Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Ceramics by Halima Cassell

Dreams Made Manifest

Anyone bringing ceramics to these parts should be prepared for a friendly reminder that we have more then enough clay beneath our feet. Not that Halima Cassell has anything to fear. The Blackburn artist’s eye catching work ensures she’ll never be accused of carrying the proverbial coals to Newcastle.

As recently noted in Art Daily ceramics is once again making an impact on the international scene as a new generation of artists breathes life into the centuries old material. Having exhibited extensively both in the UK and internationally Pakistan born Cassell’s latest collection, fusing history and tradition with contemporary flair, is her biggest solo show to date.  

Blurring the line between raw material and finished work she prefers to leave her ceramics unglazed allowing the clay to provide the colour while the interaction of light and shadow on the deeply carved surfaces adds a sense of drama to her multi-faceted dish-like forms.

Unsurprisingly the influence of her Asian background is evident throughout but so too is a fascination with the artistic heritage of other cultures ranging from African design to Neo-Gothic architecture. Traces of Modernism in the shape of Hepworth, Modigliani and naturally Brancusi are also apparent.

Perhaps less obvious yet equally interesting are subtle shifts between organically feminine forms and robustly masculine ones. This playfulness appears to be a feature of Cassell’s work - a mixture of the structured and the fugitive - a fusion of parallel planes and flowing lines.

Alongside Cassell’s trademark ceramics are recent pieces in other materials – stone, wood and most notably bronze (and here the ghost of Brancusi looms largest) - pointing towards a diversification of her practice and a growing concern with sculptural form.

This exhibition deserves to be seen in North Staffordshire. The days of large scale pottery manufacturing may be over but with so many of us able to say ‘my grandmother was a ceramic artist’ Cassell is guaranteed to find a discerning audience - just don’t expect any cups and saucers.

Halima Cassell: Dreams Made Manifest continues at Newcastle-under-Lyme Borough Museum and Art Gallery until May 8.

A version of this post originally appeared in the gO supplement of the Sentinel 25.03.11

Friday, 11 March 2011

Lament for a 1970s Record Shop

Twenty years ago they were an important part of our culture and community with over 2000 of them to be found on High Streets up and down the country. Today new technology and changing consumer habits have made them a rarity with another one closing every week. I’m talking about independent record shops of which, according to a recent book by Graham Jones, there are now less than 300 remaining.

To anyone for whom Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity strikes a chord this is a sorry statistic. Much of my youth was spent in these places rummaging through racks of alphabetically arranged and beautifully packaged vinyl, donning headphones to listen to some obscure American garage band while anticipating the thrill of getting it home, dropping it on the turntable and whacking up the volume.

There are many long vanished favourites I could mention, recalling in obsessive detail which classic single or groundbreaking album I first discovered in each but there’s one in particular I want to discuss both for the fond memories it inspires for being the first of its kind I fell in love with and because the more I think about it the more surprising it seems that it ever existed at all.

The first surprise is its location. Porthill View is a terraced street well outside the town centre which in the 1970s was dotted with barber’s shops, butchers and newsagents. Further along an eternally optimistic aunt sold wool from a drab establishment that was always teetering on the edge of going bust until one day it did. There may even have been a pet shop. Some of these businesses survive today but not the one where I spent my pocket money. Curiously winter evenings feature in the bulk of these memories. Headlights piercing the  after-school gloom, the glow from the window illuminating wet paving stones and reflected in frozen puddles, as though the sun never shines on Porthill View. Which of course it did and does.

Leaning my bike against the wall I push open the door and step into the familiar warmth where I discover the second surprise. Instead of finding a young man, long hair swaying back and forth as he nods along to Deep Purple or Led Zeppelin, a silver haired old lady slowly makes her way out of the back and takes her position behind the counter. The lads at school call her Mrs Sharples but I’m not convinced this is her name. Above her head album sleeves it’s difficult to imagine her being familiar with are pinned to the wall - Ziggy Stardust, Dark Side of the Moon, Transformer. Next to the tiered record racks stands a revolving cassette display that squeaks as it turns.

Most of the time I’m alone in the shop and exchange no more than a polite smile with the old lady but on other occasions gangs of older kids, trailing a cloud of patchouli and cigarette smoke, descend noisily on the premises. The boys are wrapped in Afghan Coats and fading denim while the infinitely better dressed girls flaunt sprayed on bell-bottoms, polo-necks and orange cork platform sling-backs. On these occasions, like a benign bird of prey, the old lady’s eyes follow every move the intruders make as they rummage through boxes of ex-chart 45s with a disinterest I don’t yet understand.  Naturally they ignore me and I don’t say a word.

On the day the new chart is announced on the Radio 1 lunchtime show I watch the old lady arranging the top twenty display on a notice board with tiny holes into which she presses molded plastic letters. Sometimes they don’t fit properly or there are characters missing. It takes her a long time. Although the suppliers  provide ready printed versions these days she prefers to do it this way. It’s what my customers  expect she says.

Tiger Feet, Rubber Bullets, Teenage Rampage - Bohemian Rhapsody, 48 Crash, Waterloo.  These are just a few of the hits that make it onto the board. One day I ask for Substitute which has been re-released and made the charts. She shows me something that looks like an LP explaining it’s one of these new 12” singles and I should play it at 45rpm. It has I’m a Boy and Pictures of Lilly on the B side. It’s the latest fad she tells me slipping it into a plain paper bag.  Next come the Beatles and the Kinks and a profound regret for having missed out on the 60s, which a bookish neighbour tells me  were  laden with so much more substance than the grey and empty 70s, but things are about to change.

