While the once prevalent understanding of an artist as an isolated genius appears to have subsided in previous decades, the mystification of artists and their practices, at times, still lingers in the form of barriers that hinder constructive conversations between contemporary artists and the public. Even though the role of artists is recognised in civic and community development, how artists and their practices are perceived outside of the cultural sector remains a subject for arts organisations to explore and reflect upon. I recently took part in the documentation of an exhibition at The Customs House called Glaucus & Scylla, which I feel has provided additional insight into the exhibiting artists’ creative process and motivations – an insight rarely offered to the public. By opening the exhibition to the public from its development to its final stages, the venue and the artists have achieved their intention of facilitating visitors’ engagement with the artistic process.
A culmination of a three-week painting project devised by artist and fine art lecturer Christian Mieves, Glaucus & Scylla features five monumental abstract paintings collaboratively created by Mieves, art students from Newcastle University and volunteers from the art community in South Shields. It centres upon the idea of transformation, loosely drawing inspiration from the Greek myth in which fisherman Glaucus is transformed into an immortal sea god and protector of sailors. The irony of Glaucus’s identity later emerges when he falls in love with the nymph Scylla, who is then turned into a sea monster by a jealous witch spited by unrequited love for Glaucus, haunting the very sailors Glaucus was duty-bound to protect. Mieves chose to carry out the project at The Customs House for a number of reasons. Primarily, he was drawn to the seaside location and what it historically represents as a customs port, which echoes the marine setting of Glaucus and Scylla as well as certain aspects of Glaucus’s identity as a mediator between marine and terrestrial spaces. More importantly, with ‘transformation’ being the core theme of the project, the venue was a fitting choice with its shifting historical roles and identities, from Merchant Navy building to morgue, and to the arts and entertainment centre it is today.
All collaborators, including Mieves, Charlotte Marnoch, Chirine Zaboub, Sue Shaw and Diane Bell, gathered regularly at The Customs House Gallery for coffee and cakes, after which the group would discuss the ongoing painting progress and their thoughts on the project themes. These coffee mornings were followed by in-situ painting sessions, turning the pristine ‘white cube’ into an open production site. Based on the discussions they had, the group made their marks with household paint on reclaimed advertising tarps. Week after week, this collective mark-making repeated; old marks were buried beneath new as the five paintings evolved. During the process, the gallery stayed open so that members of the public could stumble upon the works in progress and witness an almost performance-like exhibition taking shape. When the paintings were complete, the exhibition ran for three further weeks in its finalised form.
As a multidisciplinary arts centre, The Customs House is home to a variety of arts and entertainment facilities, including an art gallery, a theatre, a cinema and community event spaces. The art gallery occupies an unusual space, in that it is surrounded by all these facilities, part of a varied programme of live performances, cinema, visual arts and community engagement projects. Those who are familiar with the venue might visit it for the exhibitions or workshops of course, but many people walk into it by chance, as they make their way to the cinema next door. It is perhaps its proximity to popular entertainment that makes the gallery appear more inviting to the general public, including those who may not normally visit art galleries or be interested in art at all. This creates an audience dynamic characterised by more spontaneous interpretations and curiosity-driven reactions.
Glaucus & Scylla was curated in a way that allowed a glimpse into the transient nature of the painting project. Upon entering the gallery, viewers would encounter a series of framed photos showing the paintings at different stages of development, which uncovered those traces of erasure, doubts and accidents that had arisen during the painting process. It was interesting to see how the artists’ creative decisions were revealed and how much the paintings transformed from somewhat figurative to mostly abstract artworks. These photos prefigured the final forms of the five paintings hung in the back section of the gallery, accompanied by ethereal soundscapes composed by Zaboub. Representational forms of nymphs, fish and sea monsters are shown to have dissolved into prancing brushstrokes, bold and colourful, inviting viewers to connect the dots in their imagination.
I asked the group of collaborators about their experience taking part in Glaucus & Scylla, and they all agreed it had been unlike any other art project they had been a part of. They remarked on how the collaborative nature of it had encouraged them to appreciate the social aspects of making art and to maintain an openness to other people’s ways of thinking. As opposed to creating art in solitude, entering this creative partnership called for not only trust to experiment with each other’s creative inputs, but also honesty to admit that failures and disagreements were potential outcomes of these experiments. They expressed their joy at the results they collectively accomplished, even though there was a short period of adjustment to the new experience in the first few sessions. Bell, one of the volunteer collaborators of Glaucus & Scylla, thought the project was an ‘eye-opener to abstract art’. Albeit a highly skilled, self-taught painter, Bell has not had a formal art education. She felt the project made her better informed and more appreciative of abstract art beyond its visual appeal. Another collaborator, Shaw, who only started making art recently as a means to grieve and heal from loss, described the project as ‘amazing’, noting that each step of the process had taken her out of her comfort zone, despite being initially daunted by the large scale of the paintings and the idea that she would be painting with other more experienced artists.
Glaucus & Scylla was a candid and transparent presentation of an ambitious painting project. It facilitated an accessible dialogue around contemporary artists and abstract art practice, further shedding light on the impact of social art and collaboration on both creative individuals and communities.
Glaucus & Scylla ran at The Customs House between 26 March and 15 May 2022. A virtual tour of the exhibition can be viewed here.
Christie Yung-hei Chan is a curator, writer and artist born and raised in Hong Kong. She is currently based in Tyne and Wear.
This review is supported by Newcastle University and The Customs House.