, for someone who had such a massive impact on the visual vocabulary of the 20thcentury – what do we really know about him? And what do we know about his art?

Mondrian’s paintings appear smooth, flat and graphic, but in the flesh even the white areas are textured with brushstrokes. His work appears to have a unifying look, but it was constantly evolving over his lifetime – earlier works demonstrate the influence of other modernist heavy-weights, including Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse. Later work, whilst seemingly abstract, does contain references to the ‘real’ world.

"Mondrian" day dress, autumn 1965 Yves Saint Laurent (French, born Algeria, 1936) Wool jersey in color blocks of white, red, blue, black, and yellow Gift of Mrs. William Rand, 1969 (C.I.69.23)

The painting Broadway Boogie Woogie, produced in in the last years of his life, refers to the grid-like formation of the New York streets and boogie woogie music. For an artist whose vision seemed so clear, his work can be traced by both his country of residence and various friendships and associations. Notably, towards the end of his fifty-year career, he became a mentor to the younger British artist Ben Nicholson, and he lived for a period in London.

His abstract paintings appear simple, but his extensive writings (first published together in an anthology called The New Art The New Life in 1993) reveal artistic aims and theories that are staggeringly complex. In an early conversation between Mondrian and a critic, the artist explains that all painting is about ‘relationships’ and his neoplastic work simply expressed relationships using only colour and line.

His earlier work was similarly about relationships but focused on those within nature – the problem with this, he said, is that “in the capriciousness of nature, form and colour are weakened by the curvature and by the corporeality of things.” He went so far in the end as to object to the very presence of nature, and even to the colour green, which is entirely absent from his later work.

Unbelievably, considering how well known he is now, Mondrian was not successful in his lifetime. It wasn’t until his 70s that he began to sell out exhibitions; before then he often considered quitting and taking up a more ordinary and stable profession. His perseverance won out, and by the time he died in 1944, the Museum of Modern Art (New York) and Peggy Guggenheim had both purchased pieces directly from his shows – a little over twenty years later his work was immortalized as a dress by the legendary designer Yves Saint Laurent and his influence on broader design culture was secured. Fast-forward to 2014, and Mondrian’s paintings are reproduced on iPhone covers, trays, sandals, candles, duvet covers, t-shirts and cake, whilst the originals sell at auction for millions.

What Piet Mondrian demonstrates is that an artist who seems very familiar can have a lot more going on beneath the (seemingly smooth) surface. The story of Mondrian that we know really started after the artist died – when he transitioned from an artist on the fringe, steeped in theory, to an artist whose name is attached to any combination of primary coloured blocks and black outlines.

How exactly this occurred is a question that is difficult to answer, and as a phenomenon it is as mysterious and fascinating as the artist himself.

Linda Pittwood

Mondrian and his Studios at Tate Liverpool continues until 5 October 2014

Image: ”Mondrian” day dress, autumn 1965, Yves Saint Laurent (French, born Algeria, 1936). Wool jersey in color blocks of white, red, blue, black, and yellow. Gift of Mrs. William Rand, 1969 (C.I.69.23) to the Metropolitan Museum of Art

First published on

Chinese Gate from the series The Dark Ages copyright Jamie Lau 2014

Chinese Gate from the series The Dark Ages copyright Jamie Lau 2014

Earlier this week I went to see the new exhibition at Open Eye gallery in Liverpool. The gallery describes the show as an audio, visual survey of the history and changes that have taken place within the oldest Chinese community in Europe; it is curated by exhibition coordinator Jill Carruthers. Ebb and Flow presents a mixture of fine art photography, archive material, photojournalism and sound recordings.

The exhibition takes a reverse chronological approach, starting with newly commissioned work by artist Jamie Lau. Lau’s photographs show the glow of street signs at night, demonstrating his skillful handling of chiaroscuro, perhaps partly due to his mixed media practice, which also includes sculpture. Lau we are told is an outsider to the community (and the city – he is based in London). His work seems a bit detached – very beautiful and painterly, with shades of Edward Hopper or Ed Rusha.

