Five minutes’ blustery walk from the sea, behind an innocuous door on a shopping street in Blackpool, is Abingdon Studios. When I visit, on an unusually sunny day in early May, it’s the first time I’ve seen the sea in over a year. I’ve left my neighbourhood a handful of times. So before my appointment at Abingdon, I sit on the beach, taking it in. Today, the sky is bright blue and cloudless. The sea is surprisingly clear. Being here, and the freedom that it brings, feels momentous.
Kerry Tenbey and Ellie Barrett’s exhibition SOFT HANDS ON MOSSY ROCKS maps the influence of the past year. It is enticing at first sight – with a deliberately handmade, colourful aesthetic that stretches over the gallery walls and floor – but it’s only on closer inspection that I feel like I “get it”. Islands of artworks bathe on the ground, whilst research photos of supermarket aisles and the contents of skips populate the walls. Thick strips of pink paint circumnavigate the space, creating literal connections between the research and the artworks.
The work manifests as tangible documentation of artistic process on the walls and its realisation on the floor. I ask Barrett why it was important to display the research in such a way: ‘It’s about accessibility,’ she says, ‘This diagramme can say more than we can communicate on a sheet of paper.’ And it’s true. Even though she pointed things out as she introduced me to the exhibition, I made my own connections, and used those realisations to dictate how I moved around the space.
It’s clear that this was an exhibition centred around collaboration. Both Barrett and Tenbey explore material meaning in their practice, and together set up the Material Arts Network with the aim of provoking discussion around the value of materials — something often overlooked. The project relates specifically to Barrett’s PhD and Tenbey’s postgraduate research, exploring the links between materials and human behaviour, and how material can be analysed in relation to the meaning of art. Reflecting this grounding, the exhibition looks at how artists (or indeed, anyone) can collect materials from the world around them, and how these objects’ past lives contribute to the meaning of the works produced.
The exhibition’s format was a direct result of our current circumstances. At a time when the two artists couldn’t connect in the way that they wanted to, their work was infused with the social impact of Covid-19. It strikes me that research for the project must have been challenging. Ordinarily, research is outward-looking, but here the world was turning insular and thus provoking self-reflection; it’s clear to see how each artist was seeking beauty in the everyday. When Amazon packaging and bars of soap are subverted into artworks, it’s a relatable provocation for the gallery visitor. At times, the concept behind a physical work takes time to settle in, requiring patience for the full extent of its beauty to bloom.
All the materials the artists chose to work with were found in their homes. Amongst the works on show, Tenbey has produced something akin to a morbid take on sustainability and recycling: part of a tree made from reconstituted cardboard delivery boxes, with the Amazon logo still showing in places, and then behind it, propped up against a wall, an axe. It was a double-take that made me smile. Similarly, Barrett’s intricate tin foil chicken wire was a sight to behold. A fence to keep us in, a net to catch us. Sharp at the edges, it’s discomforting — close to the bone.
‘There’s a tension between the natural, the man-made and the handmade going on,’ says Barrett. ‘There are traces of our hands and our fingers across these very obviously handmade objects.’ The raw materials dotted around the gallery space told the story of their making.
The use of everyday materials to produce artwork is not new. Artists during the arte povera movement in the 1960s and 1970s made use of everyday materials to produce works in an attempt to disrupt the contemporary art world, making use of soil, twigs and textile rags. Provocations like this are familiar to us: using everyday found materials has the potential to democratise how we think about creativity and art production. When traditional materials are out of reach, sculpt using a reconstituted bar of Imperial Leather or mix salt, flour and water. This exhibition shows that artistic materials can be found anywhere, in the home or in the street, and perhaps the most important effect is that the works don’t seem out of reach. Physically, I could touch them, and because of that literal tactility I was inspired by them; I could have made something like that, and maybe I will.
Collaboration was evident in the curation, too. Garth Gratrix, curator of the exhibition and founder of Abingdon Studios, describes Blackpool as a town on the peripheries (socially as well as physically). It balances nostalgia tourism and the need to stay current, in a time when much of the British public take their holidays abroad. Blackpool equals donkey rides and the Big Dipper, a tray of chips for lunch and a stick of rock to suck on during the journey home. Abingdon exists within those parameters, a now familiar place to locals and a stalwart in the creative scene here since its inception in 2014. This exhibition, and Abingdon as an organisation, are so clearly concerned with promoting outward thinking within their particular context. As Gratrix puts it, ‘it’s a very transient town… it’s a facade, a street by the water’s edge that you can be entertained on for a week or so, and then you disappear.’ Part of Abingdon Studios’ aim is to be visible and supportive for artists: a source of funding, community and learning, to retain the talent and creativity that is from Blackpool. Tenbey, a studio member at Abingdon, was already working with Barrett through the Material Arts Network, which is how the idea for this exhibition began to take form.
From the islands of art on the floor to the research photographs on the walls, the artworks on display in SOFT HANDS ON MOSSY ROCKS are part of an ongoing project to visibly display the research that underpins the artists’ work. Here, the display of research is not only crucial to understanding the works that were on show, but displayed on the gallery walls, it too was installed as art. This communicated openness, and such a window into the works’ realisation is what made the show so likeable. Through viewing their interpretation of material, I got a sense of the artists themselves.
This exhibition was perfect for Abingdon, perfect for Blackpool, and perfect for this point in time. Blackpool seems like a magical place because there are sparks of familiarity all over the town. Seaside memories from my childhood came back to me: of tucking my shorts into my knickers and wading into the sea, or burying my sister’s legs in the sand. The loud caw of seagulls that guided me to Abingdon, that were still there as I entered the gallery, seemed to soundtrack the works. The materials used in the exhibition also felt familiar. I know how it feels to sculpt salt dough or squish wet soap so that it gloops up between my fingers. I know what it’s like to pass a skip and want to plunge my hands into it, searching for buried treasure. This nostalgia and these threads of memory were activated within me. After a year of boredom and fear, SOFT HANDS ON MOSSY ROCKS was somewhere I wanted to spend time.
SOFT HANDS ON MOSSY ROCKS was on display at Abingdon Studios, 15 April – 8 May 2021.
Grace Edwards is a writer and ceramicist based in Manchester.
This review is supported by Arts Council England.