Tuesday, 30 June 2009

En Plein Air: Knitted Nature, Touchstones, Rochdale

A small room in an art gallery, hung with canvases in muted colours. Though they range from small countryside scenes to large paintings of the seaside, what they all have is that they were created outside, in the moment, and were chosen to show how art can be alive and transport the outdoors inside. The exhibition brings together artists who have drawn their inspiration from the outdoors, yet something's lost in translation. There's something flat about them, like the effect you get when paint dries and the colours become less vibrant.

Your eye, however, is drawn to something incongruous, over by the door. It appears to be a window box or plant pot on the floor, from which are climbing tens of flowers in every colour you can think of, with reds and fluorescent yellows and oranges leaping out.

This artwork almost dances through the air, fragile tendrils twisting against the pane of glass in the door. It's more alive, somehow, than any of the other works in the room. When you get closer, you realise it's knitting, but not as you've seen it before. It's sort of a pop art take on flowers, remade in wool, shiny, fluffy and multicoloured.

The flowers are cartoonishly real - gaps are knitted into the pattern where the veins of the leaves would be, thread winds through the blooms like filaments, tiny clear beads glisten like a trail of dew and silvery embroidery trails across leaves.

Others are more obviously stylised, with buttons for centres. It’s like nature magnified, complete with perching bumblebees. A starburst flower is like a giant sun, a lacy, frayed flower looks indistuingishable from the real thing, whilst also resembling la sea sponge or anemone. Another seems like a floppy starfish. Bluebells and poppies are easily identifiable, and other flowers are plaited, clumped in clusters, coiled like roses and balls of colour.

Knitted Nature, and an accompanying tree adorned with knitted Valencia oranges in Broadfield Park across the road, is an installation by the Manchester knitting duo ArtYarn who invited knitters across the world to knit a leaf or flower and send it to be part of their indoor garden.

It stands out as a reminder of the beauty that’s in the everyday around us, both in nature and in traditional crafts like knitting. Knitted Nature is so striking because it uses the imagery of nature that’s all around us and recreates it in an art form that is so often practical and useful - so conventional and accessible.

In her 1974 essay In Search Of Our Mother’s Gardens, the African-American novelist Alice Walker uses an evocative description of her mother's garden to explain how African-American women of her mother and grandmother’s generations, who were denied a basic education because of the legacy of slavery and segregation, and were therefore often unable to even read or write, expressed their creativity in the only ways they could, often conventional crafts.

Walker raises fundamental questions about what it is to be an artist - many of these women were anonymous and would have never considered themselved to be artists - and concludes that her mother’s art was her garden, describing a type of woman who ‘left her mark in the only materials she could afford, and in the only condition her position in society allowed her to use’.

Walker asks when he ‘overworked mother’ had time to ‘know or care about feeding the creative spirit', and challenges conventional ideas of who can be an artist, saying: "The artist that was and is my mother showed itself to me only after many years."

Like a painter, her mother ‘adorned with flowers whatever shabby house we were forced to live in…she planted ambitious gardens - and still does - with over fifty different varieties of plants that bloom profusely from early March until late November’.

This garden instilled in Walker a love of beauty and art that transcended their poverty. She even implies it alleviated the hardship they had to endure: "Whatever she planted grew as if by magic … because of her creativity with her flowers, even my memories of poverty are seen through a screen of blooms - sunflowers, petunias, roses, dahlias, forsythia, spinea, delphiniums, verbenas".

This special talent wasn't unique to Walker's mother, though - according to Walker, every women is an artist. She quotes Virginia Woolf’s classic feminist novel A Room of One’s Own, which explores the notion that inside every women is the potential to create art, when allowed to flourish.

Walker distinguishes between ‘high’ and ‘low’ art, arguing that inside the traditions that were handed down from generation could be found works of art. She says: "Many of us have spent years discovering it. We have constantly looked high, when we should have looked high - and low."

Walker touches on the rediscovery of craft as an art form in In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens by describing a quilt on display in the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, saying: “It is considered rare, beyond price. Though it follows no known pattern of quilt making, and though it is made of bits and pieces of worthless rags, it is obviously the work of a person of powerful imagination.”

