Beth Shapeero’s collaborative installation The Shape of Things at The Tetley is the culmination of a week of participatory workshops held in October 2021. As part of a residency, Shapeero worked with ten learners from Leeds City College to facilitate the production of high volume, abstract mark making. The exhibition represents the personal development and processes undertaken by the artist and participants throughout the collective journey.
Large pieces of unframed and un-primed canvas are hung by bulldog clips from a multi-level structure, filling the large open Shirley Cooper Gallery. Bold, expressive brush strokes and blocks of colour fill the canvas pieces in geometric abstraction and repetitive gestures. Some of Shapeero’s aims for the workshops were to build confidence, enable risk taking and dismantle the fear of failure. The brush strokes, arcs and lines at a large scale and in great quantity evidence the participants’ dynamic and expressive movements.
Colour is important to Shapeero and throughout the workshop process the learners were encouraged to develop their own palette. A reflection on aesthetics and how we see as viewers are core to Shapeero’s practice, and the personal colour palettes were part of her strategy for developing each learner’s artistic toolkit.
The canvasses are hung on a multi-level wooden structure and on walls at different heights and angles. There are also some stacked on the floor, overlapping at every angle. This ‘overhang mishmash,’ as Shapeero describes it, is intentional and a delicate balance of practical and conceptual installation considerations. She strives for an equality in the representation of each artist’s work in the collective whole, with individual pieces reflecting Shapeero’s own ‘palette’ in the installation. The overhang mishmash functions as a deconstruction of painting in its singular physical form and as a metaphor for art practice. Indeed, what does it mean to ‘practice’ as an artist? Is it in the daily mark-making rituals? In the being part of a collaboration and thus a continual dialogue with others? Or perhaps in the self-reflexivity of practice-as-process?
The narrow spaces between paintings create a physical intimacy with the work and things slip in and out of sight with a turn of the body or head. This is not just an archive but an invitation to take in different views, to ‘dance’ with things. The installation enables a spatial contemplation, a moving-through of the exhibition that renders the visitor a part of it. There are moments of commonality between the paintings, as if they are having a conversation with each other. This may come from the collective nature of the workshops as much as Shapeero’s curatorial decisions to install the pieces as an abstract whole. A sense of flux can be felt in the multidimensional display, with the stacks of painted canvas hinting at a potential value discrepancy between them and the ‘selected’ hung paintings. They remind us of the many other possible configurations beyond the exhibition we see.
There is a general anonymity to the works, even if some of the canvases bear signatures. The effect is that this is a collective work composed of fragments, which raises interesting questions about co-authorship and the way memory functions. Fractured and movable, what we remember about an experience in one moment might be different in the next, as circumstances change. Navigating these traces in a physical space evokes a sense of collective visual memory. Some of the paint marks appear as symbols or automatic drawing from the unconscious, also known as ‘psychography’. A technique that takes a more intuitive approach to creation, psychography operates on a different level to active cognition, connecting movement and emotions in a feedback loop. Mark making can also have therapeutic qualities that access parts of the mind that are active during stress and trauma. The uncertainty of the everyday has affected artists variously and (re)turning to the simplicity of mark-making has been a common survival tactic throughout the pandemic.
Yet The Shape of Things is not only a documentation of sensory somatic therapy, but also the conversations between people – their paintings are traces of social engagement. As learners engaged in educational, experimental processes, their dialogue must surely have been a vital part of the experience. With many denied social interaction for long periods during the pandemic, the intimacy of co-producing work in a communal space must have factored into the work. Shapeero sees verbal language as a limited tool, whereas a more meditative understanding of the world comes through play, movement and gesture, helping us to make sense of what we’re doing. It’s possible to imagine that the paint marks are another language the artist and learners have collectively devised through the workshops.
Adjacent to the central installation, Gallery 9 contains a kind of extended archive. It features photographs of the learners working on The Shape of Things and a series of ‘Tiny Paintings’ (2021) on the mantelpiece, which might be read as mementos or souvenirs. Shapeero notes that these were the products of initial experiments during the workshops and that the intimate scale is something she celebrates in her own practice. As the exhibition is funded through an award dedicated to the memory of Alexandra Reinhardt, there are two paintings by her, ‘A Red Turkish Pot’ (2003) and ‘Rainbow’ (1999), selected by Shapeero for their use of colour.
The Gallery 9 display is possibly the most revealing part of the show, where Shapeero invites the visitor to examine some of the project’s inner workings and make their own connections between this and the main installation. Is ‘the work’ primarily the artist’s facilitation and curation? Mark-making rituals, collaboration, self-reflexivity and practice-as-process could equally be seen as ‘the work’, informed by the richness of personal and collective enquiry. ‘The work’ of The Shape of Things is simultaneously the individual pieces, the installation as a collaboration and a whole, the conversations and processes, and then the visitor’s own interpretation. It is not a singular thing but a multitude; a collection of things to dance between.
Beth Shapeero: The Shape of Things is at The Tetley 19 November 2021 – 6 March 2022. More information about the exhibition can be found here.
Alice Bradshaw is a curator and writer based in Halifax.
This review is supported by The Tetley.