PAPER’s current show, Tracing PAPER, presents new work by nine artists from the North West, developed over the last ten months under the mentorship of a range of established artists and curators from across the country, and each other. What emerges within the small gallery space is a quietly confident, challenging mix of approaches and concerns: creations that speak back to the viewer, exploring our own modes of seeing and understanding as much as their own.
In one corner sits a glass vitrine on a wooden plinth. Inside is a fine bed of coir, placed there, the situation implies, to cushion something delicate and of value. The emptiness is momentarily disconcerting, prompting a step back and rereading of the situation: acknowledging the large roll of crumpled paper, caught within the four narrow legs beneath. The rich smoothness of the material’s photographic surface invites touch and the desire to retrieve, uncoil and discover what is depicted. As such, Chloe Ashley, the artist, catches us once, and then for a second time, in a voracious and conditioned act of looking; failing to see the piece, entitled PAPER/Vitrine, simply for what it is.
A gradual unfolding of the work, and the time element that this involves, plays an equally prominent role in Lesley Halliwell’s Good as Gold. Interested in the active interchange between the outer face of an artwork and its inward facing components, Halliwell has produced a complex piece composed of delicate surface detail and bold overarching design. The effect leads to a dance-like sequence by the viewer, who is caught repeatedly moving forwards to peer closely, then back to take in the wider piece and comprehend its many co-existent planes. As in PAPER/Vitrine, the socially-fixed value of different materials and how this affects our looking also emerges in Halliwell’s work. The rich azure blue and sections of gold leaf initially win the battle for our attention, but some of the painting’s most beautiful sections lie in the Spirograph carvings, white Tip-Ex patterning and, above all, the careful tears in the painting’s cardboard base, revealing the soft, fibrous material of its under-layer.
Our concept of space within the image is returned to in Hannah Farrell’s Sense Objects: a photograph of a photograph being careful positioned within the centre of that photograph. The theme is built upon further through the contrast between the scenes represented within each of these spaces. Though both share an equal amount of refinement and beauty, the young woman’s graceful gesture and the perfect whiteness of the surface she places the picture onto, conjures the high-flown reverence of the art world, while the slouching posture and tracksuit bottoms of the topless youth suggests a very different world or system of values. A comment on objectification, aestheticization and gender seems to hang in the border between the two.
A small drawing by Alan Baker, Untitled #79 (Trap & Snare Series), moves the conversation in a different direction. Each work within the series begins with the artist creating a sculpture from found objects, then using this to make sketches. As a whole, the project is conceived by Baker as a meditation on how different species transform space in our everyday urban environments, particularly focusing on the term ‘vermin culture’. However, an additional, disturbing, set of concerns unmistakably reside within the particular assemblage represented in Untitled #79. A car tyre, strangely balanced on a pointed traffic cone, is sat atop a supermarket trolley, the upended legs of which pin an office chair down into a trapped position. The specific combination of cone and tyre mirrors the male gender symbol, while the openness of the chair (without arms and little structure) suggests a sense of ‘feminine’ vulnerability. The imagined wider setting of these discarded objects is similarly threatening – they belong to the overlooked, neglected or simply avoided corners of the city.
Jane Lawson’s Necessary Human Elements for a Potentia also finds its subject in the nature of human society, though in this case focusing on how to achieve a far more optimistic, life-affirming end of the spectrum. The artist uses diagrams to help her understand the economic, historical, geographic and biological processes and structures that shape the modern world. Looking at the highly organised multitude of colour-coded segments, each with a message such as ‘perseverance’, ‘kindness’, ‘mutual aid’ and ‘work/play’ attached, it is difficult not to be struck by the complexity and overwhelming scale of achieving the version of ‘potentia’ (potential) presented.
Moving away from social constructs and manifest behaviours, Becky Peach instead questions what biological and psychological elements cause us to take pleasure in the world of aesthetics, and the healing qualities that art has to offer. Her piece for Tracing PAPER, A game of agents and structures… ‘Tag, you’re it’ #2, is an elaborate and oversized ruff of colourful folded paper displayed around the neck of manikin torso. Any intended ‘meaning’ or ‘reading’ seems hard to gauge, instead leaving us to just enjoy the work on our own terms; accepting the instinctual sense of life, joy and energy that it conveys.
Nearby, Lisa Denyer’s painting, Outdoor Pool, returns to the theme of looking. Her process often begins from everyday observations; intensely exploring and distilling the appearance of an object or scene until broken down into a series of purified, core components arranged across the canvas. Our ability to still loosely recognise something of her original subject in the final composition seems to suggest a deeper element of fixity amidst the shifting world of appearances. Meanwhile, the theme of sight is simultaneously developed in a different direction through the addition of crisply-thin strips of neon paper. The bold contrast of form and colour that this creates causes the viewer’s eyes to constantly move forwards and backwards within the space of the painting, drawing attention to its own opticality and shaping the order in which the work unfolds.
Linda Hemmersbach’s Bones, Beach and Burn carries with it the bodily memory of bleaching light: sight gradually returning after too long spent in the sun. Or the way we see with our eyes closed, either in dreams or whilst letting our imagination wander. Her practice is rooted in personal experiences of place and landscape, and the accumulative, subconscious processing of this. Conversely, in her other piece, ást (an Old Nordic word for ‘love’), the same principle is seemingly reversed: emotion being translated into what looks strikingly like place, in the form of a map, riddled with fine contour lines.
Finally, the ghoulish figure and dark, nightmarish colours of Erin Sevink-Johnston’s small yet overtly-lavish painting, The Absolver, initially make the piece seem quite out of step with the rest of the show. In fact, Sevink-Johnston is interested in a very similar set of concerns around deconstructing artistic convention: in this case using humour to challenge the inherent grandeur of oil paintings and expose the illusory fiction of the two-dimensional image.
Though the nine artists taking part in the Tracing PAPER mentoring scheme are at varying stages in their careers, the exhibition provides an opportunity to see each of their work in a state of newness, as they push their practice in unexplored directions and explore what fresh ideas the medium of paper has to offer. This open, questioning approach in turn creates room for we ourselves to enter into the conversation, responding to their provocations through our own, individual engagement with the work.
Tracing PAPER runs at PAPER gallery until 5 November 2016.
Words by Sara Jaspan.