Discovering Dr Feelgood I begin to outgrow the adolescent exclusivity I share with the shop and embark on simultaneous relationships with cooler, hipper outlets where I’m introduced to similar disaffected bands who like to play fast and loud. When the Sex Pistols release God Save the Queen I notice the old lady leaves the chart position blank. There’s no number two during Jubilee week, no molded plastic to upset the establishment and spoil the party. Later she negotiates her distaste for Never Mind the Bollocks by covering the offending word with a topical hand written sticker saying BUS STRIKE. This is the last memory I have of the place and it still makes me smile.

I don’t know what happened to the old lady or her shop after this but one day it just wasn't there anymore. Did I miss it? I’m not sure. As I’ve said I’d already moved on but I miss it now. I miss the way places like this became the focus of so many teenage lives and I’m sorry that so few remain. There’s no future Johnny sneered but he was wrong. It’s just that records you can’t hold in your hand are a development we could never have foreseen.

Surprisingly vinyl enjoyed the biggest growth rate of any music format last year. Enthusiasts and the curious alike should visit Rubber Soul Records in Stoke Town.  A twenty first century Independent Record Shop.

Jones, Graham. Last Shop Standing (Whatever Happened to Record Shops) 2009

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

March Diary Dates

Erasure and Journeymen

The growing popularity of museum apps, guiding visitors around many of the world’s greatest art collections, is the latest response to a thorny question facing curators in today’s image saturated world. How do you retain the attention of a contemporary audience that increasingly demands to be entertained as well as informed? 

Addressing this question raises others of course. Do museums and galleries (particularly in times of austerity) occupy the same competitive cultural space as cinemas and other popular attractions? And if you’re inclined to agree with this question isn’t there a danger that too great an emphasis on accessibility could essentially devalue the museum experience? Ultimately the question may come down to whether or not you believe it’s the role of art to entertain at all.

If these were factors in the planning of Erasure, a new media exhibition currently running at the Potteries Museum, the curators must be congratulated in having succeeded in striking a more or less perfect balance between presenting a show that is not only accessible and entertaining but avoids the traps of either shoehorning work into the theme or trivializing the content.

They are helped in this respect in that new media lends itself to this type of presentation. While there are elements that wouldn’t look out of place at a gaming expo (and this is not meant as a criticism as, here, fun is part of the appeal) the words of Walter Gropius greeting the visitor at the outset clearly set the tone of cutting-edge integration that follows.  Art and Technology – A New Unity.

There’s no doubt there’s a pleasing unity to this show and many reasons to commend it but perhaps the highest praise I can offer is to return to the initial question and say that, above all, it grabs the visitor by the collar and demands attention. Having done so it then provides a friendly pat on the back and says ‘enjoy’ and one of the most enjoyable aspects of Erasure is observing the reaction of the audience itself.

Whether sitting at computer terminals interacting with the generative art of ZenBullets, marvelling at Michael Shaw’s 3D doodles or simply getting to grips with the elusive surface of Toby Ziegler’s acrylic Je t’adore, Baby it’s a pleasure to see both adults and children (who no doubt feel they have a greater understanding than their parents) so clearly engaged with the experience. http://www.erasureexhibition.org.uk/

Similarly engaging is the work of Antti Laitinen and David Blandy featured in Journeymen at AirSpace Gallery.

Laitinen’s work pits the artist against natural elements and materials in a battle in which both he and the landscape are pushed to the limits of endurance. In a video showing on one wall a frozen lake is taken apart by a chainsaw and slowly reconstructed into a monolithic structure of ice blocks.

Another piece shows a block of ice being towed across a lake by a small boat (the same block, the same lake?)  presumably slowly melting and returning to the waters from which it was formed.

Sometimes it’s easy to pass pieces like these and then forget all about them but something about Laitinen’s work lingers in the memory and it’s more than the sound of the chainsaw echoing around the gallery.

Maybe it’s something spiritual. Or maybe it’s something to do with our attachment to the landscape and nature, the knowledge that we’ll never quite master it. The ultimate futility of Laitinen’s quest.

Blandy’s work is very different but in a way involves another kind of quest, this one a search for identity  (or multiple identities) and, he, in particular hands the initiative to the audience with an invitation to join him on his journey.

Playfully appropriating the imagery of geek culture he has created an adolescent environment populated by superheroes and avatars in which his alter ego, the Lone Pilgrim, recurs in posters, action figures and an arcade fighting game offering the visitor a choice of identities.

Further delving into the mythology of popular culture a video piece explores the legend of the Mississippi Delta Blues offering echoes of Robert Johnson and diabolical figures encountered at the crossroads after dark.

Finally, in The Child of the Atom, Blandy’s hyper-real journey concludes by considering the relationship of the Hiroshima Bomb to his own existence in a thought provoking and often moving piece of film and animation that is both personal and universal.

To compliment this exhibition AirSpace Gallery is providing the opportunity to talk informally to Blandy about his work. In Conversation with David Blandy takes place on March 12 () Admission is free. www.airspacegallery.org

Journeymen and Erasure are both organized in conjunction with the Stoke Your Fires festival and continue until March 26 and May 2 respectively.

Elsewhere a mixture of hand and machine stitched pieces from ten contemporary textile artists including the award winning Debbie Smyth opens on March 5 at the Shire Hall Gallery Stafford.  Drawing with Thread continues until May 1.

At the Chancellor’s Building Keele University the Three Counties Open Photography Exhibition continues until March 26 while at Burslem School of Art a collection of watercolours, acrylics and collages from local artist Margaret Wilson can be seen until March 18.

A version of this post originally appeared in the gO supplement of the Sentinel 25.02.11