FEATURE: Inside Visual Arts in Middlesbrough | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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Images courtesy of Pineapple Black

Watching the world go by from inside the spacious town centre studio it’s hard not to reflect on the nuances of life. A car stalls in the car park, a shop’s automatic doors open and shut with every passer-by like a municipal metronome and a little boy’s heart balloon blows in the wind; a real life Mackenzie Thorpe. An older man stops and looks in. He leans forward trying to get a little closer as if peering into a parallel universe. Glasses, flat cap, hunting jacket and brown leather brogues; black heels just touching and a stick held behind his back like Burgess Meredith as The Penguin.

Through the glass inside Pineapple Black beyond the vibrant colours and installations of their Godfather Too show that initially catches the eye of our villainous voyeur the technical jibber jabber is all about floor space and spotlights; primary, secondary and tertiary engagement. With such an enviable location (the old New Look unit at the Sainsbury’s end of the Hillstreet Centre) this kind of secondary interaction through the large glass frontage is priceless as curators Bobby and Stephen continue to grow their brand.

As our man peers in he unwittingly mirrors John James Perangie’s Repurposed Painting and Repurposed Heels which stare back at him from the far wall like a surreal reflection; high-heels and corset frame, blue-rinse gloss-drop perched atop like a dayglo beret. To the right a Shaun Elliott abstract piece is somewhere between Picasso and Pollock’s The She Wolf while Bobby Benjamin’s fridge magnet letters (Sentence) that tumble across the model’s face like a floppy alphabet fringe aptly symbolise the collective dyslexia and slow cascade of a collapsing Brexit. Wthtymvdfuck. To the left Cody Sowerby’s Dripping Wet bathes in the equally paradoxical light of a dark room. Who knows what our man makes of it all at the window into the soul.

The old changing rooms are transformed into a catacomb of dark flickers and abandoned ideas as dilapidated monitors on old trolleys bounce dystopian dreams off each other and a row of cubicles are like perforated discourse; strategic mannequins and curtains are physical echoes of the near past and in the dark intensity we are Jonah in the whale. We are Stu Burke, Lucy Farrar, Sam Mattacott, Aimee Louise Suggitt and Thomas Tyler.

From the belly of the beast emerging birth-like back into the expanse of the main floor Jo Stanness’ brutalist images juxtaposed with shards of primary colour jostle with the subtle-shock of Slutmouth’s Arcana and Betti Dooley’s transfixing Chorus Through Discord. Conversely, the tiny vastness of the spaces in between allow contemplation, an almost church-like opportunity to reflect in silence so Matthieu Leger’s Ibis comes upon us in hushed reverence as we sweep around the room, he blends the digital and natural worlds, the built and begat, old and new. Time marches on, the umbilical cord between the then and there while outside a grey man walks a pointless dog.

A week later I was back for the launch of a two day event called Arty Mammy and the whole space had been transformed into a benevolent celebration of Teesside Mums curated by Gilkes Street Artists’ Emma Bennett. Two weeks after that Lidia Lidia’s window exhibit showing Barbie dolls being abused was forced to move inside and made the national news after complaints which only extended the societal metaphor for sweeping these issues under the carpet…




Across town on Baker Street in the chill of early spring dew perpetually hangs from the fairy lights that criss-cross above the cobbles like old telephone wires. On the ground ghosts of old Middlesbrough lurk in the doorways and shadows of the terraced street as the two-up-two-down buildings remain largely unchanged by design, like a cultural worm-hole to the past now occupied by micro-pubs and vintage clothes shops; barbers and tattooists, a Diagon Alley of creatives and proto-businesses. In the musty, wooden bowels of Disgraceland a conglomerate of upwardly-mobile people and young pretenders creak the floorboards against a backdrop of strategically placed salvage furniture and knick-knacks like souvenirs of a bygone industry. Outside, gentrification is craning its neck to get in.

Trashy, cultural, topical; Cold War Steve is one of our finest living artist-provocateurs who has reinvented political satire with what initially seem like absurd postcards depicting current affairs in ghoulish, dystopian fashion. Part League of Gentlemen part disastrous holiday. At the packed preview of Cruel Britannia (his joint enterprise with Sleaford Mods frontman Jason Williams) his socially charged collages are displayed alongside Jason’s post-it notes to society. Eton alive. Chewed up by the wot wot. Rough sketches on top of rough sketches, like Russian dolls or mise en abyme complementing each other perfectly.

Terraces stretch off into the distance, a motorway whizzes over, a rusting car sinks. Sad. And all the while Les Dennis pops out of a doorway and Danny Dyer sits on the back seat of a bus like a post-chav renaissance piece. Where’s Wally for the spice generation. Jason’s commentary like the gallery notes in those soulless square spaces in the centre of town brought to life in glorious cardboard and marker pen, hung up with old jump leads in an otherwise abandoned inner-city terrace. Glorious. And lachrymose. So lachrymose.

I half expect Kim Jong Un to appear with appetizers. Downstairs Jason holds court (‘Steve’ has already left, perhaps, oddly, to see Jason’s band who happen to be playing round the corner) while Jane (who has presided over Disgraceland through a number of incarnations) oversees all, regal and unmoved, gently decadent; she tells me she is recovering from pneumonia. In the master bedroom an off-duty Eugene Schlumberger is discreet behind wide-rimmed glasses and a gaggle of art students sip Red Stripe on the stairs. This is no collage. This is art for everyone; inclusivity that incorporates our lust for celebrity, schadenfreude and news on tap, it’s the paparazzi of politics and social media. Fake news and satire, and all originally in bite-sized, easy to digest tweets that makes Banksy look like the corporate fakery it probably is. Cold War Steve manages to say more in one depiction of celebrity Fray Bentos rolling than all the red-top editorials and micro-blogs since May 2016 put together. Br-Br-Brexit, deprivation tourism, the Non-HS.

Location is key and by placing these cultural icons and international figures into such austere settings the artist is mocking and caricaturing them but also us and our absurd objectifying of even the most incompetent public figures by depositing them in a careworn flat in Hounslow. Or Govan. Or Middlesbrough; and in the old two-up-two-down we really are all Cold War Steve, Kim Jong Un, Theresa May with the funny face (there’s Wally!) and Danny Dyer; but we can all be Jason Williams too, working class hero, all life our canvas, 280 characters or less. And, above all the underlying working class malaise and sadness remains in the juxtaposition of forms and the same sense of defiant melancholy one gets from fireworks and the creeping but unsurmountable passage of time…

When I return a few days later it’s like having my own private viewing, although there was a steady trickle of people through the original art deco inner-door and it was much more rewarding. Gone was the real-life sense of collage and claustrophobic reality of a Friday night. Apart from the house dog and an omnipotent Jane.                             

Where alchemists were born below Cleveland’s hills a giant blue dragonfly across the Tees reminds us every night we built the world and somewhere still someone picks up a brush for the first time and starts to paint…



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