Plunging from near the ceiling of Castlefield Gallery to the floor of the lower space is a long swathe of coloured silk. The object holding it down looks like a classical marble column, one end raised very slightly off the floor, pulled upwards by the silk. Rebecca Halliwell Sutton’s ‘We Had And We Held No.1’ (2017) is one of the largest works featured in Castlefield’s new show, …in Dark Times, and is an intriguing installation to contemplate. The tangible gravity-laden physicality of the column hides the fact that it’s actually made of concrete, aesthetically aping faux-marble theatrical scenery. Sutton’s work is about solidity, fragility, gravity and appearance, and, because of the carefully positioned use of the column, also the human body. Through looking at her work we are able to glimpse humanity in the objective realm, and it is this evocation of materiality that introduces us to the exhibition.
This group show focuses on (to quote gallery press release) ‘the thingness of things in the age of the thingless medium’, linking the viewer into the other, digital life that everything human and non-human potentially has. Bex Ilsley’s work addresses this directly. Her installation, ‘Safe Places’ (2017), features a group of her glittery polyurethane foam ‘blobs’, that, as she explained during the show’s launch, have taken on a bizarre life of their own having been endorsed by Miley Cyrus and collected by her fans. In the middle of all this, a digitally-morphed video loop of the artist using a breast-pump amplifies the idea of auto-reproducability.
Visitors become aware that the implication of this show’s proposition is that the space we used to know as ‘reality’ is becoming unhinged. You could relate this to the work of Halliwell Sutton, perhaps, and make a joke about the way we are losing our marbles. But James Ackerley’s work is much more ceremoniously unfixed: his ‘Studio Objects (codex)’ (2016) have been assembled out of cardboard cells that could have been put together quite differently, while ‘A Study’ (2016-2017), although more solid, seems equally arbitrary in its mixture of materials; cardboard, MDF, timber and plaster. On the floor, ‘A mind that matters’ (2015), a series of ‘artist’s stress balls’- pink, plastic foam casts of scrunched-up notepaper – are happily free for visitors to pick up and try out.
Lindsey Mendick’s colourful work turns sensuality and nostalgia into physical form. In the window next to the gallery’s main entrance sits ‘A Taste of Home’ (2017), a sculptural baked potato with blue skin, on top of a box from whose walls are emerging what appear to be ceramic bananas. Comfort food never had such a makeover, despite all the bright ideas put forward by celebrity chefs. Nearby, mostly draped from the ground floor balcony, ‘Pulling At the Heart Strings’ (2017), was co-constructed with the artist’s mother, Jenny Mendick, a seamstress, who has brought together a huge array of mixed fabric and objects, which flow down as one to become a veritable lake for a pair of plastic flamingos to stand guard over.
Charlie Godet Thomas’s stark realisations are actually about absence. The Endpaper series, three of which appear here, use cast rubber to create the marbling effect once seen inside the cover of a vintage hardback book. It is an intentional anachronism that not every viewer would even understand or recognise. Its delicate look deliberately celebrates something lost and obscure. Another piece, ‘Scansion (A Carcass)’ (2015), uses cast rubber to partially trap and twist the perimeter from a cropped photographic print. This long spindly white paper rectangle which has been separated from the image that it once surrounded has therefore been given a new central role, of some sort. The viewer is tempted to invent reasons for the twist in the paper rectangle. You want to give it a character. But notice, the way it is arranged is rhythmic, closer to language than what you are used to seeing trapped in a picture frame. The ‘carcass’ on the wall is answering back, wordlessly.
We may live in dark times but none of the artists currently on show at Castlefield is in the dark about where their art is going.
…in Dark Times, Castlefield Gallery, Manchester, 24 February – 15 April.
Bob Dickinson is a writer and broadcaster based in Manchester.
Image: …in Dark Times installation shot, courtesy Annie Feng and Castlefield Gallery.