Vernacular art is a common theme in Walker’s writing. In another of Walker’s shorter pieces, the 1973 story Everyday Use, Walker explores the reappropriation of folk art - in this case, quilts again - by scholars and the establishment.

She describes how quilts, whilst stitched from ostensibly worthless scrap fabric, can become more than a sum of their parts, often a stitched history containing within them the story told by their composite pieces.

The quilts in Everyday Use contain 'scraps of dresses Grandma Dee had worn fifty and more years ago. Bits and pieces of Grandpa Jattell's Paisley shirts. And one teeny faded blue piece, about the size of a penny matchbox, that was from Great Grandpa Ezra's uniform that he wore in the Civil War'.

The story raises interesting questions about the value and authenticity of art, particularly folk art. The story is broadly based around the contrast between the old way of life and the new, featuring a mother with two daughters, one of whom, Maggie, stays at home with her mother and another, Dee, who leaves the family home to study.

Dee considers the quilts to be of no inherent value, 'old fashioned' and 'out of style', until she leaves the traditional way of life and realises their value as museum pieces. She reduces the role of the quilts to 'priceless' relics of a quaint way of life that is fast disappearing - once they are removed from the context in which they were made, of course, and hung on a wall.

Dee tries to remove the quilts from their place in the family home and is offended they are set aside to be handed down to Maggie instead of her. She says: "Maggie can't appreciate these quilts...she'd probably be backward enough to put them to everyday use."

She rejects newer quilts offered to her, saying: "I don't want those. They are stitched around the borders by machine." Her mother counters "That'll make them last better", but Dee insists "That's not the point".

The quilts had been set aside to be handed on to Maggie on her marriage, but the artform itself is also passed from generation to generation. Whilst Dee is sent away to be educated, it is Maggie who is taught the craft of quilt making. Even though Dee accuses her mother of not understanding her 'heritage' by keeping the quilts in everyday use, her mother is perpetuating the tradition that enabled the quilts to be made by handing it on to Maggie to keep alive certain aspects of her heritage.

In In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens, Walker pays tribute to her own mother for the gift she left Walker - her mother ‘handed on the creative spark' and instilled in Walker ‘a heritage of the love of beauty’. She acknowledges the debt she owes the women who went before her. She says: ‘Art is her gift, the legacy of respect she left to me, for all that illustrates and illuminates life. She has handed down respect for the possibilities and the will to grasp them.’

In one of the defining images of the essay, Walker describes how her mother’s garden shared and disseminated the beauty she created, just as crafts and traditions are passed on from generation to generation and shared: ‘And I remember people coming to my mother’s yard to be given cuttings from her flowers. I hear again the praise showered on her because whatever rocky soil she landed on, she turned it into a garden. A garden so brilliant with colors, so original in its design, so magnificent with life and creativity that people…came to stand or walk among my mother’s art.’

That's why it's so interesting to see crafts like knitting and embroidery in a gallery setting, in this age of mass production - whether they are created to be used or just conceived as objects of beauty, knitted and crafted goods strengthen the relationship between creator and product. By inviting knitted and embroidered goods into a gallery, the tradition of the handmade is celebrated and kept alive.

In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens can be read here.

Knitted Nature (part of UK DIY)

Touchstones Gallery
The Esplanade
OL16 1AJ


Until September 6


Saturday, 27 June 2009

Manchester Art Crawl

While the Manchester International Festival brings famous names to the city's big venues, a group of artists will be reclaiming the city's forgotten spaces, turning the centre of town into a showcase for new artists.

Like the Venice Biennale, which returned to Venice this year, diverse venues city-wide will be crammed with art of every kind.

Manchester Art Crawl is part of the fringe festival Not Part Of, which runs alongside Manchester International Festival. It will turn unused shops units, deserted office blocks and a couple of bars and pubs into temporary gallery spaces for around 50 up and coming artists, mostly students.

