‘What is paint? It is somewhere between statement and implication’ observes Chris Smith. Questions are often just as interesting as their answers and many of both were posed and offered during the opening night of Paint North curated by Dr Eirini Boukla and Dr Judith Tucker in collaboration with the University of Leeds School of Design. Lady Beck project space provided host on a freezing February night to the work of twenty-eight artists in its modest, welcoming space. Free standing heaters and Styrofoam cups provide warmth for the audience eagerly awaiting the PechaKucha presentations by selected exhibitors.
We are told painting is both a metaphor but also ‘quite literally there’, yet each image in this exhibition challenges this. April Virgoe’s ‘little fictions’ make us consider the painting as a space where something might happen. They are, she says, ‘visually hard to reach’, each scenario taking place in such a shallow space. This theme is echoed in other work – Smith’s again and Adam Stone’s – where the ‘present absent’ signifies something that is neither fully literal nor fully abstract. The work is ‘what remains after the presence of the artist has gone’. Stone’s unsettling visions of one of Leeds’ first shopping centres contains both narratives of human inhabitation and the painterliness of paint.
Even the works that so definitely representing what they say they are (Richard Baker’s Fridge for example) are hanging on the edge of this absence, being so paint-ful, so laden with paint, so clearly a painting and so full of the possibility of what painting does and can do. As a writer myself I am collecting language metaphors all evening. Erini Boukla talks of the ‘selecting and editing’ of painting. Her punctuation marks are inspired by comic books. They are ‘something moving about the space’: amusing, hard to categorise, not the literality of the comic book, not the abstraction of the purely paint. Painting may be always on the edge of language, but it is always absolutely within the depths and breadth of paint.
Sarah Taylor’s tiny post-it-size triptych benefits from a closer look. Somewhere amongst lush swirls and avalanches of ice-cream-like paint, small figures appear. One moment, I think I see something that reminds me of a child’s picture book, the next I am amongst something darker — Heidi’s mountain range under an avalanche where small red coats are just visible. We hear the poetry of Harriet Tarlo as we walk through eerie holiday home landscapes, past inverted objects, amongst vistas of sea and stone. Words make fine accompanists on this journey but artists are not performers, paintings are. After the presentations there is time to move amongst them. I had not thought paint was so visceral until tonight. There were moments it felt possible to reach out and taste it. I made do with cheesy nibbles, though, and gave thanks as I set off home in the snow that people still labour, so intensely, so privately and so richly, and often without reward, with this thing called paint.
Karen Tobias-Green is a lecturer, researcher and writer at Leeds Arts University.