The central structure is fabricated from insubstantial materials. It dominates the space with purpose though it is hastily constructed from thin timber and flimsy hardboard, painted in grey. It feels like a maquette or a dress rehearsal for another exhibition. The structure’s fractured walls rise up from a bed of grey packing blankets. They disrupt one half of an otherwise empty floor of a former textile packing and shipping warehouse in central Manchester, currently occupied by PINK. Acting as a backdrop or stage-set for the exhibition, the structure delivers low-level visual ‘white noise’ in the form of cheap black and white prints of details from white-washing, normally associated with empty shop windows. It is clearly intended to provide a platform for other artworks rather than taking centre stage. It has the potential to act as a screen to block out the ambient noise of the city (played here by passing trains) and enable concentration but instead its fractured walls allow that noise to permeate.
The structure is the display mechanism of GREY AREA, an exhibition by Kevin Hunt featuring the work of three other artists; Simon Bayliss, Caz Egelie and Aitor González. The artists’ shared experiences and understandings of queerness set the exhibition’s conceptual framework and this offers a tenderness to an otherwise abrasive scenario of strewn blankets. In a hot-pot city as sprawling as Manchester is, details inevitably go unnoticed by the daily commuters and things that don’t conform to the norms of city life can slip between the cracks of our attention altogether.
Standing in the gallery space of 86 Princess Street, the River Medlock babbles by immediately beneath the windows. It perfectly encapsulates Manchester’s overlooked life; it subverts the city’s pedestrian streets, generally going unnoticed until you almost fall right in it. It is this kind of site specificity that is integral to understanding the tender subversion in the artists’ collaborative installation. For example, it is important to know that the warehouse building PINK occupies was originally used to pack and move what is known as ‘greige’ (pronounced ‘grey’) fabrics. This particular floor of the building would have been used as a kind of sales area for that fabric, laid out across its wide open floor. Thus, we understand the setting: GREY AREA is a grey area in the greige area.
Evocative and at times, provocative motifs dance around the artists’ stage set; animal print, chains, clowns, dice, jesters, satin, silk and sunglasses. Many of these motifs are employed by ceramicist Simon Bayliss. His terracotta wares are colourfully slipped vessels. They balance and teeter on plinths constructed from recycled cardboard packaging, which are draped in turn by more packaging, though this time packing blankets. The precarious positioning of the ceramics on the temporary plinths perhaps alludes to some of the more precarious aspects of queer life; one jug is placed on the floor beside a plinth, by contrast to the teetering objects it offers a counterpoint, as if to say its precarious situation had become too great and it had been taken to safer ground. Recent Government statistics reveal hate crimes related to sexual orientation and gender identity have increased considerably over the past few years, with around 50 reports a day across the UK. Outside of London, Manchester is the largest LGBTQIA community in the country and while it is a large, welcoming community that provides a sense of belonging and safety for many, instances of negativity such as last summer’s offensive graffiti daubed over a mural on Canal Street in Manchester’s Gay Village, remind us that security is still a key issue for the city’s community.
Hectic urban life can push people to the edge, so we must also take care of each other. Bayliss’ ceramics reference queer culture and art history with well-handled humour, all delivered from his own South-West England standpoint. For example, his wall-mounted terracotta ‘pasties’ accompany the aforementioned vessels and blur the boundaries between displayed ceramics and sculptural props. Again using coloured slips and glazes, ‘Pasty (Kundalini / Shades / St Ives)’ (2021) depicts Hindu energy channels but paired with sunglasses meaning the pattern of the energy chains takes on new connotations, conjuring images of bondage. Meanwhile, the swift brush strokes in the glaze of ‘Pasty (Calligraphic / Spun)’ (2021) appear to depict a used condom over a Turner-esque sunset, further emphasising the sexual connotations in Bayliss’ work.