So far, nine venues have been finalised, with more to be confirmed. Visitors will be given a map to find their way around all the venues, which stretch from Deansgate to the Northern Quarter.
The highlight of the crawl will be the opening night, on July 9, which will see artists collaborating with bands, and creative writing students from the University of Salford.

The Art Crawl is the brainchild of five art students at Manchester School of Art, who were inspired by the first Not Part of Festival two years ago and gave themselves just eight weeks to undertake the project.

Organiser Kelly Parish said: "We found that at the last Manchester International Festival there was no Manchester stuff. There was nothing for Manchester people to get involved with.

"We wanted to be part of the Not Part Of festival as you don't have to be particularly established or have a huge budget.

She explained the idea behind the art crawl: "We were bored of the traditional exhibition format and wanted to put on a more interactive event. Everyone and anyone is welcome to come and take part and show what ever they do. There's no selection process or interviews.

"We will be taking over the city centre for one night, turning it into a giant gallery."

Interest quickly spread through word of mouth, and the group have been fundraising with a two week long clothes sale in the Manchester Metropolitan University students' union and a clubnight at Trof.

As second year students, the organisers don't get an end of year show. Kelly said: "It's a shame everything stops at the end of term. There isn't enough excitement about the work we're producing at university. It's often left in someone's loft over the summer or stuck in a skip.

"It's not that easy for people like us to get a show or any exposure, especially not in the centre of town. It takes a long time before people will take you seriously."

Fellow organiser Sophie Coombs added: "It's a chance to make more of a name for yourself."

Kelly explained: "Although we're curating the show, we are on the same level as all the artists. We know most of the people we are working with."

Kelly and fellow organiser Sarah Gaffney have previously had a show at Islington Mill, and Sophie has exhibited her work in the Triangle shopping centre.

Sophie, who says she is especially interested in curating, explained: "We are making our own galleries. It's the perfect time with the recession - we get to use empty units in the Triangle shopping centre.

"When we used the Triangle before it attracted different people, like people who were shopping. There was less of a hierarchy."

"We're getting outside the idea of art galleries as always having white walls and being pristine places where you have to be quiet - those rules don't apply now. Some of the buildings have unusual fittings which we can use to our advantage."

She continued: "We're making art galleries more carefree and fun. We are following our own rules and don't have to answer to anyone. We can be as playful as we want."

Kelly agreed: "You don't have to wait for someone to invite you to hold a show. You find your own show."

One of Sophie's jobs was to phone around estate agents finding spaces for the crawl, many of which were offered for free. Sophie said: "Lots of the estate agents were bored - they don't have much to do at the moment!"

The group were also inspired by a school trip to New York, where they visited the Armory Art Fair and hundreds of fringe events in places like Soho and Williamsburg, where all the private views were on one night and the galleries were open late. Kelly said: "All the galleries were collaborating."

Manchester differs as there are less galleries clustered in one place - but it has abandoned buildings with unlocked potential.

Kelly said: "So many of the venues were bolted, gated and not used. I'm interested in pyschogeography too - the idea of exploring the city and reinventing it, changing the way you use your city and seeing it as a fun space.

"We found one venue and we couldn't believe it wasn't already a gallery!"

Kelly said: "We ask that people try and find their own venue. People can take the initiative - it's like staging your own show within the show, although we are always open to people who need advice or help."

The majority of venues will host group shows. Kelly said: "The different spaces reflect the different artists in different ways. We match artists up with those with similar interests"

Sophie elaborated: "It was a natural thing - introducing people to each other and bringing out the similarities in their work. It's a chance to swap ideas and get involved in each other's shows."

Kelly said: "It's surprisingly easy. You would be surprised by what you can do."

"We were intimidated about approaching people and we kept thinking 'is anyone going to come?' but it's evolved into an enormous thing that's like a festival within the festival.".

They concluded: "You have to be brave and get your foot in the door. We haven't got a reputation so we haven't got anything to lose!"

The Manchester Art Crawl is free and runs from July 9 - July 16. Opening times dependent on venues (check the facebook group for more information).

