Conversations Series II: Other Transmissions

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Conversations Series II: Other Transmissions is a project led by Venture Arts in partnership with Castlefield Gallery and the Whitworth, the second in Venture Arts’ four-part Conversations Series. An exhibition of the work from this collaborative residency is on show at Artlink in Hull from 30th March to 22nd June. Review by Gill Crawshaw

A brightly coloured pen drawing

Andrew Johnstone, Untitled, Posca pen on cartridge paper, 2018. Andrew’s interpretation of a photograph of Joe Beedles performing at the Whitworth

This is not a straightforward exhibition. I’m not really sure how to describe it, although I do know that there’s some intriguing work here and, perhaps more excitingly, I have a hunch that there’s better to come.

Conversations Series II: Other Transmissions in its current iteration at Artlink, features new work by six artists, a diverse group of learning disabled and non-learning disabled artists, that was created during their five-month Venture Arts residency.

Venture Arts, based in Manchester, carry out interesting and innovative projects which promote the work of learning disabled artists. Residencies which bring learning disabled and non-learning disabled artists together, to learn alongside and from each other, are proving to be an effective way for artists to develop and collaborate.

This time, the artists have responded to the Musgrave Kinley Outsider Art Collection, held at The Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester. Selected works from the collection are shown alongside the new work in Other Transmissions.

I was looking forward to seeing works from this renowned (if controversial) collection, including work by Henry Darger and Judith Scott, in a northern community arts organisation’s gallery. But I’m surprised by how diminished they appear in this exhibition. Occupying one side of the gallery, I find these artworks, with the exception of Scott’s imposing wool-wrapped sculpture, rather muted and unengaging. Instead, I am drawn to the other side of the room, where light, colour, sound and energy are in abundance.

white calico suits are pinned to a gallery wall

Frances Heap, Cocktails Suits, Marker on Calico, 2019

Artists Joe Beedles, James Desser, Amy Ellison, Frances Heap, Andrew Johnstone and John Powell-Jones visited the Musgrave Kinley Collection as part of their residency, but I don’t feel a very strong connection between their work and that of the so-called Outsider Artists. Instead, the often-contested label of ‘Outsider’ has provided the residency artists with a rich topic for discussion, and the debate around this and other labels has informed much of the art that they have produced.

This is particularly apparent in James Desser’s installation Isolating Liberating. The audience is invited to spell out words with ceramic letter tiles that evoke isolation or liberation. I was mesmerised by the film of this work, that presumably shows Desser’s word choices: words like ‘lonely’, ‘excluded’, ‘remoteness’ contrast with ‘good weather’, ‘creativity’, ‘independence’ and ‘freedom’ (this word repeated several times).

There is a series of films on show, which all the artists have contributed too. The briefest of these, Amy Ellison’s Sea and Sky, is a fleeting delight, adding a new dimension to her paintings.

The theme of being an outsider is reflected in Andrew Johnstone’s drawings. They are bold and colourful, but often show a single character on a white background, emphasising their isolation.

bright red sculpture of a monster with a large red mouth

James Desser, Weird Heads 2 – Devlish Dave, 2019, Enamel painted buff school clay.

In contrast, by collaborating and responding to each other’s work, the artists show that being an outsider can be a source of strength. So John Powell-Jones’ arresting Hobgoblin Costumes that greet you as you enter also appear in Johnstone’s drawings. And I wonder if these drawings influenced the pattern on Frances Heap’s Cocktail Suits or Desser’s Weird Head and Monster Costume Hand sculptures? Or perhaps it was the other way around?

There is memorable work, yet the exhibition as a whole feels confusing. The large amount of written information available, including a booklet, wall text and labels, contributes to this and I struggle to grasp the meaning of some of the text.

Focusing on the artwork instead, Conversations Series II: Other Transmissions clearly shows the artistic journeys that the six artists have been on throughout the residency, together and as individuals. The resulting self-reflective, energetic, experimental work points the way to exciting future developments.


Conversations Series II: Other Transmissions continues at Artlink Hull until 22 June, 2019

Click here for more information about the residency.