Dutch artist Caz Egelie’s ‘Backstage’ (2021) is presented on what we might consider the rear of the walls, or what Hunt refers to in the list of works as the ‘outside of installation’. A coat hanger made from epoxy clay hangs unoccupied next to a delicate fabric draped over the armature of the installation. This alludes to a performance and reframes the rear of the installation as a changing area—a more crucial area of activity, as the title tells us. This brings audiences to a sense of exposure, of being somewhere you’re not supposed to be: behind the scenes. It’s this that Hunt wants from his viewers, an experience of being ‘outside’. At the exhibition’s closing event, a performance was in the offing. A troupe of performers activated Egelie’s 3D printed mask-works, removing them from their floor and wall mounts, wearing them with choreographed movement and pose. Their face adornments flamboyant enough in colour and design to overrule the well-executed but humble 3D printed construction and this provided a double mirage: their method of construction implies a level of artifice and functionlessness. Egelie’s use of materials in this way is an attempt to go against institutional expectations and to subvert the kinds of rigid frameworks that allow non-conforming people to be overlooked or ignored. This is a playful way of tackling the serious subject of representation and identity.
Employing similar levels of humour, subversion and ambiguity to Egelie, Aitor González presents recent drawings in coloured Sharpie, watercolour and calligraphic pen on paper. The series is semi-abstract, almost absent-minded in nature and style. This leaves the viewer to decide how to react to individual pieces such as the encounter between a ‘Dog-scorpion and three angels’, or the depiction of a manic-looking ‘Clown smiling’ (both 2021), for example. In addition to his drawings, González has furnished the installation with a Modernist chair. The surface of the seat is smeared with tacky paint and this removal of functionality alongside free-form gestures links back to the ambiguity of his drawings. One of González’s ‘Drawings from the notebook drawings series’ (2020/21) is taped to the outside of the installation with grey masking tape. It features handwritten text repeated across the page. It reads ‘si, no, si, no’ (translating as ‘yes, no, yes, no’) and this detail, coupled with how the paper is hung, adds to a sense of figuring things out or deliberation. The impermanence of masking tape relates to the temporary feel of the whole installation.
Hunt’s ‘CLOSETOTHEEDGE’ (2021) series of water jet-cut, stainless steel platters feel peripheral and at times anonymous. Displayed against the swirling patterns of his black & white photocopies, they blend in with the backdrop. These works are personal to Hunt and draw on the pain of recent bereavement. They also employ the pareidolic patterning created by a cutting process that is a continuing trope in Hunt’s work, seen previously in other water jet cut works such as ‘see see (me in)’, ‘STRAIGHTFACE’ and his billboard commission for Tŷ Pawb gallery in Wrexham, ‘face-ade’ (all 2019). Sections and shapes have been cut from each platter to reveal representations of human faces that transmit an uneasiness, at once inquisitive and surprised. Placed in the context of this installation, the faces become reflective of their audience. There is a leap of faith expected of his audience by Hunt. His play with the word greige opens up an ambiguity and uncertainty — a delicate balance that queerness can instil. Hunt’s works in the exhibition are the culmination of two years’ contemplation and reflection during a period where many have been deprived of physical acts. He has used the time to examine his position within society and the outcome meets its audience in a space so uncomfortable — due to fear of damaging or disrupting the display — that lingering-time is at a premium. There is little opportunity to comfortably reflect within the space and that urgency is spectacular.
While not an obvious reference to W. B. Yeats’ popular poem ‘Aedh Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven’ (1899), Kevin Hunt has laid down a piece of himself with GREY AREA. His greige blankets are to be trodden on but ‘PLEASE TREAD CAREFULLY’ as the advice given at the end of a lengthy printed list of 52 artworks states. For many visitors, this message will have been the last thing they read having already navigated an installation seemingly in flux, emitting a feeling of urgency and transience.
James Harper is a writer, artist and curator based in Liverpool.
GREY AREA ran from 29 January until 27 February 2022 at PINK, Manchester