The inaugural exhibition of Pineapple Black, the new contemporary arts space in Middlesbrough, led by artists Bobby Benjamin and Stephen Irving, allows an opportunity to re-examine creative activity in the town. Benjamin and Irving have curated a complex network between thirteen artists, all with some connection to the surrounding sub-region. Although radically different in style, the work forms interdisciplinary dialogues around class and gender identities, and (un)monumental scale, that produce and destabilise a sense of place.
Gordon Dalton’s landscape paintings are modest in size: they make you advance and retreat, as if trying to fill a small bathroom mirror with your face. They are complicated memories of being in and out of place. At first the materials look like tar and meringue, but closer inspection reveals layers of highly worked colour. Some appear to be making wood from the trees, others may or may not contain recumbent figures. They call to each other across the gallery.
Lewis Robinson’s lyrical sculptures are made up of what seem to be lost and adopted, rather than specifically found objects. ‘Fragments and remnants’ of furniture and assembled wooden sections speak of domesticity outside the show home. Tables and stools act as plinths, which are themselves part of the sculptures. Casts of stacked books release images that play within the structures – pillows stuffed into or lashed onto elements; a string of Pinocchio-esque sausages; something like a concertina, topped by a model stage set. Close by, hovering between painting and sculpture, the frames of Mollie MacSween’s elegant wall-based work set up formalist echoes with Robinson’s, while disturbing their traditional usage as both visible and invisible supports. Her painted marks are painstaking attempts to truthfully recreate those found in the specific locations where they are made. The repeated concrete slabs of Thomas Tyler’s work are at first discrete, their repeated rhythm partially mimicking the ceramic gallery floor. Their intriguing paint-splattered surfaces could be found marks, and probably are, as Tyler’s practice is concerned with selection and deskilling as a way of democratising sculpture.
The highly skilled and luscious oil paintings of sculptures by Jonny Green playfully extend the sense of the heroic in the banal. Each of them attempts ‘to dignify’ the impermanent, everyday materials of Green’s original sculptures, and yet renders them more hilarious. Sculpture is traditionally recognised as lauding permanence, and portrait painting is often a means to give credence to the over-inflated, so Green’s work causes us to question the contributions each make to scale. The sculptural work of Mary Deane is also bulbously biomorphic, sitting, as if melting in the window, or on a bird-table plinth, like something mouldy left out for the local wildlife. It resembles pearlized glazed ceramic but is actually a fondant fountain of plaster and paint. The pink of an enormous boil-type form is repeated in the man-made fabric of Aaron Batey’s sculpture which drapes diagonally across the tiled floor from a knee-high wire armature ‘dressing form’. Hand-stitched onto its welded support, it appears to have just sashayed out of The Changed Rooms, where ‘Material World’ can be heard playing. Inside this more intimate space, Gemma Tierney and Charlie Wood have collaboratively created an installation of Madonna, mylar, pastel palm trees and swimming pools: a Pepsi video plays disjointedly along the edges of the changing cubicles. The mirrored pillars in the main space become supersized here, and the viewer is embodied in hedonism. Lurking, ever present beneath, are layers of consumerism and the power of large corporations.
Back in the main gallery, Bobby Benjamin’s examination of working class identity/struggle continues. His photographic self-portrait glares out from under peeled-back layers of thick white paint. Nearby, a long black sculpture of extruded plastic waste, a material originally researched and developed in the area, resembles a distended horn to call the town to arms. Anita Sewell’s practice researches work and human activity, and reminds us vividly that forgotten people and places are not recent phenomena. Piles of sea coal stand in line like miniature slagheaps. The handle of a shovel indicates human presence/absence, and triggers memories of the strange beauty of local black beaches and figures picking their way through sea fret.
Alyson Agar’s photographic work also references the everyday, her dramatic sense of colour and form heightening each found unmonumental still life. Agar’s series of images explores the relationship between sculpture and photography and emphasises that incidental moments in time can be the most interesting. Her interest in the accidental and coincidental is shared by Stephen Irving. While his painted triptych references exclusion, displacement and destruction, his sculptural works suggest disturbed and impermanent lives. A lava-like painted plastic sheet lies over what might be the roof of a tent, conjoined umbrellas, or a defunct Mars Rover. He, like Benjamin, is writing new histories for materials that include interruptions and fractures.
Pineapple Black is located in a large former retail space at the margins of a shopping centre, partially outside and partially inside, a metaphor for the liminal nature of the area itself. The popularity of the gallery is testament to its unique addition to Teesside’s sense of place, and to the increasing agency artists have here.
Godfather Too, the next group show, with artists drawn from across the wider North of England, will open with an Advanced Preview on Friday 1st March 6-9pm, at Pineapple Black, Hill Street Shopping Centre, Middlesbrough, TS1 1SU. The project is supported by Creative Factory and East Street Arts.
Grand Opening, Pineapple Black, Middlesbrough, 18 January 2019 – 16 February 2019.
Annie O’Donnell is an artist based on Teesside