The preview takes place at the Triangle Shopping Centre, Exchange Square on Thursday July 9 from 5.30-8.30pm

Artists exhibiting include:

Sarah Gaffney
Sophie Coombs
Jo Ormiston
Sophie Titherington
Kelly Parish
Jamie Clough
Steve Beadle
Rachel Ashcroft
Harry Shotton
Gavin Sodo
Rachel Carroll
Elle brotherhood
Helen Collett
Lois Macdonald
Sarah Francis
Maria Kelly
Aneta Jarzebska
Andrew Brown
Daniel Pickles
Helena Barrett
Elinor Taylor
Adam Gimour
Kirsty Durbin
Stacey Groome
David Bray
Fiona Southwellt
Jo Lane
Aziza Mills
Rosanne Robertson
Sophie Lee
Caitlin Howard
Holyanda Phillips
Aimee Allen
Amy Poole
Daniel Taylor
Hannah Dargavel-leafe
Louie Lister
David Gaffney
Sophie Faulkner, Timothy Hughes, Joe Wheatley, Celila McGoldrick (Mizuki's Ashes)

Not Part Of runs from July 2 - 18


Welcome to Rochdale

I went on a daytrip to Rochdale a few days ago. I really liked it, although I was a bit put off when one of the first things I saw was this sign telling me I was being filmed. The sign didn't seem to show the road I was on, or have a 'you are here' sticker, which would have been more useful!

Sunday, 14 June 2009

Rogue Studios Open Weekend

One of my favourite things about Manchester is that, despite having lived here for three years or so, I still hardly know anything about it and am always discovering hidden surprises. One of them is that there is an artist's studios right on my doorstep, in the large knitwear building on Chapeltown Street that's covered in signs like 'Dream Knitwear' (pictured here with a boat called Iris).

This weekend, they threw their doors open to the public and I got to see inside this amazing building, climbing the stairs - layers of red, green, yellow and white paint flaking off the walls - up to a sunlight-flooded warren of studio spaces.

From the two floors of the building they occupy, the view is like a greatest hits of the Manchester skyline, with new layers and skeletons of buildings being gradually clad everywhere you look.

In one direction is Ancoats and and the intriguingly shaped rooftops of Urban Splash's New Islington devleopment, with the hills in the distance.

Directly in front are Piccadilly Train station, the canals of Piccadilly Basin complete with houseboats and even the top couple of floors of the Sackville Street Building and the Old Fire Station at its highest point if you look hard enough, plus the odd shaped roofs of Manchester University's North Campus. At the other extreme is the Arndale and CIS tower.

I spent a while just gazing down over the quirks of the building itself - interior rooftops and courtyards - such as a sign advertising 'A Pleating Co'.

I discovered both Margaret Cahill and Jan Chlebik, whose exhibition of out of focus Manchester enlarged in black and white and placed next to shots of New York I really enjoyed at Artland Gallery earlier last year, have studios here, but these are some of the highlights of artists I came across for the first time at the weekend.

Helen Plaumer's canvases look like line drawings, until you peer closer and realise they are carefully stitched embroideries.Helen is a former set designer at Cosgrove Hall in Chorlton. She has a background in graphic design and has also worked making prototypes for Sindy dolls.Her stitches immortalise moments of every day life like buskers, people queuing to enter a museum, a lady eating spaghetti and shoppers with trolleys. In many of the black and white embroideries, a tiny patch is illuminated in paint - a Gola sports bag on the arm of a nun, the stripes of a bikini bottom in a row of swimmers observed from the back.Helen said, who works by taking photos which become drawings which are then translated into stitches said: "I capture people going about their everyday business. Sometimes I spot something. I don't go out of my way to look for the extraordinary. I paint the point of focus, for example the nun with a Gola bag I saw walking down the high street in Altrincham."I do them a stitch at a time. The image becomes an integral part of the fabric - you can't rub it out."

I was also intrigued by The Obvious Manifesto by Mark Chavez-Dawson, in which actors playing estate agents took a tour group round the brilliant Subversive Spaces exhibition at the Whitworth Art Gallery earlier this year, trying to sell them exhibits such as the Schneider House.