Lau’s work is evocative of Chinatown as a place, but it doesn’t focus on the individuals and the personalities of the community. The other fine art photographer in the exhibition, however, does just this. Martin Parr has documented many aspects of Merseyside life during his forty-year career. His images in this exhibition are typical of his ‘intimate, satirical and anthropological’ style, resulting in work that is a bit kitsch, a bit funny; strong images that potentially say more about Parr than his subjects – so distinctive is his lens.

A very different anthropological approach is practiced by The Sound Agents. They collect aural histories, ephemera and archive material to preserve the personal stories of a community that dates back to 1834 and eighty years later is the city’s largest non-white ethnic group. In this exhibition, the outcomes of their research serve as useful context, rather than contributing critically.

The final section of the exhibition, on the top floor, comprises images by photojournalist Bert Hardy. What elevates this group of photographs is the note in the interpretation that they were not published by his employer, Picture Post, in the 1940s because they revealed the hardship of the Chinese seamen – who were paid less than their white British counterparts – and would have caused a scandal. It’s interesting to put this last, so we don’t read all the work as being defined by this inauspicious foundation.

What this exhibition demonstrates is how important the community is to the character and history of modern Liverpool. No one element of this exhibition can tell the whole account of the Chinese residents of the city, however, the different strands of the show complement each other well. The only thing that could be considered missing is fine art or critical content generated by the community itself.

Battle Company, 2008

Battle Company, 2008

Infidel. A person who does not believe in religion, or who adheres to a religion other than one’s own. The word has become synonymous with the so-called War on Terror: for many, war has become a religion in itself, requiring a belief in the ‘superpower’ of Western governments to fully support it. It is also the title of a book by award-winning photojournalist Tim Hetherington, from which Liverpool’s Open Eye Gallery has taken work for a new exhibition, You Never See Them Like This.

For the first exhibition under the auspices of director Lorenzo Fusi, the team at Open Eye haven’t shied away from emotional and political intensity. “When I first saw Tim’s photos they had a very powerful effect on me,” Fusi says passionately. “They managed to shift my attention from the general political context to focus on the ‘human factor.’ He portrayed the US soldiers stationed in the Afghan outpost as human beings, not just as war professionals.” The Infidelphotographs show American soldiers at work, at rest, and off duty while stationed in the stunning but war-ravaged landscape of north-eastern Afghanistan; images of the soldiers asleep are especially – and unnervingly – tender. Hetherington gives them individuality and humanity despite their generic uniforms.

The Merseyside photographer’s work strikes a balance between gritty reality and his own personal expression. “Tim realised that objectivity in photography does not exist, there is always an editorial line and a context to take into account,” says Fusi. “He was fully and painfully aware of his role, that is, not to stop a conflict by means of his photos but to document a war that somebody else had started.”

There are further layers of meaning to this exhibition, and Hetherington’s personal story is as uplifting as it is tragic. Born in 1970 in Liverpool, he studied literature at Oxford University and photojournalism at Cardiff University before ascending to a bright international career as a photographer with positions at the Big Issueand Vanity Fair. Sadly, Hetherington died while covering the Libyan civil war in 2011 – and although this exhibition is a tribute, it does not intend to memorialise the photographer. “Tim was very busy experimenting at the time he was killed,” Fusi observes. “He had a lot questions and was still searching for the answers.” Hetherington died still committed to the pursuit of his task to document – and challenge misconceptions of – modern day warfare. You could almost describe the images at Open Eye using one of the messages on Tim’s tribute blog: “such a blow in my face, a hit in my heart and soul.”

First published in The Skinny

This week I went to the exhibition Life’s an Illusion, Love is a Dream at The Royal Standard curated by Frances Disley.  The artist-curator says that one of the most exciting things about producing the show was sending the text that she wrote to artists and seeing how they responded.

