Soft Structures is not so much a group show as an assemblage of commissions that interweave underrepresented cultural histories from the region around Teesside. Fiona Larkin and Ian Giles have created two distinct bodies of work that respond to the Middlesbrough Collection held at MIMA, shown alongside a selection of ceramics and a bench designed by the artist Anna Barham.
On entering the large space on level two you step first into the world of Fiona Larkin’s Soft Power. The walls have been painted: one a light shade of olive, the other a dusky rose. On them are framed watercolours and monitors showing the painting of perhaps those same watercolours (I couldn’t quite tell) – lines in white, pink and burgundy, dark green and lemon yellow. There is a large round table with a covering made from found tablecloths stitched together, the words ‘Spreading Soft Power’ appliqued on with a striped charcoal fabric. It sets a tone of openness and care despite the sign warning me not to touch.
Initiated by Holly Argent and MIMA in 2021 as a Women Artists of the North East Library and MIMA co-commission, Larkin was invited to spend time in MIMA’s collection and archive, which consists mostly of twentieth and twenty-first-century paintings, works on paper and ceramics that were originally put together by a group of local artists in the 1920s. The Women Artists of the North East Library is a physical archive, but also an active institution that supports artists. Coming out of lockdown in 2021, Larkin was thinking about the soft structures that connect us, so when, in conversation with MIMA Curator Helen Welford, she was introduced to the work of Ethel Guymer, an active member of the Cleveland Art Society as both artist and treasurer in the postwar years, she got excited. An artist whose reputation was overshadowed by her more ‘important’ husband, William, the relative lack of information about Guymer made her an intriguing subject. What was revealed was Guymer’s power to bring people together through gatherings and the organisation of social spaces, and the soft structures of administration and finance: the meals, the teas and coffees, the friendly faces in the gallery.
In the film ‘Voice Notes (hands clasped over knees bent)’ (2022-23), Larkin inspects a number of photos of Guymer, reframing the images with her hands. Looking closely at this woman’s body language, poise and gaze, we try to figure her out. Is she hard or soft? In another scene, Larkin arranges onions on a striped cloth, hopelessly attempting to recreate Guymer’s painting ‘Bulbs’ (date unknown), also on display nearby. The sounds of onions rolling, skins crisp against tablecloth and hands, accompany a voice reciting a poem: ‘…from your body through mine, what kind of body?’. There is a longing in the voice; Larkin is reaching out, exploring ways of knowing that are intimate.
And in Guymer’s painting itself, I can see the artist attempting to articulate the folds of the striped fabric that the onions rest upon. Not easy, and done a bit roughly, the stripes are painted in a stroke, the brush loaded with various amounts of paint. It isn’t timid though, Ethel knew what she was doing. The shadows are smudgy, the onions are shiny and crisp – just right.
Next to ‘Bulbs’ is a set of pinky-red watercolour paintings titled ‘When we work, we work together, I, II & III’ (2022-23). Silhouettes of Guymer borrowed from photographs are presented here as afterimages, awkward ghosts animated in their painterly lumpeness. Pink Ethels. Moments of Ethel. Here she is painting at an easel with two young children. Larkin references her own twin sons elsewhere in the work, is this them? Are we crossing over? Swirling movement of the watercolour, daubed and spread into life. And a small painting of stripes, rippled like a seismograph. It is a diagram of influence, a striped tablecloth repainted through the chaos of repetition. Chance intervenes between the artists to create something new – the painting is an invocation, an attempt to bring Guymer into being.
In ‘A p is not the shadow of a q’ (2022-23), two screens butt up against each other. We see shots from two cameras filming the same thing – a sheet of paper and a brush painting lines of watercolour row after row. Twelve minutes is not long enough to enjoy Larkin’s paintings of lines: lines that move, never straight, the last influencing the next, a steady enough hand guiding the wet material along a path that gets rockier with each pass. Why two screens, I wonder. Is it a technical pragmatism? When the stroke of the brush crosses from one screen to the next, it is both smooth and it misses; the second camera sees the action from a slightly different angle. This glitch is very compelling, and I watch it over and over with much satisfaction. Watching the paint coming off the brush, running dry, reloading, is hypnotic, but that split creates a tension that is just so good.
