Presentation to PORSCH NE Conference 2 March 2016 Arts & Crafts and Offender Health in the North East Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art – Gateshead
It was with a little personal uncertainty as an artist that I approached the invitation to review the Koestler Trust Exhibition of Offender Art as an opening contribution to our conference of practitioners on 2 March, who between them cover such a broad range of support to those , young people and adults, in offender institutions in this part of the northeast.
My uncertainty sprang from two sources, first that I felt that I might slip into an inappropriate judgement mode. The artists whose work is on show here have perhaps rather too great and immediate a sense of having been judged by society; and second that this fine exhibition, for it is, has already been curated, and indeed prizes awarded, and another round of assessment would either add little, or might even detract from it.
My brief rather has been to review the work on show and share with you my responses with you as an artist to prompt our thinking and discussion this afternoon.
But I do not wish to cop out of any comment at all of the overall quality of work presented to us in this show.
There is of course a very wide range of types of work presented; including drawing, painting, sculpture, printing, mixed media, written narrative; each of which, in other circumstances might have a show of their own; and thus cross comparisons immediately fall into the difficulty of making distinctions between apples and oranges.
But for all that what we have before us obviously satisfy the criterion of works of fine art needing to satisfy high standards demonstrating command of technique, depth of observation; exploration of materiality and colour; quality of craft and finish; and throughout an integrity, imagination, and creative originality in purpose and execution. All the pieces speak from the artist to the viewer.
Therefore what I want to do is to pick out from the show 10 pieces that say something particular to me and to share this with yourselves. There is no particular order in which I have selected these pieces, and no ranking therefore in the points that occur to me. So here goes.
Any of us in our work, as artists or otherwise, will from time to time experience a cleansing of our minds as we allow ourselves the opportunity to explore our thoughts about the situation we find ourselves in. And that square of paper or canvas in front of us can be a truly magical space in which we surrender all sense of time while we allow ourselves to do this.
Paul’s ‘Anxiety’ profoundly presents a picture of enclosure, his use of marker pens surely destroyed in the mark making of the space he is incarcerated in, set against the unruly deployment of bits, literally, and pieces of digital kit run riot inside his head, presents a profound sense of unease, of the ability to cope and endure.
Testament & Truth
Ian’s ‘Over the River’ displays his specific sense of loss, and the pain of ‘Missing you’. Are the abstracted figures – in the darkness of the composition with the uncompromising use of gauche. a source of comfort or acknowledgement of a shared predicament?
The space between the figures suggests a way out – a longed for destination – but there is a gulf – of negative space that places this out of reach.
Humour & Irony
If these are two challenging pieces – there has to be a place for lightness of touch.
Who is ‘Rocky the Punk?’. Exuberant use of colour, again in guache, suggests a portrait, someone well known. Over the top? A character – certainly someone who lifts everyone’s spirit. Would we all want to meet Rocky? Maybe not for too long. But he brings a smile.
And Paul’s ‘Rhino Head’ – thrust a metre off the wall – and at waist height – is wonderfully crafted. The choice of steel is well made; harder than the real thing. Something for the living room? Certainly a trophy; but would, I think, need a particularly understanding partner to make him feel at home.
But the underlying strength of this show is the range of ways in which the artists have explored and revealed the situation they find themselves in, the range of perspectives and dimensions it brings, and the sense of something unfolding.
Leigh’s ‘Vide (See)’ invites the view to look and find understanding. The expressionist handling of space, layered with use of colour and overlapped shape; the suggestion of 33mm film in the margin suggesting constant observation and of an indelible record makes one feel uneasy, uncertain. What is the enigma we are intended to see in the spacial ambiguities? Are we looking hard enough? At what point will it be revealed?
Narrative – A story
Bryan’s ‘My Time in the Falklands’ with it’s desolate conclusion leaves us in no doubt of the mark left on the author’s heart – for that is where the narrative comes from – in an unresolved expression of pain and loss – of a profound melancholia.
But beauty has its place too – to lift the spirits – to take us somewhere else. Paper Moon uses the seductiveness of vibrant, complimentary colour to take us over the moon – with exuberant use of ink, oil pastel and watercolour to explore two contrasting places – a sea of emotion? – a route to a distant destination? But there is optimism and hope in this composition.
Emotion – both Private and Shared
And these are the tensions that lie pretty close to the surface of all of the work on show.
Looking outwards, in ‘Sunderland’ (ink and watercolour on paper) the artist gives us his(?) view over the wall. Is he looking for home beyond the prison cell. One thinks at first that he is looking at the Sunderland skyline until on closer examination the tower blocks are revealed as gravestones – for passing time? – for time lost forever? The warmth of the oranges and reds in the foreground are no substitution for the loss of the distant place expressed in the blues of the background.
What are the conditions of his return? Will he meet them? Does he want to?
For that is the external reality. As for the internal reality, ‘Prison Life’ (lino print on paper) captures the monotony of prison existence. The artist notes ‘when I walk past cells … I see only men with elbows on their knees’. It might please some that this is indeed what is intended. But what this
prisoner has expressed is the broken spirit that comes with the experience and poses the question what happens next – and how we can break the cycle.
For the final piece I have selected “Pug Life’ (gouache on paper) the artist reveals that he(?) is obsessed with his dog’s roles of fat. The word ’obsessed’ is significant. The painting is set above head height. The subject looks down on us – superior – judgemental – and one suspects not unlike his master. Is he in fact the artist’s alter ego. Is this actually a self portrait?
So what are we to make of this.
At the beginning I touched upon the magic of that square or cube in which the artist creates his or her illusion and to explore every aspect of the human condition.
The strength of the show is that it is concerned with all variety and stage of transformation. Each of the works on display captures a significant but transitory moment in the artist’s life.
The works that each have produced have given them both a voice, and the challenge to us to make for them the opportunity to be heard, understood, valued and supported through this process.
Angus Anderson 5 March 2016
Angus Anderson is a painter and printmaker and Artist in Residence at Highgate Newtown Community Centre. www.highgatenewtown.org.uk
Before his own transition to artist via a Diploma in Fine Art from the Art Academy his career was spent in public services and public policy making in the fields of community and public health. From 1999 he was Trustee and from 2003 until 2015 Chairman of Action Space, which supports Artists with learning disabilities and which is now one of the Arts Council’s national portfolio organisations. He maintains his public policy interests as an Assistant Professor at the University of Nottingham Department of Social and Public Policy. www.andersongrounds.com