This month’s round-up of exhibitions in East Sussex features exhibitions in the Hastings area.
Electro Studios, St Leonards on Sea
Fri 12 – Sun 14 May
Two shows about painting
Phil King, Neal Tait, Leigh Curtis, Charles Koning, Kiera Bennett, Paul Matthews, Giles Round, Geraldine Swayne, Laura Wormell, Michael Davies
To the Birds
Recent Paintings by Dan Howard-Birt
This exhibition of painting was initiated by Colin Booth of Electro Studios to complement the work of painter Michael Davies from Bexhill. His work is immediate and poetic observational, and transformative watercolour and oils. Davies’s website describes himself as ‘a realist with expressionist tendencies’, and his work is not so much unfinished as finished in a different stage to many gallery works. Having wanted to create this show, Booth called up Dan Howard-Birt, who has such substantial experience as an artist, tutor, art-thinker and curator, to help put together this painting show that centres on Davies’s work.
The show’s title, ‘Man Digging’, is a reflection on the process of painting, of working on paintings. It’s a daily process for those lucky enough to have time to go into the studio, make work, make more work, and turn it over and over, looking for finds in the soil of the works. Dan looked for paintings by artists that shared this kind of process in some way and exposed it in some way. Of course, it’s a subjective interpretation, but all the artists included seemed to believe in the value of being associated with this process of image-making through paint, this turning over of items, looking for whatever speaks to them as being appropriate for their work. Howard-Birt calls these images ‘open’ and ‘open in the sense that they have not already been locked into tight narratives or descriptive verisimilitude’.
I didn’t plan to come to the private view to write about the show, so I did not make a detailed study of each artist, but in particular, I liked a pride-of-place large canvas by Phil King. I enjoyed the use of the rather calligraphic black line on the top surface, reminding me of the technique of Joan Miró, but King has his own vision. The rather sickly flesh patches shining through the greens gave it an interesting colour palette. Other work I liked included the small pieces by Charles Koning. Many of the artists, including my friend Geraldine Swayne, are part of the cohort associated with Turps Banana, an artist-education school that is setting up a new branch of its activities in the St Leonards-on-Sea area and Electro Studios will be a part of this. The quality of interest in painting that is encapsulated in the work shown here reflects that these are not only painters but artists who think about painting through doing.
It’s a practical philosophy.
On the landing is Dan Howard-Birt’s recent pieces. This is a group show of a secret kind in that Howard-Birt has assembled painted pieces, including work from other painters. He describes his process as setting a theme and sending canvasses to artists he selects for his interest in their work who may like to contribute paintings. Those artists send back the canvasses, and Howard-Birt then arranges them, coming up with the final piece or ‘polyglot panel’. It’s an interesting idea but hard to really grasp the composite effect in the narrow corridor that is the landing space at Electro Studios. I hope there will be a chance to see this series in another context that allows more distance for the viewer.
This very stimulating couple of exhibitions makes me confident that the Turps Banana School will encourage a new generation of painting in the area around St Leonards-on-Sea, and I look forward to seeing what these artists get up to, including their future shows with Electro Studios.
After writing this short piece, Colin added this extra background information on three of the artists at my request. I think his response illustrates not only the artists but also shows Colin’s important work in supporting artists who he feels are worthy of attention which they have missed out on.
‘Michael died a few years ago (2020). He had an attic studio in Bexhill for at least 25 years.
He never really received the recognition his work deserved – even locally – and his studio was cleared out, and all his work ended up in a dank garage in Bexhill. Later, half was sold to Hastings artist Jo Israel and the remainder to a shop in Kings Road – where all three pieces in the show were bought (one by me).
Charles Koning works in his top-floor flat overlooking Alexandra Park and is a totally dedicated painter, but so far has had no real success or recognition. He has never had a solo show.
Paul Matthews – also in the show – is 80 years old, prolific but has never had an exhibition before. His paintings are similar in style to Michael Davies.’
A Moveable Feast
19 May – 23 July 23
Rogue Gallery, St Leonards on Sea
Dragica Carlin / Joe Packer / Justin Weeks / Lucy Temple / Russell Heron
The private view is often not a good time to view a painting exhibition – too much drink, too many people. Still, due to arriving as the evening’s opening was fading, through having just come from a ‘Test Algorave’, I was organising at The Observer Building, this turned out to be an excellent opportunity to get a look at this group show and talk to a couple of the artists.
