I travel between repurposed spaces, palimpsests of productivity. Backlit and Thoresby Street are ex-factories, Primary an old school, all now reforged into artist-led galleries. And after several years of operations, they have been blessed with the job of hosting this year’s New Contemporaries.
In the first room of the first gallery, Primary, I am drawn to the paint in the work of James William Collins. It is colourful and textured, with simple cloud-like forms covering the canvas. The strokes are confident, at least in Ffion. Join Hands by comparison seems somewhat lacking and sparse, but maybe this is deliberate. Presence and absence. Ffion is bold and reminiscent of Guston, at a midpoint between his abstract and figurative works. Join Hands however, seems a little hurried but also like its a broken down version of Ffion’s motif as if the artist is operating within a glitch. Whatever I like about other forms of art, I am still pulled viscerally towards painting, and Collins gives me much that I love.
Across the room, Maestro by Kevin Bond presents a corroded remnant of a car, a grease-flecked owner's manual, a faded and dirty print of a holiday snap. A line on a page could be a tracing of a journey. But what was £7.46? And finally in the ensemble, a paint splodge or oil patch. They are all bits of the car, but not the car. An object created like a story in fragments. This is archaeology. It keeps me interested and engaged for a while. It holds me and prompts me to thought and investigation. I think of British engineering and the lost manufacturing sector; dads tinkering on Sunday mornings and day trips to Wales, sticking to vinyl seats and eating sandwiches by the beach. I feel embraced by the Maestro - a good teacher.
Elsewhere in the room, Umbrella Relief by Sophie Giller is playful. I like the squashed forms made into one block, the altered familiar. The title makes me think of the feeling when it rains and one has remembered one’s brolly, the sense of smugness at other people getting wet. But beyond that, I’m lost, left a little flat like the umbrellas.
Aaron Wells video piece is frustrating, but made me laugh. He states the obvious again and again as each scene changes like an exaggeratedly dumb TV documentary. ‘This is a woman in a room. She is not here. She is not here. She is not here. This is a man in a room’. Etcetera, etcetera. But the joke wears thin pretty quickly. I am provoked, which is good, but to what. My only desire is to leave.
My discomfort leads me to look at my surroundings, and I become intrigued by the building I am in. The decaying former school somehow feels more accommodating, more friendly now it has lost it’s original purpose. Where the scream of educational activity was once overwhelming, the silence of an art show allows the walls to speak for themselves. Autumn leaves in the playground sit alongside faded hopscotch squares. No children laugh or scream here now and the school seems to breathe and rest.
I am drawn outside by the huge camouflage inflatable Column by Andrei Costache tethered in the yard. Its attempt to hide itself is defeated by its size and the inappropriateness of its disruptive pattern . The surroundings refuse to cooperate, pitting their reds against the green.
Back indoors, Conor Rogers makes intricate, exquisite paintings, miniatures on such ordinary grounds; a cigarette packet, beer mat, and condom wrapper. Things of the pub. Beer, fags and sex, the English working-class dream. And the scenes depicted, a bull-terrier grinning under the gate, a discarded four-pack ring, litter round a park bench and vandalised bin, give us working-class Britain too. This is poverty, and poor materials. This is the rich beauty of the margins and the lost.
I have always been more interested in the broad strokes of life - why are we here, what does it mean, how does it work and other stupid questions. But more recently I have become fascinated by the small details like those depicted in Rogers’s paintings. I collect several on my way back into the city. A man brushing his hand against railings as he walks, the way a large man delicately holds the fried chicken as he eats. I do this not to look for any meaning, but just to notice and perhaps record them for their own sake.
I want to take my time and look at the details here, to watch the visitors in the galleries, to notice the buildings I am in, but I feel rushed to get around all the work before 9pm when the afterparty starts. And I already feel like I have reached saturation point. I can only take so much art. TV is like crisps. You can keep eating, nibbling away absent-mindedly for hours. But art is like chocolate, a burst of flavour and a sugar rush. Or like steak, dense and nourishing. Either way, you can’t keep eating for long without feeling sick.
Oliver McConnie’s gorgeous and scratchy hand-coloured etchings are a meal in themselves. Crazy demons, exploding heads and giant spewing devils among a broken landscape, show the whole world turned upside down. McConnie’s work wants to tell me a story, one that makes no regular sense, but the unfolding itself is comforting. I am sat by the fire as an old man drips tales from his lips. The hoarse croak, the texture of the words all hold me. I feel like a child finding an illustrated bible in a time before the ubiquity of images. I feel wonder. These works are medieval, grotesque, reminiscent of Grosz and Beckmann, chapbooks and marginalia, but delicate too. Intimate even. These I want to come back to. This is a meal to savour.
