Woolgather’s Art Vend

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When someone from Woolgather enthusiastically invites you to participate in the latest @WoolgatherArt initiative, it’s really really impossible to say no. Even when you’re off on a big trip somewhere and have two shows happening imminently.

So last weekend saw me manically folding origami lotuses for Art Vend, which looks to reach out to a new brand of contemporary art consumer willing to drop a £1 coin in the slot of a vending machine and in return grab a capsule full of contemporary art cheer.

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Art Vend launched on Monday night to great excitement. There’s a brilliant new website for Woolgather which I’d love to link to here but my phone is struggling to find it. I recommend trying though, not least for a Pythonesque coin sequence.

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I was thrilled to see someone actually pull one of my capsules from a vending machine on Monday night. Above you can see his uncontainable joy and glee at the prospect of opening his purchase.

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Naturally my own little effort contains adequate Warning instructions and points out the consequences of risky decision making in unfolding/not unfolding the artwork. In these H&S conscious days, I could do no less. The Art Vend collector above looked as though he was taking this Very Seriously Indeed which is a Good Thing.

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So keep your eyes peeled for Art Vend when you’re put and about. There’s great stuff in them there capsules.

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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.

Reflections on Paintings: Gary Hume and

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Gary Hume (left) in conversation at Leeds Art Gallery

I have an ongoing professional fascination with the surface of paintings.

For some time I have been employing a highly reflective acrylic resin finish to my own work as a practical aesthetic solution to the challenge of incorporating digital collage on real paint, but also as a conceptual and paradoxical part of the work.

My paintings cannot satisfactorily be viewed from a single vantage point and so the viewer has to move around to see the entirety, in much the same way that in real life we have to take a different perspective to get a full picture of anything. And the work is almost impossible to accurately reproduce in this world of mass reproduction. I like that.

So I’m always fascinated to hear about other artists’ preoccupations with surface reflections, and it’s no surprise to find I’m certainly not alone in my thoughts on this subject.

The other week I attended an interesting evening at Leeds Art Gallery listening to Gary Hume in conversation with Andrew Renton in conjunction with the recent Flashback exhibition. Hume was talking about how he came to use gloss paint (being true to materials in the context of painting his doors) and how he liked the way he didn’t need to ‘paint in’ the light in his paintings because the gloss paint found the light itself. But it was particularly interesting for me to hear that the works couldn’t be properly photographed. Hume talked of the necessity to find a point from which to take a photograph and attempt to make the work ‘stable’ and then he would find collectors wanting that reflection in the work…

Like me, he delights in this “unphotographibility” and the pleasant opportunities afforded to paintings in this post-photographic age.

Then last weekend I encountered the work of Jorma Puranen, a Finnish photographer, at York Art Gallery. He again embraces and plays to his advantage this issue of surface reflection in paintings. In the Shadows, reflections and all that sort of thing series, Puranen photographs works of art in a way which maximizes and emphasizes the glazes and varnished surfaces. My encounter with #47 (2009) of the series was a true trompe d’oeil experience, as I entered the gallery space and moved uselessly around to try and view without glare this contemporary reproduction/intervention before realising what was going on.

Beautifully and amusingly caught out.

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Photographed in full glare

Mexico Project Space, Leeds

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It’s funny how long it can take you to discover new things even when they’re right on the doorstep. The Mexico Project Space in Leeds is a case in point.

Established less than a year ago by a group of ten young artists and curators, it’s an absolutely amazing art space which is set to make a valuable contribution to the Leeds Art Scene.

The current exhibition, Title To Be Decided, sets out to not

“…seek to prove, define or theorise. It simply wishes to present artists work, affording the audience the time and space to make sense of it for themselves. Nothing within the exhibition space will remain static, works will be created, transformed and destroyed…”

I happened to arrive and miss the bits of paper at the entrance with this information. So I initially encountered the unlabeled and untitled works in a supremely uncontextualised and uninformed state. It’s an interesting experience to do this. Bereft of any customary touchstones or entry points, I find myself with a vast array of questions and reflections. And then when I finally get the information about who’s done what and what it’s called, a further multitude of thoughts and considerations emerge all calling for response of one sort or another.

To take just one example, I was struck by some pretty dire paintings hung or propped at intervals around the space. Not obviously by the same hand and sufficiently distanced from each other to not necessarily be connected. In fact, it transpired these pieces were all the contribution of Rory Macbeth, an artist whose work I really like. So having viewed the works in my “ignorant” state and been dismissive of the paintings, I was then greatly disconcerted by discovering their association with Macbeth. I don’t know still if they were his paintings or found works: I have to suspect the latter, but I don’t know, and I find this aspect intriguing and disturbing in equal measure. And then I’m forced to confront and evaluate the process of transforming a painting into a contemporary artwork simply by its placement within a gallery context, and this inevitably sets off a series of ever-more frustrating circular reflections on the nature of contemporary art. And that’s just for starters.

