Where @Woolgatherart Are For Now

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I was chatting recently with someone down in London about the visual arts in Leeds. I made some comment about the fact the Leeds art scene had developed wonderfully in the last ten years but I still looked with not a little envy at some of the big major contemporary art spaces and goings-on in other important regional centres around the UK.

My interlocutor was surprised to hear me say this. She thought from a London perspective, Leeds seemed a buzzing place with more happening particularly at the grass roots level than in, say, Manchester.

I’m not able to comment on how true that is, but as a Leeds-based artist, i was heartened to hear this take on the visual arts in Leeds from a Londoner. We may not have any big commercial contemporary art galleries, but it’s fair to say there is a huge amount going on the city all the time in terms of artist-led initiatives.

With so many art students studying in the city, and thus a potentially large number of art graduates emerging each year, you might expect a good amount of grassroots activity. But there still has to be a degree of support from somewhere, and the real driving force over the last two decades in Leeds has been East Street Arts, which has done more than anyone else to encourage and support the development of contemporary art practice and young and emerging contemporary artists in Leeds.

The support and enthusiasm of East Street Arts last year played a vital part in getting off the ground the Woolgather Art Prize 2011: the epitome of grassroots activity. But Woolgather 2011 wouldn’t have been the success it was without the herculean efforts of Annie, Chris and John, the enthusiastic curatorial and organisational team and the inspiring originators of the prize.

At this point I have to admit a bit of bias to it all since I was on the shortlist last year, and found it one of the most satisfying art events I’ve been involved with. But in another sense, I was particularly concerned to look at this year’s show with reasonably objective eyes. As a small part of Woolgather’s history, I really want to see it go from strength to strength.

And I’m thrilled to see that this year’s shortlisted work is great stuff. The Woolgather Art Prize 2012 has moved forward apace.

What struck me most forcefully when i visited the show yesterday was the strong curating of the exhibition. Last year was quirky, entertaining and a little bit raw at the edges. This year, there is a thoughtful and considered professionalism to the way the work is displayed, and to the finish and presentation of the works themselves. The space helps of course: two floors of imposing high-ceilinged floor area lend themselves to authoritative placement of the works but Annie, Chris and John have used it all to best advantage.

One of the declared ambitions of Woolgather is to make contemporary art accessible to the public. With this in mind, I liked the way that short artists’ statements were close enough to the work to provide a helpful context where necessary but not so close that it impacted on the visual encounter with each piece.

I loved the way there were subtle but interesting links between works. There was the lighthearted yet thought-provoking crescent arrangement of three works comprising Emily Towler’s sawn-through life size female model in a domestic sideboard; Howard Gardener’s End of the Affair oversized drowned wasp in an oversized teacup; and a paintbrush incorporating hundreds of human hairs (sadly can’t remember by whom).

Then there were the modern takes on the tradition of Art and Painting and exploring how art history can found the basis for a contemporary language. Always a subject close to my heart, and always fascinating to see how others wrestle with this, I was very taken by the small jewel-like works of Victoria Youngson and Lex Thomas, and the slightly larger but equally compelling piece by Robert Youngson.

I need to go back to have another look at everything before I decide how to cast my vote. Awards night is 1 June, so a bit of time still to make up my mind. The show is actually on until 8 June, so if you are in the area, go.

Grassroots in Leeds is so lush it’s a veritable rain forest in the making.

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