Burley, Leeds, is synonymous with many things: a large multi-cultural community, red brick houses and student parties, but few would associate the inner-city neighbourhood with sculptural experimentation. Leeds, and West Yorkshire as a whole, has a longstanding connection with ground-breaking sculpture. Twentieth-century pioneers Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore hailed from the county and major cultural institutions, including Yorkshire Sculpture Park, The Hepworth and Henry Moore Institute are all based in West Yorkshire. But zoom into any LS postcode and places for developing contemporary sculpture are hard to find.
Enter Threshold, an independent, artist-led gallery for sculpture in the heart of Burley. The site offers something a little different from a conventional gallery setup, finding its home in the front garden of a traditional back-to-back Victorian terrace. White walls, perfect atmospheric conditions and bright lights are replaced by red brick, natural sunlight and the ever-changing British weather. The idea to open this outdoor residential gallery first came about after artist, curator and researcher Julia McKinlay worked on a group exhibition in 2019, titled Kuroko. After multiple venues fell through, McKinlay was left wondering where artists could securely share their practices without the hassle of unreliable venues and high rents. By 2020, Threshold was founded in the one place where she knew that security was guaranteed: a privately owned home.
In the year since, Threshold has commissioned five early- to mid-career artists to exhibit at the space. The first solo show opened in April 2021, with Burley-based artist Alice Chandler exploring the histories and common associations of the common privet. Starting with an overgrown hedge in her own front yard, just minutes from Threshold, Chandler began making connections between the plant and the history of decorative arts in Britain. ‘Patchwork Maze’, one of the two sculptures, linked the common mosaic virus to the medieval art of quilting. Mottled mustard, khaki, olive and white leaves were reimagined in a Tetris-like patchwork quilt. Viewed from the street, the piece merged into a jumble of colours and textures, echoing untamed plants, but close-up, the composition formed an optical maze. The quilt’s upper edge was fixed to a black metal frame whilst on show Threshold, allowing the piece to billow like a bed sheet on a washing line. The layers of perspectives permitted by Threshold’s outdoor environment ultimately brought together an examination of formal and wild gardening styles. These contextual resonances were not at the forefront of the commission to begin with, but time and again, the artworks exhibited at Threshold took on new, subtle meanings as they were brought into the residential space.
Chandler’s second sculpture, ‘Variegated’, expanded on the etymology of mosaic, once again linking plant life and the decorative arts. This time, the sculpture was made from materials traditionally used to construct and decorate houses, including wood, gloss paint and ceramic tiles. Positioned diagonally across Threshold’s floor space, the wooden plinth’s mosaic top picked up on the textural complexity of the outdoor space, from the cobbled street to the cast cement garden pathing. Just like ‘Patchwork Maze’, ‘Variegated’ constantly evolved in response to the light, weather and design of the street. The unexpected appearance of sculpture within a familiar, residential setting, seen through different personal perspectives, meant the works were being constanting re-interpreted. The ephemerality of ‘looking’ put the works and the exhibition in motion, creating a site of disruption and intrigue. Furthermore, Threshold’s emphasis on experimentation sets them apart from public art conventions, as well as gallery curation of sculpture. Although created for the open air, works at Threshold were not made to serve a function, memorialise or make a statement at the expense of their surroundings. Instead, Threshold held fast to everyday scenes, connecting them to contemporary sculpture and, as such, encouraging access to more experimental art forms.
Similarly nuanced links were also apparent in the venue’s second exhibition, The Strata of Things. Vinyl-printed images of the moss-covered ‘old quarry’ in Derbyshire, a site first plotted on a map in 1897, were transformed by Sheffield-based artist Victoria Lucas. The photographs were first edited with tints of saturated colour before being sliced into 10mm strips and fixed onto black steel poles. The fringe flags signposted a desire to dominate and make claim to the land, but positioned at half mast, the sculptures appeared to be mourning for the pictured ‘old quarry’. The photographic origins of the sculptures further emphasised this, as the language of twentieth-century industry is absorbed by the contemporary digital realm. In the art-residential context of Threshold, the layered sculptures gently dislocated a legacy of framing, manipulating, editing and transforming the natural world.
