Since reopening under a new creative director in 2017, The Turnpike in Leigh has drawn creatively on the town’s locality, and the ways in which its particularities connect with issues of wider cultural and social significance. Built at the end of the post-war period in a town shaped by the industries of cotton and coal and their decline, the Turnpike is forging an artistic niche in an area in which contemporary art had previously been underrepresented.
Artists exhibited at the Turnpike recently have been invited to work with the materiality of the area, and explore the ways in which identity is shaped not just by geography and environment, but by collective experiences such as work and leisure. Wild Honey, a solo show by Manchester-based artist and curator Mary Griffiths, continues these themes, presenting a new body of work developed over the course of a year-long residency in nearby Astley Green colliery, now run as a museum where former miners keep alive their working knowledge.
In Wild Honey, Griffiths mines Astley Green for not just historical memory, but the ongoing uses and iterations of the site. What she uncovers is a history that goes back far deeper than living memory. By presenting ‘The Ancient Forests of Lancashire’ (2018), a collection of delicately beautiful, ghostly carboniferous fossils borrowed from the Museum of Wigan Life collection, she suggests that the area’s foundations on coal has ancient roots.
This blurring of the distinctions between nature and industry, utility and beauty, lies beneath the surface of much of the work in Wild Honey. ‘Colliery Pigeons’ (2017-18), for instance, is a series of roughly observed yet evocative ink drawings of the birds that now inhabit the former Astley Colliery site. The exhibition’s title, Wild Honey, too, takes reference from a colony of bees that have moved into the area.
The patterns of these overlapping uses, and their interconnection with human endeavour, is captured by subtle yet complex graphite drawings in Griffiths’ signature style, in which ephemeral images emerge from densely worked surfaces repeatedly overlaid with lines of pencil.
Through this painstaking process, Griffiths has turned the gallery itself into a site of labour and routine, with one wall of the modernist gallery space given over to the large-scale titular wall drawing ‘Wild Honey’ (2018), which runs the length of the gallery. In the weeks leading up to the exhibition, the drawing emerged through a series of portraits, published via social media, of four uniformed artists posing solemnly in overalls, in the manner of the ‘pit brow lasses’ who once worked this landscape before this was put paid to by gendered notions of propriety and labour.
The drawing will remain in the gallery as the exhibitions change around it. Its effect is transformative: a previously blank wall now gleams brightly, taking on a reflective surface. In it we contemplate not just our own image, but that of the town, its past and its future – and the role that the artist and the art gallery might have in revealing that to us.