One of the intriguing contrasts of this exhibition is the difference in approach to material process and technique between the three artists involved. It could be argued that Nicola Ellis and Joe Hancock are almost exact opposites: Ellis subverts the precision of the industrial process of powder coating with an artist’s experimentalist freedom, reinserting intuitive touch, expressivity and chance into a context designed to eliminate them; meanwhile, Hancock works systematically with the skills of engineering to explore how conceptual understandings might disrupt meaning by imposing philosophical or metaphorical narratives on otherwise purely functional objects. Hannah Leighton-Boyce seems, in the context of this exhibition at least, to be more interested in the histories embedded in materials and processes and their relationships to the specifics of architecture and place.
One part of the gallery’s interconnected space is dominated by Hancock’s ‘Deus Ex Machina’ (2014-2015), the other by the multiple suspended panels of Ellis’s ‘Dead Powder’ (2019) series. Leighton-Boyce’s presence is less imposing but quietly insistent. Her ‘Down, Through and Back Again’ (2019) is a simultaneous intervention into and repair of the gallery’s floor by means of polished copper replacements for wooden parquet tiles in the damaged circular space left by the earlier removal of a spiral staircase. The subtlety of this work loses none of its impact through its proximity to ‘Deus Ex Machina’. In fact, the echoes between the spiralling movement of Hancock’s kinetic sculpture and the absent staircase that inspired Leighton-Boyce’s piece, together with the concern with repair and restitution shared by both artists are evidence of some inspired curation.
Nicola Ellis’s practice has for some time explored the varied potential of working with steel, enhanced by her long-term residency with Ritherdon, a specialist steel component manufacturer in Darwen, Lancashire. The embedded nature of her residency is consciously in the spirit of the Artist Placement Group, founded by Barbara Steveni and John Latham in 1966. For the works exhibited here, Ellis has focused her attention on the factory’s paint shop and the process of powder coating, which uses electrostatic energy to cover objects in a loose powder which is then heat cured in large ovens and cooled on slowly rotating racks. Powder coating is preferred to wet paint because it gives a smoother, tougher and more durable finish. Ellis uses the term ‘dead powder’ to describe the leftovers of all the powder cleaned out between colour changes in Ritherdon’s paint shop over a day’s work. The rich and resonant colours used in the factory’s regular powder coating jobs are randomly combined to result in a range of intense grey-greens. By overloading the ‘dead’ powder onto steel panels Ellis ensures that they leave the 180 degree liquifying ovens not with the flat, even coloured surface that powder coating is designed to achieve, but with a thick, heavy, textural surface, full of peaks and troughs that vary from a dull sheen to a reflective gloss. Some smaller works are wall mounted, but the large ones hang throughout the gallery space on the kind of steel hooks from which they are suspended as they progress through the industrial processes of the paint shop in which they are made. They can be seen as what the American minimalist sculptor and theorist, Donald Judd, called ‘specific objects’, neither sculpture nor painting, but clearly referencing both traditions.
The level of conceptual and technical sophistication employed by Joe Hancock is evident in his reconstruction of two stairlifts into a single towering kinetic sculpture, ‘Deus Ex Machina’, in which he has modified the programming of the timer controlling the up-and-down movement of the chairs to model the breeding cycle of cicadas. Without an awareness of this arcane information one might think not so much of insects as human alienation, as the chairs, empty of the bodies they are made for, pass fleetingly, without ever making contact, and are stilled for unpredictable amounts of time. This piece, by virtue of its scale and spectacle, is the most visually dominant of Hancock’s works in the exhibition, but a more recent and more discreet work, ‘+/- (drawing)’ (2019), is most redolent of the concerns that preoccupy his practice. It envisages a single ladder for climbing in all three dimensions, and consists of a drawing made with the aid of a computer, reproduced in the form of a giclée print on drafting film and encased in a solid ash wood frame constructed by the artist. The influential 19th century critic John Ruskin feared that the “drawing styles encountered by workers were all industry and no art, dreamt up and imposed from without by enemies of creativity”. Ruskin’s notion that art should draw upon what he considered the ‘beauty’ of nature rather than the ‘ugliness’ of industry encounters a 21st century visual critique in Hancock’s subtle and elegant combination of dreamlike invention, precise engineering drawing, technologies of reproduction and bespoke craftsmanship. Hancock also reflects on such concerns in his older text and audio work ‘Conversation with a future sculpture’ (2012), interrogating an as-yet-unmade artwork about its relationship with its maker, documenting the artist’s thought process and imagining an artwork that might emerge from it. The more recent ‘+/- (drawing)’ is much richer for its visual and material engagement with ideas that exist entirely conceptually in the earlier work.
Hannah Leighton-Boyce similarly employs sculpture, drawing, sound and installation, in a practice that emphasises the inter-relation of bodies, objects and the spaces they occupy. Human embodiment and sensory experience are central to understanding this work, both in her making of it and the audience’s engagement with it. ‘Pouring Down, Drawing Out’ (2019), cast in plaster, and the drawing, ‘Finding the Edges’ (2019), were made, like ‘Down, Through and Back Again’, referred to earlier, specifically for this exhibition and in direct response to the architecture of the gallery. They invite reflection on the history of human presence in the building in relation to our sensory engagement with the work in the present moment. In both materials and construction, many of Leighton-Boyce’s works engage with fragility and instability. Having previously worked with salt, for example, in this exhibition she uses coatings and residues of soot; on structures of steel and brass in ‘Proposition II’ (2018), and on frosted glass in ‘Left Handling’ (2019). The fine powder of soot, delicately coating the surface of her sculptures, contrasts powerfully in its impermanence and vulnerability with the hardness and solidity of Ellis’s very different subversion of the industrial process of powder coating. The seductive texture of the surface in Leighton-Boyce’s soot covered works exists in a tense relationship with the risk of damage it would incur from the slightest touch. This fragility is further emphasised by the way the components of the work merely lean or rest upon each other or the gallery walls. Metaphorical readings of this sense of precarious interdependence in relation to human experience can readily be made as one contemplates the work.
There is a relationship between these three artists: personally to some degree; in their contrasting but mutually sympathetic approaches to material and facture; and in their conceptual relationships to historical and contemporary models of sculptural practice. The exhibition’s title suggests, correctly, that there are ways in which each of their practices point — or at least lean — toward the other. Those connections make this an intellectually and aesthetically coherent exhibition; but the disconnections, or at least the significant differences of emphasis, make it a valuable and intriguing one.
Each Toward The Other, Bury Art Museum & Sculpture Centre, Bury.
20 July – 9 November 2019.
Derek Horton © 2019.