OutsiderXchanges at Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art

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Venture Arts in partnership with Castlefield Gallery, Baltic Centre for Contemporary Arts and Contemporary Visual Arts Network has brought together four learning-disabled and four non learning-disabled emerging artists for OutsiderXchanges. The results of the collaboration are on at the Baltic in Newcastle until 31 October. Review by Joe Turnbull.

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David James and Tanya Raabe-Webber ‘Collaboration in Paint’. Photo credit John Leech

Presenting work by learning-disabled artists in mainstream contexts has long been a challenge. Firstly, securing exhibiting space in prestigious galleries is difficult for any artist, and there are additional barriers for learning-disabled practitioners. Then there is the issue of how to frame and contextualise the work so that it can be interpreted by mainstream audiences with a focus on the quality of the art, rather than the artists’ impairments.

On the first count, OutsiderXchanges has been overwhelmingly successful. There are few more prestigious places to exhibit outside London than Manchester Contemporary Art Fair – and the Baltic is undisputed top-dog in the North East, having hosted the Turner Prize in 2011. In terms of contextualising, for the exhibition at Baltic at least, the work seemed to be there on merit, given due prominence for the size of the exhibition.

Countless projects bring together learning-disabled and non-disabled artists but often hit rocky ground when it comes to agency and the power relationship between the two. Venture Arts have taken a different approach, eschewing the usual mentor/mentee relationship and focussing instead on collaboration as equals. And it shows. The exhibition is full of weird and wonderful work, diverse perspectives and working methods and, above all, artistic rigour. It manages all this with tongue firmly in cheek; this is a serious exhibition that doesn’t take itself too seriously.

This approach is best exemplified by the video collaboration between Simon Raven and Jane Louise Graham, whose series of video pieces explores the ‘brand new concept’ of the invisible gallery. The pieces are a riotous lampooning of both the arty-bollocks we are so used to hearing in contemporary galleries and the usual invisibility of disabled artists in such spaces.

‘Invisible Gallery News’ takes the form of a spoof news report about invisible galleries popping up everywhere – everything is invisible from the walls, the artists, the work; minimalism taken to absurdist levels. We hear how Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst had solo shows at the Invisible Gallery before they were famous, ‘as have many other artists whose work will never be visible’.

Horace Lindezey’s work hones in on that universal need for nostalgia by mapping out the places and sights from his schooldays using a satisfying collage of polaroid images and cassette tapes of his memories. The tapes added an air of mystery. I’d have loved to know what is on them, but unfortunately no audio was forthcoming. Throughout the run Horace will be getting audiences to share their own memories of schooldays, adding an interactive element.

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Horace Lindezey and Juliet Davis (close-up). ‘Rudolf Walker (if you could invite anybody in the world to our party who would it be)’. Photo credit John Leech

Traversing mediums with videos, installation, painting and drawing was a particular strength of the exhibition that felt organic rather than forced or tokenistic. For the launch, the group of artists delivered a freeform experimental sound performance to set a madcap tone.

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Matt Girling ‘Intergalactic Building Site (2016AD)’. Photo credit John Leech

Leslie Thomspon’s brilliant pen-and-ink drawings, developed by dovetailing with collaborator, Matt Girling’s own scratching, inky style apparently sold like hotcakes to collectors at Manchester Contemporary. ‘Intergalactic Building Site (2016AD)’ the pen-and-ink rendering of the duo’s idiosyncratic exchanges which grew into an installation piece featuring eye-popping colours, toy dinosaurs and futuristic highways made of household detritus, is one of the exhibition’s undoubted highlights.

Curation is so often the downfall of the final realisation of such projects. What ties these disparate strands of work spanning mediums and collaborations together?

OutsiderXchanges gets away with it and the clue is in the title. Each piece in the show is about dialogue and exchange, whether between collaborators or artist and audience.

If this is by accident or design, I’m not sure, but this approach has also fostered pieces that aesthetically riff off one another. Hats off for that. I’m looking forward to see what this project and its artists do next.

Please click on this link for details of the Outsider Xchanges Symposium at The Baltic in Gateshead on 18 October 2016, from 10am-4pm.