There are a number of other things to attend to before we get to Ian Giles’ part of the exhibition. Occupying the zone between are three vitrines with a range of twentieth-century ceramics on display, an MDF bench by Anna Barham (‘Crystal Fabric Field’, 2020) and a large Angus Suttie ceramic piece on the floor, ‘Untitled Obelisk and Channel’ (1991-92). The latter, with its snaking form, serves as a visual bridge from one part of the gallery to another. What seems to be a blocky body is positioned over a set of unglazed canals that curve away from it. The figure, built up from thick, wrapped sheets of clay, and positioned on a tiny platform like a miniature monument, has a spout two thirds of the way down. The whole thing has connotations of fluids oozing, being caught and redirected. It was great to see the ceramics from the collection and this amazing work by Suttie, but I wasn’t completely sure why these particular pieces were selected to join Larkin and Giles’. According to the wall label, the ceramics in the vitrine were all made by artists who’d attended prestigious art schools in London – hardly revealing hidden cultural histories. Barham’s MDF structure did not seem to belong in the space, and I couldn’t figure out the connection other than it was there to be sat on. It was hard and pointy and clever, the opposite of a soft structure. On the other hand, Suttie’s work makes reference to his experience as a gay man (he died in 1993 of HIV-related illness), and brings something to the exhibitions that feels urgent.
In contrast to Larkin’s walls, Ian Giles’ installation A Reflection in Time has been painted a dramatic midnight blue, which pulls out the bright colours of his own ink studies and those of the small group of floral still life paintings from the collection – delicious pops of greens, yellows and oranges. The high ceiling thwarts the level of intimacy somewhat, but the stack of comfortable looking mattresses that the invigilator invites me to sit down on helps settle the energy to a human scale. Here you can listen to Giles’ radio play ‘A Reflection in Time’ (2023) on an old Nokia handset. I wasn’t altogether keen to put a phone that countless others had held to their ears to my own, but it was fun to handle an old Nokia again and chill out on a comfy bed. I was confused at first as to why I was listening to the radio this way (I had started about halfway through) until a recorded American voice interrupted to tell me I had two minutes of listening credit left. I was in a chat room. Yes, this was a thing back then – something, as one of the children in the gallery declared, ‘from the olden days’.
The short chapters of the play are punctuated by a violin evoking bygone eras of radio drama – something like a Catherine Cookson or DH Lawrence, dealing out chunks of forbidden love in a class setting. The story is set in Edwardian Teesside and is about two fictitious men (a valet and a butler) who worked for Bolckow and Vaughan, founders of Teesside’s iron ore industry, and had a life-long relationship. It is based upon the lives of real people with the details filled in imaginatively. Blast furnaces are erected – ‘and what once had been the Earth’s, became capital’ – forms the backdrop for a gay bildungsroman, with lots of running of eyes over parted lips and the fear of being caught, climaxing in an explosive interaction: a fight becomes a kiss, and then an impassioned plea not to write – ‘it was love letters that got Oscar Wilde!’. I sat for twenty minutes listening to this (mildly) erotic potboiler and loved it, disappointed to have missed the live reading that took place in October.
There had also been a flower arranging session led by Giles, focusing on the hidden symbolism of flowers, which sounds like a great way to spend time thinking about the floral studies from the collection, as well as the hidden narratives and secret codes of queer life. It was through these social events that Giles was able to connect with local groups and individuals who helped shape the work. Like Larkin’s painted works, Giles’ ink studies make visual reference to the paintings from the collection, both in subject matter and form. ‘Eucalyptus/Tulip/Fabric – Richard, New York’ (2022) shows a flower, its petals wide open in vivid vulnerability. However, they mostly document the events and situations that Giles has organised while in Middlesbrough and on residencies elsewhere. Figures sit chatting or perhaps rehearsing a play, their body language vaguely theatrical. My favourite, ‘A map is a bridge for you to cross’ (2022), shows two figures lifting a mattress. They appear to have been drawn in one green swoop, distorting and conflating their forms with the pink background (which looks rather like Duncan Grant’s ‘Sketch for Mural Decoration’ (1912) on the opposite wall). The invigilator told me about the reluctance among some visitors to accept the LGBTQAI+ subtext to Giles’ show as part of an industrial narrative. However, the work is presented tenderly, lovingly and with conviction, which I feel will have the final word. There might be those unwilling to hear stories from marginalised sources, but the stories will be told.
Larkin and Giles are our guides into hidden worlds. We are invited to lay down on a bed and imagine having to seek romance in private, to contemplate rolling bulbs as an act of summoning, engaging with history empathetically in order to get closer and make way for repair. Both projects reclaim hope for the forgotten, which is exciting and makes me think about the role institutions play in supporting those who have been unjustly overlooked. I find out later that Guymer’s work was not bought but donated by her voluntarily, and wonder if it would be an act of reparation for MIMA to purchase some of the subsequent work by Larkin and Giles for the collection.
Soft Structures is on at Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art, 19 September 2023 – 31 March 2024.
Lesley Guy is an artist and writer based in Newcastle upon Tyne.
This review has been supported by MIMA.