This Stuff Matters

“There is a moment at the end of many group shows where artists, buoyed up by the adrenalin of a good exhibition, pledge to repeat the experience. Usually we all agree, hug, depart and nothing happens. This time was different.” Alexandra Harley LG

The artist and writer John Bunker curates many of the exhibitions at the Unit 3 Project Space in Bromley by Bow East London, John had asked me to take part in a show he was curating, I was his guest artist and I would ‘bring’ someone with me to show alongside. He asked for an artist he didn’t know. After thinking long and hard, I approached the sculptor Sheila Vollmer as a complete contrast to my work. Her clean and precise lines with a more geometric feel created a strong distinction with my own more organic, fluid sculpture. We were all delighted with the show, so much so, John asked if I could do it again, this time with 3 other artists. I like a challenge and I thought ‘Ah, OK…..’ and ‘Testing 1,2,3…..’came about. The work needed to be small and abstract and I wanted to convey a homogenous group with disparate but distinctive sculptures. The juxtaposition of all our sculptures in the gallery would create a dialogue between the different pieces and open up contrasts and crossovers, aesthetic, technical and /or material. I started looking about; it might have been easier just to select local chums but I also wanted to bring in artists from beyond the M25. Creating my shortlist was an interesting process but it quickly became clear to me that the four of us could make an interesting show together. Thankfully Gillian Brent, Jill Gibson and Sheila Vollmer agreed to join ‘Testing 1,2,3….’ and we were all, John Bunker too, really pleased with the show.

It was obvious at the PV – remember those? – that we had created a diverse exhibition by artists each with a great track record and each having a thoughtful practice based on years of expertise. The group hug – pre social distancing- was full of ‘let’s do this again’.

The other artists did not know each other, I was the connecting link so when I began thinking about us as a group, the ‘what next?’ was something I wanted to explore further. I wanted to have a reason for continuing, I did not think just being buddies would be enough; why should we four sculptors show together and how would we bring our differing practices together coherently when we were away from the John Bunker ‘Testing’ umbrella? Between us we have almost 150 years of experience in sculpture, and having graduated in the 80’s, our careers have seen enormous changes. We are the pre digital generation and the art world has changed beyond all recognition since then. Aside from suddenly feeling really old, our personal ‘what next’ could throw up some very thought-provoking directions and the story of our individual relationship with the changes we had lived through would be very interesting. I wanted to capture this experience and the simplest way to do this was to record a discussion alongside a show. I had struck gold as soon as the others started talking!

We had a broad agenda, largely so that the others could get to know one another. This was helped by the exchange of enthusiastic emails while we were looking for a venue and to identify some discussion points. We agreed that we didn’t want a prescribed agenda, we needed something more fluid and a discussion that allowed us to explore ideas and share experiences. We have all been engaged in education and we have experienced a massive change in the gender balance in staff and students. This has started to make changes in the art world and has affected how we see our place in it and how the art world views women. Technology too has made enormous differences; digital cameras and the internet has transformed how we can now make applications for exhibitions and other opportunities around the world. We can connect and exchange ideas, with anyone, anywhere anytime and we don’t have to just rely on the private views, pubs and cafes to meet anymore. Even welders are not the huge beasts they once were.

Lockdown was timely giving us time to finish transcribing the discussion complete with all the ‘um’s’ and ‘er’s’. It has been edited to be a coherent, largely faithful document which will accompany the recordings as they make their way into archives. More re-working is underway as we further edit the discussion into themes which we hope to be published and we will be editing further for a podcast.

Another meeting/pop up show and discussion had been planned for October in Cullercoats, North Tyneside at the gallery space in Jill Gibson’s studio but this was halted due to C19. We have no idea when we might be able to reschedule this, but we have made a short film (see below) highlighting some of what we had planned to show and discuss. So, like all artists, we are trying to find new ways to meet our audience and to develop our personal practise. We all need to see our work ‘out there’ and, like everyone else, we are trying whatever we can to maintain and enhance our personal practise during this unique time.

Alexandra Harley LG, 2020
Photography of Opening Matters by Peter Griffiths
What’s That ? an on-line exhibition by This Stuff Matters, a group of four female sculptors based in the UK.