Taking a break from reading somewhat bleak reports about the state of funding in the arts, as part of some research into Artists’ Continual Professional Development, I went along to the new exhibition at neo:gallery22 in the Marketplace shopping centre, Bolton. The organisers, neo, are well-known on the Bolton art scene and the neo:artprize 2012 is their first open, inviting entries from contemporary visual artists across the UK.
The 55 works on show were shortlisted from over 350 entries; entrants were no doubt tempted by both the generous prizes on offer and the much-valued opportunity to exhibit their work. Despite its national call, artists residing in the North West produced four of the five winning entries, exposing a wealth of regional talent.
First Prize Winner:
The top prize of £1000 was awarded to Ana Rosa Hopkins of Rogue Artists’ Studios, for her sculptural bowls and plates. ‘Manchester (09/08/2011)’ is made from glass collected after riots in the city last summer. Hopkins emphasises that materials can be reused but they maintain an element of their past; her work reflects Beuys’ ideas about ‘Social Sculpture’ and, for me, Pierre Nora’s notion of ‘lieux de mémoire’ (where objects can, metaphorically speaking, ‘hold’ memories). Hopkins reminds the viewer that beauty can be found in chaos.
Helen Knowles, who has a studio at The Hotbed Press in Salford, won the Great Art Prize of £500. Her ghostly pixilated ‘Allingeburt/unassisted birth’ is created with experimental screen-printing techniques, using digital projectors to manipulate a screen-shot from a YouTube video. Knowles presents women in the moment before their role as mother is fulfilled. She brings home birth, a usually private and intimate domestic moment, into public space and consciousness, while at the same time, considering issues of censorships in social media.
Tiago Duarte’s series of prints ‘Black Out White’ won £200 of vouchers from Ken Bromley Art Supplies. Like much of his work, ‘Black Out White’ is about the process of printmaking and, through the simple medium of black printing ink on white paper, evokes questions about reproduction and individuality.
The final two prize winners were Matthew Spencer, who was awarded 12 months neo:associate membership, and David Ogle who received a special recommendation. Through the manipulation of their materials, these artists remind the viewer to question the nature of representation. Spencer’s meticulous hand-cut MDF lattice work in ‘Old Church in Woods’ (49) and ‘House in Woods’ (50) has to be seen in close-up to be fully appreciated, which is perhaps no accident; Spencer’s landscapes begin with images from the media and the internet and critiques notions of what is real/imagined, natural/unnatural. Raising similar questions, Ogle’s ‘08013’ brings the familiar two-dimensional properties of the drawn line into the third dimension using fluorescent fishing line and ultraviolet light. He manipulates, maps and fixes these lines in space yet as the viewer moves through the work, the perspective changes and the sculptural work appears reduced to flat lines on a two-dimensional surface.
Material and process are strong recurring themes throughout the exhibition. Loraine Morley’s 52 papier-mâché bowls were made weekly over a year using a selection of found materials. There is a strong emphasis on documentation, where the making process and use of materials is as important as the end product. The ‘memories’ of the recycled materials are evoked through both the labeling photographs and traces of them remain in the various scents that are emitted as the viewer passes by. Performative processes were evident in a number of works, including Naomi Kendrick’s ‘Mushroom/Dan & Dave Improv’ was drawn to music, Frazer Price’s video installation ‘Boat (with oar)’ and Alexia Mellor’s photographs of her performance intervention ‘Extending the Friendly Skies’.
Some entries may have benefitted from the optional addition of a written statement (a topic of continued debate in arts and curatorial circles). While some view labels as narrowing interpretation, they can also assist audience engagement with contemporary visual art and particularly in locations, such as this shopping centre, that attract a wide range of visitors from various backgrounds. Such issues remain contentious, but this exhibition is successful on many levels. For entrants, having their work viewed by judges Kwong Lee, Director of the Castlefield Gallery, Manchester and Aileen McEvoy, the former executive Director at Arts Council England, and subsequently shortlisted and exhibited, is in itself a valuable opportunity. It is this kind of artist development, primarily through the provision of studio and exhibition space, that the exhibition organisers aim to provide.
As we enter a period of deepening cuts in national and regional arts funding, the number of avenues through which emerging and mid-career artists can promote their work are likely to be reduced; the empty retail units in the Marketplace shopping centre also reflect the current economic climate. This exhibition shines a light in troubled times. It shows what artist-led groups can achieve and in turn how creative initiatives can benefit the local community. neo:gallery22 breathes life into an empty retail unit and in addition to celebrating the talent of the shortlisted artists, the neo:artprize 2012 exhibition brings contemporary visual art to the shoppers of Bolton and flags this town as a place to watch on the national arts scene.
My visit began as a detour from reading about arts funding cuts, but transformed into a timely reminder of what can be achieved when artists, arts professionals and arts organisations work together.
The exhibition continues to Saturday 28th July at neo:gallery22, The Marketplace, Bolton. For details see: http://www.neoartists.co.uk/artprize.asp
Dr Alison Slater lives in Bolton where she graduated from BA (Hons) Textile/Surface Design in 2004. She completed her MA Textiles (2007) and her theory-based PhD (2011) at Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU). She is currently an Associate Lecturer at MMU and the Interviewer-Researcher for a project into Artists’ CPD in Greater Manchester co-funded by Castlefield Gallery, Manchester and MIRIAD (Manchester Institute for Research and Innovation in Art and Design.
 See ‘Memory Remains: Les Lieux de mémoire’ in Nancy Wood’s (1999) Vectors of Memory, Berg; Oxford, Chapter 1, pp.15-37.
 The video for ‘Alleingeburt/unassisted birth’ can be found at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a3ANtPxI3pE. For more information about Knowles’ work, see: http://www.helenknowles.com [Accessed 22/06/2012].