Dave Griffiths, an artist who works with reclaimed film, said: "There's a really good community of artists here. It's good to have a space you can escape to away from home."

His exhibits were based around film reshown in new settings, the most unusual of which was a 16mm reel inside a toy gun from the 1970s - click the trigger and point it at the wall and a different image is projected.

He also used a 35mm projector to show found footage of a man walking a Dalmatian from a 1970s film reel he found in a "rusted old film container" in an abandoned cinema in Clitheroe. The film was projected into the corner of his studio. Dave said: "I'm interested in the tension of the film going from one wall to another.

"I'm fascinated by the degradation of old film - the texture of the scratches. The dirt, dust and scratching is part of the language and history of film - how it's traveled. I'm interested in what's at the edges, overlooked."

One such piece magnified cue dots - tiny dots in the corner of a cinema screen when the film reel changes - under a microfiche reader. Dave said: "They're beautiful but most people don't notice them. Now you will the next time you go to the cinema! I'm like an astronomer of film travelling through the stars and constellations of cue dots."

There was a lot of more conventional photography and painting, of which I found Sue Fox's subversive photography - a series of photographs of genitals with titles like Cunt with Teeth, and Rebbecca Sitar's still, striking paintings of objects like a shell, eraser and stick magnified to fill more of a canvas, and therefore conferred with much more attention than would normally have been given to them, the most interesting.

I would have liked to have had the chance to speak to Maeve Rendel about her photos of rows of magnifying glasses. I also liked Michelle Pouncey's prints of unusual objects like hair clips and Laura Frame's illustrations and books, including a retelling of Aesop's Fables.

I enjoyed some of the 3D work, including Tenneson and Dale's playful Rulers Manifesto, a collection of rulers in different colours according to the political representation of different groups in the House of Lords, and Nicola Dale's collection of flames rising from the open covers of books in a comment on the burning of books throughout time and how it relates to the closure of libraries, rise of the internet and ebooks.

Hilary Jack's Girl In A Party Dress Hanging by A Thread was strangely reminiscent of a woodland scene in a fairytale, suspending a disco ball, twigs and a figurine from a ceiling above a circular mirror that reminded me of an enchanted well. The rest of the room was strewn with glitter and broken objects.

One of my favourite pieces, though, was one which related directly to Manchester, with even its materials drawn from the fabric of the city. Old letters from the signs of Manchester buildings were rearranged - FRAIL was drawn from University of Salford and lit up orange letters rimmed in black boldy proclaimed Manchester Oddfellows was FOR SALE.

Rogue is also hosting an exhibition called All Change, a joint Manchester - Liverpool project, until June 28:

Rogue Project Space
66-72 Chapeltown Street
M1 2WH

Viewing by appointment
Contact Hilary Jack 07957398451
Karen Gaskill 07980924422

The Royal Standard
Unit 3
Vauxhall Business Centre
131 Vauxhall Road
L3 6BN

Sunday June 21-Saturday July 4, open Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays from 11am-5pm.


"They grew down the river, all bloody and wild" - Where the Wild Roses Grow (Ancoats)

It's finally summer. The goslings that patrol the the canal with their parents seem to become less like yellow balls of fluff everyday, getting bigger and more gooselike before my eyes and taking more and more confident steps, and the sunshine is ever bringing new flowers in different colours.

On a sunny Sunday afternoon walk along the Ashton Canal to see what destruction had been done to B of the Bang (more on this vandalism of Thomas Heatherwick's sculpture later!) I spied these wild roses, a few spots of bright colour growing out of a tangle of weeds, an unlikely sign of life against the backdrop of one of the many rows of boarded up houses in this area.

Naturally, I walked the rest of the way home with this song in my head: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8srgfw7GDkM

Saturday, 6 June 2009

Your Mama's Cookin' - Last of term!

Started by two friends with a shared love of rockabilly music, Your Mama’s Cookin’ is Manchester´s most action packed and energetic clubnight.

