With artistic knowledge limited to a GCSE in art and having (rather ashamedly) a slight tendency towards responding to contemporary art with the kind of hostility that gives way to muttering “I could have done that” under my breath, I was naturally surprised at the excitement I felt upon entering the Exeter Phoenix and being met with such a wealth of vibrant warmth. Spread across three rooms and showcasing work from eleven artists, this is the Exeter Contemporary Open, an annual exhibition welcomed back by Exeter’s creative hub for a fourth year running.
The walls of display are situated just next to the Phoenix’s reception and bustling café bar, placing them in comfortable proximity to the venue’s art pieces and enhancing the atmosphere of community appropriate to the venue’s aim of cultivating a thriving culture scene in Exeter. This is the ideal backdrop for a collection that boasts such a diverse range of emerging artists and artistic mediums. I wander around the gallery; lashings of blues, dramatic sculptures, and dizzying patterns dance around the small space – I am struck by how many pieces demand my attention and even more so by my willingness to give it.
The use of materials is impressively innovative. Nancy Allen packs wood shavings into polyethene sheeting in her Shavings Bag (2016) piece; the industrial meets the bodily as the form rests in slack folds that conjures up an association with the folds of the flesh. Susanne O’ Haire, meanwhile, makes use of a mirror, wax, hairgrips, and nail varnish in Psychopomp 4 (2017) to create a dramatic assemblage. Her composition is constructed with careful precision, and the piece feels at once both delicate and powerful. Other artists opt for more traditional mediums. The Exhibition’s prize winner, Aimee Parrott, experiments with batik waxing and mono printing; reinvigorating techniques that are largely obsolete in the art world. The result is art that is fantastically bold, beautiful, and fresh.
I come across a particularly mesmerising painting by Gareth Cadwallader. Bath (2015-16), in oil on canvas, depicts an individual lying in a bath, reading a book that has no words, with an expansive view from the window next to him. It is gorgeously vivid, romantic, and hallucinatory (any indie music fans out there may also recognise it as the cover of Tom Rosenthal’s album Fenn!) I got in touch with Gareth to find out more about his work, and he tells me that the hallucinatory quality comes from creating a perspective in which the viewer is immersed into the world of the painting, as though watching the figure in the bath. The real and the imagined become confused as one questions whether this world is simply the imagination of the painting’s character.
I also encountered a film piece by Beth Fox, entitled Easy Easy Easy Easy Easy (2016). It jumps from one scene to another, each one linked together only through the motif of a banana. It is a confounding mystery. I got in touch with Beth Fox in hope of some enlightenment. She explains a banana is placed in every scene to make it seem incredibly significant and in doing so plays upon the human tendency to seek meaning in everything, whereas in this case the reality is that the banana means nothing. The film is an exploration of the absurd, parodying and celebrating trends in video art, whilst the scene of a woman slipping repeatedly on a banana is a remake of a scene from Woody Allen’s 1973 film, Sleeper. Beth tells me that with so much being shared in our internet culture, we are made constantly aware of how unoriginal we all are. However, to embrace this and remake something outright is liberating, there is an honesty in it. I can now appreciate the humour in her film as it is not only a refreshing piece but the negative associations with ‘copying’ feel shattered.
Fiona Curran’s As Colours Pour From Tar (2016) is another arresting piece, as it combines two different modes of display. The canvas on the wall is slathered in bitumen whilst the heap of embroidered fabric sitting on the floor below it is coated in both bitumen and colourful embroidered fabric. The contrast between the natural and artificial are examined here as Curran plays with a naturally occurring material by reshaping it into a lustrous surface and combining it with dissonant vivid needlework.
What is most striking however, is the very use of the two modes, or rather, the space between the two – it is here that the artistic concerns of the exhibition feel epitomised. The Exeter Contemporary Open aims to explore the issues involved in contemporary art practice and in a hyper digital world where everything is shared via social media, where the self is represented through the distortions of intense editing. The distinctions between artificial and natural, original and copy, past and present, real and imagined, feel more confused than ever. I continue my lapping of the gallery, and see that these distinctions seem to be consistently engaged with, and as the relevance of contemporary art begins to dawn on me, my scepticism is fully melted away.
I leave the Phoenix with the intense awareness of just how foolish “I could have done that” is. If, like myself, you have been prone to this attitude and are open to having your mind changed, I sincerely urge you to visit the exhibition. And for anyone else, I highly recommend that you go for an injection of colour and beauty during these greying winter months.
The Exeter Contemporary Open is being held until the 4th November. Free Admission.
Banner by Aimee Parrott
Bath by Gareth Cadwallader and As Colours Pour from Tar by Fiona Curran
*Featured image Easy Easy Easy Easy Easy by Beth Fox
– by Harriet Jarvis-Campbell