And then how do I feel about the fact that this artwork is all about this whole questioning process? And that it is ultimately really fascinating? Although a part of me is screaming inside, No, No, No? It defies logic.

Anyway, the exhibition is set to transform itself over the next few weeks. Bits will be added, changed, taken away. For all I know, these paintings will be cut, turned around, stamped on or obliterated.

It’s an admirable marketing technique to announce the changing nature of an exhibition, but also a genuinely interesting concept. Although it was my first visit to the space, I think I really have to make time to go back and see how it looks in a week or so. I like fluidity and change. It resonates with all my reading of the last few weeks on adaptation and obliquity. I will want to know of course if changes are responsive or already planned, and I’m sure I won’t find out, but never mind.

It’s absolutely worth going to have a look.

And a big cheer for the dynamism and enthusiasm and vision of this inspirational curating group. I’ve already subscribed to the mailing list.

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Joyful Dialogue

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Seeing children come together to create art is always a joy. Seeing children from across two cultures come together to share cultural understanding in the creation of art is even better. Last weekend, I was privileged to experience the latter in the course of running a workshop as part of the Headingley Literature Festival 2012.

Children aged 12-17 from a local mosque and a local synagogue spent two hours learning the practice of calligraphy, but more importantly, the connections and similarities between the Hebrew and Arabic alphabets and were encouraged to explore and experiment with writing out letters from both alphabets.

There was something magical about hearing young Muslims discussing their favourite Hebrew letter, and seeing young Jewish kids producing beautiful patterns composed of Arabic letters. And best of all was watching it happen as they sat comfortably and happily and enthusiastically in tight circles on the floor scribbling and playing together.

Baby steps towards mutual understanding perhaps, but vitally important nonetheless.

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Talent of Communication

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I’ve had an intensely “cultural” few days recently, culminating in a chamber recital last night by pianist Alessandro Taverna. Taverna was a finalist in the 2009 Leeds Piano Competition and it’s true to say me and my girls have become Taverna groupies ever since because I think we have seen every one of his Yorkshire recitals.

Our fan club began when we had him practicing on our piano prior to the 2009 competition. One of the wonderful benefits of owning a piano in Leeds is being able to host competitors’ practice sessions in the run up to the competition. We certainly struck lucky last time, with two of the top three finalists having tickled the ivories in our home.

But it’s not just about having heard Taverna practise and appreciating his technical virtuosity. It’s just as much about the fact he is a wonderful communicator, and Leeds audiences have clearly taken him to their hearts. Musically he communicates beautifully of course, but there is also a warmth and humility in the way he engages with the audience and takes his applause.

It all adds up to a winning relationship, and reinforces how art of any kind demands communication to be of moving relevance, and is both nurtured and strengthened to the enjoyment of all when it happens in this way.

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The Hallé in Leeds

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I have a soft spot for the Hallé orchestra.

It was the first orchestra I ever saw performing live. I was 13, and I remember the dress I wore (made by me specially for the occasion in those days when clothes cost real money and it was normal for people to sew their own), and the shoes, but not a lot of the programme. I was so mesmerized by the sight of the violins playing in unison that I wasn’t conscious of
listening to the actual music, although I suppose I must have done so. Anyway, it made a deep and positive impression, and consequently I’m always very happy to seize a chance to see the Halle’s violinists along with the rest of the orchestra and their conductor.

And so as a delightful end to a delightful Slow day (more of which tomorrow), Himself and I found ourselves the lucky recipients of two spare tickets for a concert at Leeds Town Hall.

It proved to be a magical, absorbing and hugely rewarding concert. Music from Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel (always a favourite since my three girls sang in an Opera North production a few years ago); Bruch’s violin concerto which always tugs at my insides; and Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony which nearly brings me to tears.

The conductor Andrew Gourlay (@GourlayA) was superb; I’d not heard him before, but since our freebie tickets had us towards the middle of the second row, I was able for once in my own little myopic world to closely observe the visual exchanges between orchestra and conductor, and I was quite entranced by his warm communication. The emotion and sensitivity and feeling was palpable from all involved, and I particularly enjoyed the balletic expressiveness of the double bass section leader.

But the most intriguing bit came after the tremendous performance of the Bruch by violinist Sophia Jaffé. The applause from the audience became ever more tumultuous each time she emerged to take a bow, and an encore was inevitable. She announced a piece called Sunrise by “…Eugenio Isaië…” and it was absolutely brilliant. Except Himself heard the composer as a Japanese-sounding name. There was undoubtedly an Eastern influence on the piece with hints of O-koto coming through, but I was left with the challenge of finding it.

Googling the title and variants of the imagined composer names clearly got me nowhere. Then I thought to google Jaffé’s recordings and lo and behold, I find a composer called Eugène Ysaye (1858-1931) so my hearing after all is perfectly alright it seems, although my orthography may be slightly skewed. But I feel a real sense of triumph and achievement at completing my circle of knowledge from the evening.

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