Five artists consider social change, the commodification of housing and living outside the establishment at Sheffield’s Millennium Gallery exhibition
Where We Live, an exhibition at Sheffield’s Millennium Gallery, features five artists who have each worked intensely on one location relating to the idea of home and place. Their diverse subjects, which range from suburban Leeds to Sheffield’s Park Hill estate, are not celebrations of the particularly remarkable, indeed they are quite the opposite. Instead, through repeated scrutiny of a particular subject, they shine a spotlight on the familiar and the everyday – what curator Trevor Burgess describes as the ‘undervalued, unrepresented’ elements of what is all around us, that are so often overlooked.
‘The paintings can help make that seen,’ says Burgess, who is also one of the artists in the exhibition. He hopes that in doing so, the work will strike a chord with visitors.
‘I hope a lot of people will find something familiar that they can relate to – something they maybe didn’t expect to find in an art gallery,’ he says.
And while each set of paintings has its own story to tell, Burgess hopes that viewers may start to discern a thread of political and social themes running through the various communities. Several for example are going through quite severe changes with the resulting social tensions this brings, perhaps through gentrification, industrial decline, or Brexit.
Conceived originally as a two-person, two-city exhibition of work by Burgess (London) and Jonathan Hooper (Leeds), the idea expanded to take in three other artists whose work focuses on different regional subjects. The result is more than 100 paintings, with each artist represented by 20-30 paintings of their chosen subject.
Mandy Payne’s paintings of the grade II* listed Sheffield’s Park Hill are the most instantly recognisable in terms of location, depicting the huge brutalist housing estate between 2012-17 in the early years of its long ongoing regeneration, and again in 2021. Most interested in depicting areas of the estate where the memories and layers of the past are still visible, she was keen to evoke Park Hill’s distinctive character by using materials that have a physical connection to the site. The result is paintings created on cast concrete using roof sealant and both oil and spray paints – the latter perhaps a reference to the graffiti around the estate, which is also prominent in some of her paintings. Burgess describes her meticulous renditions as ‘wedded to the materiality of the place’.
Narbi Price’s paintings of Ashington in Northumberland, once the largest coalmining village in Europe, capture the community in the midst of social and economical change in the long wake of the closure of the pits, which shut in 1988. The idea for focusing on Ashington was initially sparked by his research into the Pitmen Painters, an art group established there in the 1930s by people from the mining community. His paintings, some of which revisited the sites of Pitmen Painters’ work, show a post-industrial landscape, sometimes revealing traces of the past and yet to establish its new identity.
Another sometimes marginalised community is the subject of Judith Tucker’s Night Fitties series of paintings. For the last four years she has been intensively painting the Humberston Fitties, a community of plotland chalets in North Lincolnshire established in the early 20th century as one of the few places at that time where working class people, and sometimes those with counterculture lifestyles, could acquire a plot and build their own seaside chalet. The result was a distinctive community characterised by informal, DIY and vernacular architecture. The artist describes them as considering notions of place and identity, in particular Englishness, and the night time paintings have a slightly eerie atmosphere, bereft of people but in some cases populated by English and Union Jack flags.
Paintings are created on cast concrete using roof sealant and both oil and spray paints – the latter perhaps a reference to the graffiti around the estate
Tucker and Payne have respectively worked with poets Helen Angell and Harriet Tarlo, whose audio works reflecting the residents of Park Hill and the Fitties aim to give those communities a voice alongside the paintings.
Contrastingly, Jonathan Hooper has been painting the residential suburbs in Leeds near his home obsessively for more than a decade. His subjects, often seemingly nondescript semis, are transformed into semi-abstract images through a modernist use of evocative rich colours.
Burgess’s own work was sparked by the wealth of property advertisements published by London newspapers. He began cutting out images, stripping out the contexts of their locations and cost and depicting them in grainy paintings created on unprimed plywood panels. By focusing on the images as homes, he aimed to ‘recover the everyday visual experience of the urban landscape and the notion of home from the commodification of the London property market.’
Delayed by the pandemic, the show will tour to further locations after its stint in Sheffield.