There are several kinds of group show which an emerging artist, working towards the honorary title ‘established’, is resigned to participate in. The first is easily identified; the ‘thematic’ group show – an exhibition of work selected or created in response to an overarching subject. Scrolling through exhibition listings for ‘England’ on newexhibitions.com, we find group shows which respond to themes of ‘the urban environment’, ‘the passing of time’ and ‘profound global change’ – themes so open-ended that any artwork could be talked under their umbrellas.
The second kind of group show is one for which artists are selected or assemble because of a shared sensibility – they have a similar approach to making or their work might be perceived as being marked by a coherent ‘style’. These kinds of shows resist thematic catch terms in an effort to avoid closing down the work’s ‘meaning’ and putting a limit on creative output/audience interpretation. The subject is the work and the work’s cohesion.
It Was a Dark and Stormy Night, the new instalment of Castlefield Gallery’s Launch Pad programme, showcases the work of 6 emerging artists living in the UK, France and The Netherlands who were “brought together by a shared interest in making sensational and exaggerated works”. The premise: beginning with “It was a dark and stormy night…” (the much-parodied opening to Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s 1830 novel Paul Clifford), the artists wrote a story, contributing a sentence in turn, until enough sentences had been formed that they might be said to constitute a story. The resultant text became the stimulus for the production of new work for the show.
The story is predictably meandering and nonsensical but not plotless. It tells the tale of Darren who potters from a caravan to a Debenhams to a bus stop to his ex’s flat. He has a curious fixation on gaudy mass-culture ephemera and an unusual tendency to refer to pre-existing paintings from his oeuvre. The participating artists-cum-writers’ aim was that “this singular subject matter would lay the foundations for a harmonious exhibition”. Thus, although the exhibition slots most easily into the second category of group show, we also have an overarching subject matter. How did the artists respond?
Lindsey Mendick’s Our Earthly Pleasures features ceramic plates decorated with deliberately crude paintings of objects that litter the story. Pepperami, Calvin Klein perfume, Crocs and the Havana cigar ashtray all make appearances. The plates adorn a large print of a nondescript tropical island. It is stuck to the back wall of the lower gallery askew – presumably out of Mendick’s deep-seated distrust of the conventional angle at which pictures are traditionally hung.
Some works seem to respond to specific moments from the story’s narrative. In Soft Hand, one of two video works by Jemma Egan, an artificial hand is extended towards the camera, hopelessly trying to caress the bemused viewer. It brings to mind the line “You muster a pleasant goodbye and reach out a red manicured hand that I take too quickly”. Josh Whitaker’s contribution is much more direct – he responds to the line “…you made a flag bearing the phrase ‘Ti Amo’” by making a flag bearing the phrase ‘Ti Amo’.
Despite the story being a series of confusing fragments and digressions, there is certainly a consistency amongst the works in the show. There are references to mass produced objects and food, there is a sense of play and humour inherent in their production/presentation, and many seem to revel in what might variably be called ‘consumer culture’ or ‘bad taste’.
However, reading the story on its own, one often senses that an artist is contributing to the text with a pre-conceived artwork in mind or simply trying to write something vague enough that it will justify the inclusion of an existing work, “strange colours started to appear creating waves and whirls, just like if the paintings I make were moving”. Reading the text in this way, we might begin to think of ‘the story’ as a tongue-in-cheek exhibition proposal or statement – a collection of works that could be exhibited or thematic interests from which works could be made. This raises the question of whether it was even necessary for the text to have been written in the first place. Would the exhibition have been any less ‘harmonious’ and worth visiting if it had never existed?
Daniel McMillan is an artist and writer based in Manchester.
Image courtesy of Castlefield Gallery.
It Was a Dark and Stormy Night, Castlefield Gallery, Manchester.
28 August – 6 September 2015.