Reviewed: 4th Annual Empty Shop Open

There are four bulbous cocoon-shaped brown entities hanging from the ceiling of Empty Shop’s main exhibition room, suspended by thick brown strings, their bases dripping a dark treacle-like substance onto what appear to be miniaturised sand dunes (or just piles of sand) spread out on the wooden floor. In the Pink Room next door, the artist Neil Armstrong’s site-specific installation entitled ‘Today I’d like to lie down and become a wasp’s nest’ is garnering further attention as people contemplate the stand-alone structure consisting mainly of what seems to be wood and patterned cloth nailed together.

I’ll be honest – installation art is not entirely my cup of tea, doesn’t really float my boat, light my fire, whatever clichéd expression you’d choose to employ. It might just be a sign of my philistine nature, or sheer mental laziness, but I’ve always preferred the more clearly-categorised (to my mind) types of art as opposed to that which I feel simple perplexity when faced with. Jenny Saville over Tracey Emin; Hockney over Hirst any day (both of my choices, Saville and Hockney, being mainly painters – no surprises there). This being the case, having stepped inside the tiny collection of rooms that is Empty Shop only to be faced with attention-grabbing installations (albeit with other more traditional forms of art hanging in the background), I did endeavour to keep an open mind and take the art as it was, which is arguably the best advice I can give to anyone looking to get themselves down to the Empty Shop Open and experience the latest Durham’s art scene has to offer.

Carly Baker’s ‘Feeding Frenzy’

Grame Patterson’s ‘Stick it back on or replace it’

And you really should. As the title of the exhibition suggests, the Open showcases works of art of any media in the headquarters of the unaffiliated, completely independent Empty Shop (a local Community Interest Company and independent arts organisation). Any and all artists based in the area were invited to apply, and this 4th Annual Open showcases some exciting products of the local North East art scene. Apart from the aforementioned cocoons (entitled ‘Colony’) and Armstrong’s offering, other works that stand out include Grame Patterson’s whimsically-titled ‘Stick it back on or replace it’ and Carly Baker’s painting ‘Feeding Frenzy’.

Both halves of the installation ‘Colony’

The latter is especially hard to miss (after you drag your eyes away from the oddly mesmerising dripping treacle of ‘Colony’); fusing vivid block colour – deep purples, turquoises and olive greens with graphic subject matter, the style and content of the piece make it doubly prominent. The title gives the clue as to the main theme of the painting – the insatiable human appetite. Baker depicts the expected mother and baby breast-feeding combo, but then takes the premise of depicting ‘appetite’ to its extreme; her almost caricature-like figures are seen injecting drugs into their eyeballs, ravenously demanding blowjobs, pumping milk from bulbous cow-heavy breasts, lying with mouths gaping monstrously open. It is attention grabbing to say the least, and a different take on modern consumerist culture. Or at least that’s how I read it anyway.

In comparison the rest of the artworks seemed relatively tame. Andrew Wood’s ‘Wildlife of the Metropolitan Borough of Sunderland’, a hand-made book describing in prose and depicting hand-illustrated images of (as the title states) the various creatures local to Sunderland, has a certain charm but ultimately in my opinion felt a bit bland, especially when contrasted to Baker’s painting hanging directly opposite. Grame Patterson’s ‘Stick it back on or replace it’ was more thought provoking, with the title emphasising the ‘found’ nature of the materials used – flat-pack dolls house furniture, balloons, pound-shop aerials. Like Armstrong’s installation, the raw quality evoked by the use of found materials was ultimately perfectly in keeping with the minimal, stripped-back, bare aesthetic of the Empty Shop rooms themselves. The addition of the written instruction ‘If anything falls off, stick it back on or replace it’ again seemed to emphasise the throw-away, disposable nature which characterised most of the artworks in the exhibition.

Of course, all of these readings are my own subjective interpretations. I was lucky enough to get to talk to Nick Malyan, one of the two founders of the Empty Shop intiative, as well as the artist Neil Armstrong (who did the Pink Room installation); both of whom were present at the preview and both of whom very patiently and kindly put up with what must have seemed very naïve responses on my part to the surrounding artwork. Malyan offered an especially intriguing insight to the ‘Colony’ installation, suggesting that the sand dunes beneath might evoke those of the Middle East, which, when combined with the black treacle, might call to the mind issues to do with crude oil supply, and then the title ‘Colony’ might again call to mind issues of the West-(Middle) East divide and so on. I guess that’s the thing with installation art of this sort – you have to understand some sort of concept (whether that intended by the artist or not) in order to get something out of the bunch of materials in front of you. In the same vein, when asked what exactly his piece meant, Armstrong nodded in agreement as his companion, another local artist, replied (Insightfully? Annoyingly cryptically?), “What do you think it means?” – I suppose in the end, you’ll just need to go down and experience the art for yourself. At the end of the day, the Empty Shop Open is not going to be to everyone’s taste. However it is a unique opportunity to see the best of the local art scene, and amongst the strange and the puzzling are a few truly thought provoking works.

Empty Shop: 4th Annual Open Exhibition is on from 28th Jan to 5th Feb, 12–4 pm, at Empty Shop Durham. Entry is free.

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