A lot of the work is very clever. It speaks to the right audience. Those who know. It makes me feel like I should be better at reading it and that I’m missing a piece when I don’t understand. I skipped the crucial class, or am from the wrong one. Other work is just intrinsically beautiful and requires nothing from me. It just gives. Lydia Brockless’ work is like this. Her simple, mesh structures look like metal, some industrial or construction material, but are made from wool, stiffened somehow and coloured. These forms invite touch, but disappointingly I don’t think I should. The analogues of these forms would be uninviting and cold, but these are not. Though the material lies, I am attracted. These are affectionate works.
More working-class spaces appear through the windows of Backlit, a former factory itself. The backs of terraced houses greet me through the glass, their tiny yards containing just enough air to breathe for a moment while you escape the pressure inside. An abandoned square of coloured letters echoes the playground patterns at Primary, and this one too has lost its children. Maybe they are all inside eating their tea.
I gravitate back to the mesh, like we can just hang out together without the need for words. I look, moving my eyes over the curves and loops, the gently graduated colour, and no harsh gaze is returned, only warmth and acceptance. I could sit inside one of these if I were small enough, safe in the soft cage. They could be named mothers. I feel special like no one else gets it in the same way. How could they? This is our moment.
Over at Thoresby Street I am met by a text that I cannot read, not easily. It shifts and changes slightly so the line I am reading jumps. I can’t quite spot what alters. Is it a word that disappears, changing the configuration, or does the spacing change? My eyes are drawn to the movement, but getting there too late I miss what has shifted. I am left flickering between flickers, stuck in a textual stutter. Scott Mason has created a self-revising text with all the versions shuffling like a rebus. I get into moments like this myself, changing words and paragraph order until I can’t see what’s best. Maybe this is the way to go. Have it all.
Shower Thought by Jin Han Lee gives me pause. It is paint and I feel safe. It reminds me of the work of Gillian Ayres, big, bold and sketchy, but not unconsidered, the strokes quick and confident. But I can’t sit intimately with it as there is too much noise in the room. A video piece and chatter intrude, and this is the problem with these group shows. Every piece is set up in competition with the next. Some loudly clamour for attention while the more delicate ones risk getting lost. Lee’s work doesn’t shout, but it is self-assured. I notice it like the quiet person at a party.
I feel better climbing the stairs to the attic. Silent and cool, I find some rest here from the hubbub of downstairs, rooms full of clinking glasses and talk. This building stands tall, six flights counted as I rise, and separated from all around it, physically and by age. Flats and new technology centres dwarf it, but it holds its own. It is a relic of a former mode of production, an archaeological shard.
If this building is a body, then the attic is the brain and I am in the world of thought and dream. Abri de Swardt’s oneiric offering, I’ll Never Wear Sunglasses Again, is hypnotic, though the language is impenetrable at times. Maybe that is why it lulls me. A conversation takes place between three artists, Paul Thek, Felix Gonzalez-Torres and Derek Jarman, and this feels like one of the latter’s films. All three characters died of AIDS, and I watch the film again to see if the dialogue makes reference to this, but I am still baffled. There is talk of death and reanimation, and the appearance of an ostrich character could point to denial, but no clear message comes forth. Fragments intrude on the screen and work well to keep me alert and aware of the medium. This is something more lyrical than any protest piece of the 80s and it encourages me to not look for simple meanings.
Returning to the ground floor, I stand with Tomomi Koseki’s big clothes. I should like them. I like things made big, that make us feel like a child again. But despite the personal nature of the piece, this feels like an advert or a stunt. I respect what she tries to do with The Body Time Machine. The photo at the side showing the toddler Tomomi is touching, her face full of apprehension as she is shown the world by her parents. I too want to recapture that feeling of being cared for, of feeling safe with some nurturing power, but the body, the warmth that provides the security, is missing. And these empty clothes have no comforting scent. Here smells only of fresh paint.
Sitting in the courtyard out back, finally full to the brim with looking, I want this space to be an artwork. Everything exists in halflight. I stare at the diagonal slats of the fence and through the geometry, I catch glimpses of bodies moving beyond. A low hum underlies the mix of artworld chatter and traffic noise. The revs and beeps are somewhere else, the murmuring visitors are somewhere else. I am somewhere else. Only the fence is here. I feel bereft as the lost object I sought, that special glittering thing that I hoped to find, fails to appear. I want to return to the warm mesh at Backlit. I want to feel the soft/hard structure around me, to feel safely packaged in the still factory. Above me, BioCity looms, silently full of secret knowledge.