One of the artists that she approached was David Osbaldeston, thinking he would offer to lend her a billboard sized etching.  She was, after all, interested in the ‘epic in art’. However, he proposed that she exhibit two handmade buildings the size of architect’s models; each sculpture crafted from images of the other structure.  Disley describes his process as “a deceptive game of reiteration” and says that they like all the works in the show combine a sideways look at ‘the epic’ with “something extra… a spiritual quality”.

Other surprises came in the form of a brand new body of work by Kaye Donachie and a touchingly personal series of pieces from Roderick Maclachlan.  Donachie exhibits widely and internationally (including a previous Liverpool outing at the Walker Art Gallery).  Maclachlan is less well known and Disley hopes that “people will visit the exhibition and be introduced to Roderick for the first time.”  His cinematic-photographic-installations stand out in a show of extremely high quality work. I hope the images below whet your appetite, but they don’t do the exhibition justice – if you get the chance over the next two weekends I recommend you give the show a look.

The exhibition is open Friday-Saturday until 27 July 2013.  Frances Disley is one of the four outgoing directors delivering an exhibition or event at the artist led venue this summer.  Keep an eye out on their website (here) for details of forthcoming events. The Royal Standard is an artist-led studio and gallery at Vauxhall Road, Liverpool.

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Black Sun Horizon isn’t the first exhibition where all the artworks on display are also available to view online – in fact it isn’t even the first to be shown in Liverpool this year.  What does this trend say about seeing contemporary art in a gallery in the 21st century? Is this the beginning of the end of temporary exhibitions, or is there something they can offer that does not translate into the virtual realm?  We might not resolve this question today but keep it in mind.

The question du jour is boredom: what is it and how do we cope with it?  Artist-curator and Director of The Royal Standard Dave Evans has bought together four video artworks that relate to the phenomena of over and under stimulation in modern life.  The gender of the artists (all men) suggests that boredom is more pertinent to the modern male; however, Evans doesn’t intend us to read too much into this, explaining each artist was chosen because of what their videos reveal about “experiencing the passage of time and the changing texture of boredom.”

Samuel Williams has kept boredom at bay by producing the 5-minute narrative film Natural Habitat, using functional items from the home as characters and the English riverside as the scene. The resulting ‘video sculpture’ is an enjoyable cross between Huckleberry Finn and Batteries Not Included.  From this entertaining start the works become slightly more, well, boring; repetition and obsession their central concepts.

Dermot and Natasha by Dick Jewell is a montage of footage from BBC Breakfast News, distilled down to benevolent gestures, flirtatious blinking and awkward tension.  As the background track by soul group Imagination says, “No words are spoken, the only sound we hear is body talk, body talk.”  Viewing this for 43 minutes induces something akin to the sinking feeling of realising you’ve spent hours refreshing social media for updates.

Next up is Corey Arcangel’s Drei Klavierstücke op 11: a remake of Arnold Schoenberg’s landmark early 20th-century piano composition, produced by splicing together clips of cats on pianos and resulting in an interesting example of shared videos as material rather than distribution method.  After Arcangel and Jewell’s assault on your senses you might welcome the way the final work, Bill Leslie’s Perfect Geometry, coaxes the viewer into a kind of mantra meditation-induced trance using slow-moving retro computer graphics.

Undoubtedly the no-frills setting for the exhibition encourages the viewer to spend time with the artworks in a way that would be hard in the distraction-rich online world.  However, the real beneficiaries of bringing these artists to Liverpool are the members of The Royal Standard. This includes Evans himself who says participating in the mysterious world of curation, “helps me see artworks differently and understand my subject better.” Evans’ insights are vital to understanding the show, but you won’t find them written on the wall.  If you get the opportunity to visit the gallery in person, the best thing to do is find Evans or one of his contemporaries and discuss what you think about Black Sun Horizon face to face.

Article first published May 2013

The next outgoing director exhibition is opening shortly at The Royal Standard, Liverpool