First, I have to commend the choice of Russell Heron, who is creating hyper-real pencil drawings and carbon drawings of ripped, simple portraits. His use of ordinary found materials, i.e. cardboard, casually ripped into suggestions of faces means that when he reproduces these with such care, there is a very cool mix of registers happening. I loved their shiny surfaces of perfection, reproducing these expressive examples of ‘rubbish art’. Very witty, reminiscent of my favourite Saul Steinberg. This was interesting for me, as I had not liked this art remotely, seeing reproductions online and had said how this kind of work wasn’t to my taste. But in person, it was another matter. I was so favourably impressed by this presentation of character and by the quality of the finish, and the integrity of the project. Each piece is evenly finished too, and must take dedicated attention. Heron is represented by Siger Gallery as well, and Jon Siger Baker is a humble and experimentalist as a gallerist. I consider that being represented by both galleries is a recommendation of Russell Heron’s work, if he needed it.
The two artists I had conversations with were Joe Packer and Justin Weeks, and I would like to talk about their works. Joe is an award-winning artist whose reputation precedes him, and he is one of the tutors of the new TURPS BANANA offsite school coming to St Leonards-on-Sea. I accused him of being a bit like David Bellamy, crawling around in the undergrowth in his colourful plantish environments that he paints in layers. Although he didn’t consider that himself, he didn’t seem to reject the interpretation of my reading. I find what speaks to me from his abstract feeling compositions is this quality of feeling immersed in the middle of plants. Packer says that the work in his paintings happens at the level of painting on the canvas, or something like that, as I am paraphrasing. But then yes, he admitted, the plant forms that come from his head are probably relics of memory of looking at plants. Why plants? I’m not sure but are any of us sure where our aesthetic obsessions come from? Don’t know. Sometimes I suppose I know, and sometimes I don’t. Packer seemed to be happy to leave this question unanswered in favour of focussing on the process itself.
The work by Justin Weeks is gestural. Brush marks twisting and writhing. He uses the word ‘energy’, and I agree. We both think it has an animalistic quality to the suggestions made by the paint. But there is no literal animal representation; his marks are more automatic.
I did not speak to Lucy Temple about her carefully constructed geometric tiled shapes or Dragica Carlin about her swirls of manipulated paint. Carlin’s work is reminiscent of cloud forms and mussel shells and is very much about the process of careful paint manipulation, and impossible infinity forms. Temple’s work also suggests a contemplation of eternal values. Although her work sharply finishes, it suggests the continuation of these rhythmic tilings far beyond the artificial end, whether it is the square of the frame or the enforced circle of a mask. The description in the short catalogue uses the term ‘sacred geometric patterns’, which feels appropriate.
These diverse works by five artists stand-alone, inhabiting different worlds, each having an individual emotional response to the energies of life. All seem somewhat philosophical. Hanging them side by side invites the viewer to consider the particular approach of each maker in their personal interpretation of existence as expressed through art. And then the evening is over, and my contemplation is interrupted by the exodus into the warmish May night.
St Andrews Market
1 Waldegrave Street, Hastings
The owners of St Andrews Market are investing in local artists and businesses to create a new go-to destination in Hastings. We have found it an expressive place to create because of the unusual licence we feel to participate in this collective experience. The building gives it a charged resonance. Geraldine Swayne and I are in the unit which formerly housed The Who: Exhibition looking back on the band during the pivotal years of 1969 to 1971, but now the show has gone from the area. The builders have knocked through to a series of back rooms which are revealed in all their original slatted state, and this has been inspiring our group inquiry into ‘More Ghost Stories’.
There’s a multiplicity of artists, a Hydra-headed beast of the bunch hanging out at this marketplace through the summer months. Geraldine Swayne and I are sharing the space with Tim Can and Fumico Azuma from Zusushii Arts, who have been working separately on two installations, incorporating sound and projection, using the structure of the building to construct kinetic pieces. Materials employed include piano/guitar wire (musical strings), metal plates, homemade paper and hybrid sculptures of found materials.
It seems all around murals are starting to go up, and I have been enjoying the completion of the psychedelic Wild West piece on some of the units. Downstairs at the market, the ‘Who Am I’ exhibition displays artwork by Art in the Park participants and facilitators with some first-time exhibitors, and all sales will support ArtsonPrescription.
It’s a unique offering outside of the conventional gallery area, and it has happened as if by magic. And for our artistic experiment atmosphere of the building would lead us to believe it is haunted and strange phenomena have been interfering with our capture of audio and visuals. What happened here, and where is it leading? By offering us this space, this group project encourages us to experiment and delve into the unexplained and connect with the histories and stories of the town in a way that stretches and disturbs our senses.
‘A time portal has been opened – and what is coming through is disorientating and even alarming. It’s a dare to venture, forcing us to open our second sight. ‘ Geraldine Swayne / Jude Montague
Words and photos: Jude Montague ©Artlyst 2023