Sheffield has long gained a well deserved reputation for championing conceptual practices and work embracing new media. However, it is less well known as a platform for contemporary painting. This is a gap that new gallery Sidney + Matilda are attempting to fill through a series of exhibitions focusing on the role of painting and other traditional practices today, with work from both regional and international artists. The second of these exhibitions, Flat + Earth, aims to explore the place of landscape within contemporary painting, printmaking and ceramics, demonstrating what its curator, artist Joanna Whittle, describes as ‘the richness of this genre today’.
Landscape, of course, has a particular significance for Sheffield. A city split between the post-industrial – itself in a period of rapid change as former factories are erased to be replaced with new urban development – and the Peak District that surrounds the city’s horizons. More recently, concerns have been raised both locally and nationally regarding Sheffield’s ‘green’ status following a period of extensive tree felling instigated by the City Council. This is something that painter Julian Perry has responded to in his images of felled and uprooted tree trunks, including the new work Cities Need Trees (2019); as he states, ‘when invited to contribute to this show I read the numerous technical reports on the felling of street trees in Sheffield then created this work. It is not an image of Sheffield but a portrait of violent loss that our natural environment can ill afford.’
Elsewhere, the significance of the urban as well as the natural landscape is explored in the work of Mandy Payne. Payne’s interest in Brutalist architecture is represented physically by painting onto materials associated with that environment, specifically concrete. The connection between subject and material is something not merely unique to Payne, but explored by many of the artists in the exhibition through the use of materials that specifically reference the physical environment. The exhibition’s very title – Flat + Earth – itself highlights the dual concern of the ‘flat’ traditional two dimensional surface, and the physical materials of the ‘Earth’ used in making. From painting on concrete, to undertaking stone lithography techniques, to working on paper (itself a product of wood) and utilising clay for the production of ceramics, the artists of Flat + Earth display a heightened awareness of the materiality of their work. This is particularly apparent in the works of Gary Colclough, whose small-scale landscapes are presented within wooden frameworks and structures that demand an engagement with both their form and content. Charlie Franklin’s carefully constructed surfaces, including the significantly titled Mudflat and Rock Rose (both 2018), combine cardboard and plaster with chalk, emulsion and oil paint to resemble natural surfaces, such as rock, clay or chalk, thus drawing attention to the processes of their construction.
Although the press release describes the exhibition as a ‘definite departure’ from the ‘cluster of conceptual galleries, institutions and project spaces’ that surround Sidney + Matilda, it is also productive to consider what the relationship between the two might be. As exhibiting artist Graham Crowley observes, ‘conceptual art challenged painters to think differently about painting…I subsequently absorbed this understanding into my painting which is why my paintings have been referred to as post-conceptual’. Although the works in the exhibition prioritise the tradition of the flat surface, they do also embrace new technologies, such as Mik Godley’s 2 Slowicza west side #1 via Google Street View (2018), which utilises the app Concepts, a digital drawing tool. Perhaps then, rather than simply providing a space for the showcase for new painting and other work embracing more traditional practices, it may be hoped that the arrival of Sidney + Matilda within this ‘cluster’ of conceptual spaces will offer an opportunity for further discussion on how these two apparently distinctive worlds may in fact be bridged.
Flat + Earth, Sidney + Matilda, 22 February – 15 March 2019.
Clare Nadal is an art historian, writer and PhD candidate at the University of Huddersfield/The Hepworth Wakefield