Draping Tiger Lounge in bunting, village fete style, the night offers old fashioned fun like Lindy Hop lessons, free cake, knitting lessons and card games.

Lora Avedian and Jonny Walsh started YMC at the Lost and Found squat in an old meat market in the Northern Quarter in 2006. They've since taken the vintage sounds of jump blues, rock ‘n’ roll, swing, jive and rockabilly to the Salford Arms, Kro Bar, Trof, the Green Room and, most recently, Sounds from the Other City and Eurocultured.

Lora says: “The idea sprang from my love for 1940s and 50s dancing and music. The night is influenced by the Viva Cake night in London, which I attended regularly. When I moved to Manchester I found myself at a loose end for this kind of event and thought it was the perfect opportunity to bring something new to Manchester’s night life.”

With everyone being encouraged to join in and regularly swap partners, Your Mama’s Cookin’ is ideal for those who want to dance away their inhibitions at the same time as meeting new people.Lora explains: “The dance lessons are a major part to the night, we like to think they are what make us different from any other event in Manchester. We like the idea that you can learn to dance with everyone in the room, and then afterwards, if you feel inclined you can ask someone to dance.”

She elaborates: “Jump blues, early R’n’B, and (later on) rock n roll were the original modern forms of dance music. They reflected a time when young people, en masse, first had the chance to escape the strictures society imposed upon them.

As a result, it still remains fantastically hedonistic music, perfect for a release in the form of dancing.”

Lora continues: “Lindy-hop is one of the most exciting and easy to learn dances from the 40s. There are so many different dances to learn but Lindy-hop is a good introduction.

We also sometimes teach the Charleston to keep people on their toes.”

The classes are taught by Don and Helen Woodwiss. Lora says: “They are a a wonderful couple we met through attending a Lindy Hop class in the Zion Centre. They are passionate about dance, and people who come to the lessons feed off that.”

The night isn't just for dance enthusiasts, though. Lora says: "Part of the appeal of putting on the night is the wide variety of people who come along. You would never think that most of them love '50s music if you saw them walking down the street. That’s what we love about it. You never know who’s going to turn up. We want to open up everyone’s awareness to the goodness of vintage sounds."

Part of the fun is people watching, and attendees often look the part.

Lora says: “Dressing up is a huge part of the evening. We love to dress up. Although we don't push people to do it and we don’t want the night to be too formal, it is certainly good to see strapping men with slicked back hair and dolled up girls with big skirted frocks walk onto the dance floor.”

For those with two left feet who prefer to watch from the sidelines, though, there are live bands every month.

Lora says: "We usually have one live band on at the club night, and two live acts at the bar-sessions in Odd bar. Our favourites include the Momeraths, JD Smith, Zacc Rogers and Serious Sam Barrett."

She enthuses: "Serious Sam's one to watch as he's played a few times now, and is getting better and better each time. His last performance was incredible!"

However, Lora says: "There aren't that many local acts that play that sort of 1940s/50s music we love. Leeds has a thriving scene, Birmingham's pretty good, and there' are the expected number of acts on the London scene. It’s a shame, so if there are any hiding in Manchester’s undergrowth we are willing them get in touch."

Your Mama’s Cookin’ is also a good place to show off your baking, as well as dancing skills, with a bake-off every month which earns the winner a record.

Lora says: “We like elaborate decorations the most. A girl called Lucy Needles made an unbelievable, heart shaped, strawberry decorated, delicious sponge cake a few months back. That one will be hard to top.”

For the less energetic, Lora says the monthly spinoff Your Mama's Cookin' bar sessions at Odd are ideal for anyone who wants a “chilled out Sunday afternoon”.

Lora explains: “The idea with the bar-sessions, on the first Sunday of every month, was to take the music to a new crowd and put the emphasis more upon live music than dancing. It’s also a really comfortable environment for the artists to perform in.”

Your Mama’s Cookin’, Tiger Lounge, Cooper Street, Wednesday June 10 (last of term).

Knitting lessons by Rebecca Manley start at 8pm.