London is firmly established as the heart of the art world in this country: with over 1000 permanent art spaces and more artists per square mile than anywhere else in Europe, this huge, thriving, creative hub of a city seduces and fascinates us Northerners.
But the North of England is working hard to make a name for itself as a creative hotspot. Medium sized, post-industrial cities like Newcastle, Manchester, Liverpool and Sheffield are rebranding themselves as centres for creativity. Big, publicly-funded galleries, as well as smaller, independent art spaces and studios are popping up all over the North, and from them a distinctly Northern style seems to be emerging.
Middlesbrough’s mima is currently showing ‘Chance Finds Us’, a project initiated by Anne Viebeke Mou and Nick Kennedy in 2010.This exhibition showcases eight artists, including Viebeke Mou and Kennedy, based in the North East of England who share similar approaches to the art-making process. The exhibition, according to mima’s curator Alix Collingwood, is a “fantastic opportunity to highlight the wealth of talent and the calibre of artistic thinking that is present in the North East”.
The artists represented in this exhibition use routine and repetition, devising strategies or appropriating frameworks within which they can explore chance and serendipity. Drawn grids, mathematical instruments and imposed rules juxtapose intuitive mark making, random encounters and unpredictability.
Inside the gallery space, the silver-grey light mimics the overcast, gloomy weather outside—a typical day in the North, and the perfect backdrop to the vivid colours of James Hugonin’s ‘Binary Rhythm’. Hugonin’s large paintings are composed of tiny rectangles of colour, picked out from the Northumbrian landscape, and their is a quietness to their vibrancy. Meditative and deliberate, this work systematises and slows the wild and constantly changing colours of the countryside.
Apart from Hugonin, most of the artists showing their work in this exhibition employ to a very minimal colour palette: Anne Viebeke Mou’s faint graphite drawings on paper seem to be particularly modest works. However, closer inspection reveals that her drawings have been made up of thousands of tiny marks. In 2011, she and Hugonin jointly won the ACE Award for Art in a Religious Context, where they were both commissioned to design stained glass windows for St John’s Church in Northumberland. In their works in this exhibition too, a spiritual devotion seems to be apparent in the ritualistic, devout mark-making, and in the light which seems to emanate from the pieces. These artists are influenced by Northumberland’s beautiful countryside, something that I don’t think the London art scene would understand. The English Landscape? Yuck! It’s a heavy topic, reserved for musty old art historians. But Northern artists aren’t let off the hook so easily, they are constantly confronted with the awe-inspiring sublimity of the land which surrounds them. This force has no concern for whether on not it is cliché: it simply persists. These artists have the challenge of addressing it, and speaking from where they stand.
The art scene in the North of England is definitely on the rise and with it is a distinctive voice and style. In fifteen years we will be able to define exactly what that is—but for now, you can just come and feel it forming for yourself.
Middlesbrough’s Institute of Modern Art is in the centre of the town; it’s family friendly, and wheelchair accessible.
‘Chance Finds Us’runs until 4th September.