If there is such a thing in the visual arts as a “rural-urban divide”, few organisations would be better placed to reflect upon it than VARC (Visual Arts in Rural Communities). Based at Highgreen in the Tarset hills of Northumberland, this small and feisty charity has hosted a 12-month artist residency every year since 2000, attracting practitioners from both the metropolitan centres and the wildlands of the world, and partnering with communities from the farms in Tarset to the estates of Tyneside.
VARC in the City presents a sample of some of the results, in a funky gallery with views over the rolling grey rooftops of Newcastle and Gateshead. Works by Khosro Adibi, Julia Barton, Kate Bellis, Mike Collier, Robbie Wild Hudson, LEO, Kim Lewis, Sally Matthews, Imi Maufe, Nigel Morgan, Jilly Morris, Helen Pailing, Ingrid Pollard, Jenny Purrett and Karen Rann are tastefully exhibited; with Maufe, Morgan, Morris, Pailing and Purrett each providing a specially-commissioned print for the show.
VARC’s artists’ practices are as varied as their backgrounds and career-stages, and there is a good flavour of this here. There is however a preponderance of saleable things in frames on walls, and time-based media are absent. A side-room offers examples of end-of-residency catalogues and the “log books” each artist compiles, and it holds the only exhibit that really speaks to the social engagement side of VARC’s programme (an exuberant wall-sized ink drawing of woodland forms, produced with Jenny Purrit by the Sangini women’s community of Sunderland and South Shields). The community ingredient therefore seems somewhat under-represented, and surprisingly almost none of the images on show features any human presence.
The constraints of a “white cube” setting, or perhaps the impulses involved in making this a pre-Christmas selling show, may have prevented it from bringing out the best of what gets produced at VARC, where the physical volumes of the place are so often an integral part of the work. Apart from the Sangini wall-hanging everything is on a modest scale, and only Rann and Adibi’s exhibits (not their best work, incidentally) really bring the materiality of Tarset’s environment into the gallery. The show’s concept might have been more fully realised if it had offered more of the grit and mud and dynamic bigness of growth and decay that make the place what it is.
Beyond a nicely laid-out collection of examples of the artists’ work, there does not appear to be any particular narrative arc or curatorial shape to this exhibition, which leaves it with a somewhat hollow feeling and probably represents a missed opportunity.
Nonetheless there is plenty to stimulate the eye and the imagination here, from Maufe’s artist books to Barton’s textile design, LEO’s etchings, Bellis and Pollard’s use of photography in interesting ways, and the distinctively individual aesthetic language of Pailing’s repurposed objects. From long residencies like those at VARC we might hope to see evolution (not just perfection) of an artist’s practice, and there are signs of this in Adibi’s learning the particularities of the local stone, and Pailing’s experimentation with image-making.
Local distinctiveness, in any event, clearly becomes part of the artist’s focus over such a prolonged period. The sense of place is captured here particularly well in a strong and nuanced abstract graphite/pastel piece by Morris; an inventive collage of language and colours by Collier, and a viscerally experiential drawing by Purrit. The rural ethos at Highgreen is infused with bold rhythms and life-forces and elemental exposures – all are different from those in the city, and all are summed up powerfully by Matthews in her bold painting of a dog. The show succeeds overall in spurring a desire to visit Tarset itself – and to support the good work of VARC!
Perhaps the most interesting works here are by the artists who have distilled elements of their experience at Highgreen and re-expressed them through processes of thoughtful and radical transformation – notably in this case Maufe, Collier and Pailing. Anything capable of such transcendence should easily be able to bridge the divide between the rural and the city – if such a thing exists!
Dave Pritchard is an independent consultant based in Northumberland.
Abject Gallery, 8th Floor, Bamburgh House, Market St, Newcastle.
VARC in the CITY continues until 19 December.