A new gallery for Leeds. BLANK_ opens with Rhian Cooke: Divide by Two

A person with brown hair wearing a white shirt stands in front of a painting in shades of black, purple and grey.
Installation photograph of Rhian Cooke, Divide by Two, BLANK_, 19 September - 25 October 2019.

Putting your best foot forward. A daunting task if you don’t know where your journey will take you and perhaps in which direction to even make a start. We certainly don’t have to follow in each other’s footsteps, but it’s a comforting and supportive way to get those first steps underway. BLANK_, a new gallery within the University Centre Leeds (Leeds City College), plans to exhibit early-career artists to illustrate the infinite possibilities of art practice to the public and to a new generation of graduating artists. It promises opportunities for both emerging talent and students to discover, learn and develop, in a supportive and dynamic environment.

Many large towns and cities in the UK outside of Glasgow, Edinburgh and London, are missing the galleries and institutions at the middle levels. These are the platforms in between small artist-led spaces and larger institutions, which are essential for artists to be able to develop their careers. This is a situation faced by artists in a number of Northern cities, including Manchester and Leeds. The jump from artist-led to institutional show can be a gap too wide without a helping hand.  BLANK_  aims to provide that intermediate platform, not only benefiting their current and graduating students but they hope the regional art scene as a whole.

The ambition with BLANK_ is to allow a multidisciplinary approach that does not exclude artists working in different disciplines. This is in contrast with some smaller scale venues in the city, which tend to focus their attention on particular media or types of practice, leading to cliques and a lack of diversity and development. The students at University Centre Leeds will be constantly inspired by changing displays of artists whose careers are not so far beyond their own that they are unrelatable. Exhibiting artists will be invited to deliver crits and seminars to enrolled students, offering valuable practical and hands-on advice.

Kicking off the programme at BLANK_ is Rhian Cooke’s solo presentation of work produced during her recent stint as Associate Artist for Yorkshire Sculpture International. Cooke works across different media in a casual yet intricate manner, mixing explorative digital technology with a handmade aesthetic. Digitally printed but hand-sewn textile screens hang from the ceiling across the grey space, punctuating the glass windows and concrete surround with areas of darkness and confusion. The flat textile works become sculptures, barriers that have to be navigated and negotiated within the space. Suspending them in the space, rather than hanging them flat against a wall, enables both sides to be visible and imbues the screens with a sense of immersion and fullness. The works surprise you with their richness and depth, two-dimensional planes becoming three-dimensional universes. The screens work in partnership with the accompanying video pieces, imagery is repeated and explored across the physical still images and the animated films, a white vest rotates in presumed three-dimensional form whilst also frozen in motion framed against a dark background of layered blurred trees.

An abstract painting. The background is brown with brushstrokes in grey and white. Two objects are depicted, one looks a little like a cycle helmet, the other resembles folded paper.

Rhian Cooke, Untitled (wall hanging), 2019. © the artist.

Interested in the history of moving image and different forms of digital and non-digital animation, Cooke’s work uses both historical and contemporary ways of capturing and making moving image. She utilises new technology to update and expand on traditional methods from Victorian zoetropes to modern day green-screen technology. Growing up in rural Lincolnshire, Cooke uses unknown but familiar landscapes and landmarks including ruined farm buildings, stiles and stone walls, to investigate the fictionalised elements of history and memory.

The projection works of another artist may not work so well in such a brightly lit room with grey walls, but in the case Cooke’s work, which has a sense of lightness, it plays well against the cold concrete walls. Projected textile wings filled with a moving body, dance across the wall. The floating scene of a garden bird-feeder creates an intimate environment in a busy walkway. Three-dimensional felt cocoons on the wall brings the recorded vision into reality in a soft and restrained manner.

With a focus on the presence of texture, Cooke’s sculptures are made through sewing, painting, photography, felting or folding. The emphasis on the handmade is crucial to understanding the slippery realm of the real and the imagined, embedded throughout Cooke’s installation and practice. These handmade layers are evident when you look closer at the digitally printed textiles, hand-painted images are digitally collaged and edited, then digitally printed on to textile which are again hand sewn with a lumpy real life quality. This is echoed by the lumpiness of the invisible bodies that inhabit the animated costume within the two film works.

One of the most absorbing works is a small-scale, and perhaps slightly too subtle, light-based animation, positioned under the bright strip lights of the gallery-cum-reception space. An animated swimming costume, a bodiless piece of clothing, manipulated and moving by an unknown entity. The animation is shown on a LED fan, a rotating device which gives the illusion of a hologram, an image made of light as if hovering in the air. At once three-dimensional and two-dimensional, the work is an experiment in using new technology developed for use in advertising.

BLANK_’s remit of allowing a multidisciplinary approach is well showcased through their choice of Cooke for their inaugural exhibition. Cooke’s experimental way of working, means she flits comfortably from the handmade to the digital, introducing new technology as easily as changing paintbrushes. Cooke’s ephemeral projection and textile work may seem like a tricky premiere for this new space made almost entirely of glass windows and lit by bright florescent lighting strips. However, the intentions of the gallery shine though and the result is a moving and thoughtful installation, challenging and collaborating with the space in equal measure.

BLANK_ is set to offer a vital new space for artists in Leeds and the wider region by supporting next steps for emerging artists at a pivotal point in their career. By shining a spotlight on these artists, BLANK_ will also provide arts students with a strong sense of the myriad of progression routes into a career as an artist, and will create an atmosphere to ‘feed their creativity’ (Tom Poultney, Head of Creative Arts at University Centre Leeds). Cooke’s beautiful, uncanny and uncompromising work will undoubtedly provide students with an inspiring example of just how diverse an artistic practice can be, and the joy that can be found in pure experimentation.

Rhian Cooke, Divide by Two, is on at BLANK_ from 19 September – 25 October 2019.

Abi Mitchell is a writer and programmer based in the North of England, co-founder and member of SPUR, an arts commissioning collective, and Project Coordinator for Yorkshire Sculpture International. 

Published 17.10.2019 by Holly Grange in Reviews

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