Lucas’ trio of sculptures were born from an early experimentation for ‘Threshold’s Editions’, which invites exhibitors to produce a limited series of artworks for sale. Not only does this offer visitors a chance to take home a piece of sculpture, the works also help to normalise artist-led commerce; initiatives like the Artists Support Pledge, established by practitioner Matthew Barrows MBE in response to Covid-19, have demonstrated the positive impact of making art more affordable. Having an integrated system to sell work is just as important as providing a platform to exhibit. The reality is that practitioners need financial security to sustainably develop ideas and outcomes. While some may argue that a focus on the selling of artwork may dampen its message or artistic ethos, Threshold takes measures to ensure that its Editions – for which artists are offered additional funding and materials – are meaningfully connected to the exhibition and created for the home. The profits of the sale are equally split between the artist and gallery, facilitating the artist’s development whilst funding future exhibitions for other practitioners. This equips Threshold’s alumni with a certain confidence to consider their work in relation to an (affordable) art market.
Threshold’s third exhibition, Scoria, was the first to deliberately beckon viewers into the garden space. Founder McKinlay teamed up with Jacob Farrell, an artist based in Le Pouget, France, to explore the connections between geology and industry. Twisting metal ‘keys’ hung from the terrace house, while a meteor shower of magma forms, a by-product from foundries, leaked onto the path just outside Threshold’s entrance. The sculptures, by McKinlay, plotted the stages of metalwork, from ore to object, whilst breaking the boundaries of the space. Like all shows at Threshold, it had an accompanying publication, with an exhibition text by Farrell, ‘A Snake Shaped Key’ in which he used language and onomatopoeia to examine the legacy of industry. Read in situ with McKinlay’s sculptures, the curves of the metal ‘keys’ transformed into texual symbols akin to hieroglyphs. Much like Lucas’ exhibition, tropes of language, extraction and waste played key roles in the show.
Although McKinlay has occupied the role as curator over the past year, the direction of the commissions and resulting exhibitions are ultimately in the hands of the artists. The benefits of Threshold’s non-restrictive commissioning processes and residential setting for artistic development are most obviously reflected by the site’s final exhibition of 2021. Emii Alrai’s Deposition Layer also tapped into the idea of the earth as an ore of ideas, memories and knowledge. The artist was afforded the freedom to ‘experiment with how much narrative can be given through one single object, rather than multiple works and textures’. She produced a solitary, limb-like form made from polystyrene, jesmonite and oxidised copper leaf, hung mid-air by two metal rods. The site mirrored the final stages of an archaeological dig, amplifying the often omitted narratives of origin, purpose, ‘discovery’, excavation and transportation. The complexity of Threshold’s setting is itself a curatorial voice that addresses an urban context while nurturing a flexible commissioning approach, neither of which would be possible in a conventional gallery setting.
This openness towards artistic experimentation and the inclusion of commerce make the organisation stand out. Threshold offers a level of autonomy that is hard to come by in established galleries, where ideas are often moulded to fit a stricter curatorial vision. Instead, their main prerequisite is that the work be sturdy enough to withstand the outdoor elements. McKinlay’s approach bridges the gap between artist-led spaces and more conventional gallery models, empowering artists to steer their work at every stage. The familiar setting and ways of working support artists and viewers alike to engage with experimentation. From an unexpected encounter with sculpture to an enthusiast purchasing an edition, Threshold positions experimental contemporary sculpture as something that can, and should be, accessible.
Alice Chandler: Privet ran from 24 April to 23 May 2021; Victoria Lucas: The Strata of Things from 12 June to 10 July 2021; Jacob Farrell and Julia McKinlay: Scoria from 18 September to 9 November 2021; and Emii Alrai: Deposition Layer from 13 November to 19 December 2021.
Find out more about Threshold here.
Saffron Ward is a writer based in Leeds.
 Victoria Lucas, ‘The Strata of Things’, Threshold, (2021), pg. 4.
 Emii Alrai and Saad Maqbool, ‘Deposition Layer: An Archaeology of Memory’, Threshold, (2021), pg. 3.