The 154 Collective is a group of artists with varied backgrounds who have come together to collaborate on a variety of artistic platforms, including Theatre, Film, Publications, and Exhibitions. Not only that but 154 is also the number of miles that separate Barnsley and Newham and is the name of a new exhibition currently running at Barnsley’s The Cooper Gallery. This is very unique event celebrates not only the Newham Barnsley Partnership, but the aspirations of the people in both towns.
This is exactly the kind of all-inclusive exhibition I’ve been hoping to see at The Copper for some time and I don’t mean inclusive like the annual Open Exhibition is. I mean inclusive in a way that this exhibition is about everybody.
On entering the exhibition space, you can see that the Cooper has been totally transformed. Not only has the shape of the space changed but also the colour. Long gone are the standard white walls; now transformed into hot pink and a contracting black. It’s simple but stark and a reminder that it doesn’t take much to keep the space fresh and exciting.
In the (very pink) first room there is wide variety of medium on display, including two sets of mounted prose on the wall about experiences of both Newham and Barnsley. As someone who is born and bred Barnsley but has also been lucky enough to live in London for nearly six years, you’d initially assume how different each town is. Indeed, they are both very different in terms of culture, heritage and ethnicity but everything on display here shows actually how similar both are as well.
Hung next to these is a framed photomontage of thirty-five alternating images of Newham and Barnsley town life. It was actually something I’d love to have hung on my own wall and it was only on leaving for the next room that I noticed the skirting board was completely coated with cigarette card sized photographs too.
The back room was solid black and on the floor in one corner was over a hundred (154 maybe?) tiny easels and canvases, each inked images of what looked like royalty. I was aware that 154 Collective had held art workshops with children from Birdwell Primary School and Gallions School in Newham; this could well have been the results of their wares. Each tiny painting has lashings of charm and character and flows perfectly into the next display of five black and white photographed portraits. Each had a brown tag and on each side was a handwritten a story of a life in Barnsley and one of in Newham. Those stories may or may not have belonged to those pictured but I suspect that they belonged to each one of us; a collective we and our collective story.
On the opposite wall, many (154 again maybe?) miniature black and white artworks created using ipads. This was an amazing collaborative effort wherein artists can draw together over an internet connection, wherever in the world they may be. The images of fantastical landscapes have been produced in much friendlier version of cubism; all featuring the interactions of people, animals, transport, buildings, castles and also a crown motif and this all reminds me very much of Keith Haring and Jean Michel Basquiat; one of my favourite all time artists and this is no bad this of course. Basquiat has always been the perfect mix of high and low culture and is the kind of art that everyone from adults to the youngest child can get something from.
Before entering the final room, you are invited to sit down and leaf through a small album of postcards while listening to a recording. Each postcard has a poem-like passage written on the back of it about the town and the recording; a story of the aspirations of a young man and that is generally the idea the exhibition.
Whatever differences there maybe between Newham and Barnsley… and there are many, the artwork on display focuses on the similarities between us and the shared aspirations and hopes; those of our own and those of our children. The juxtaposition of the images of the different towns go on to concrete the shared notions of hopes and dreams (both real and fantastical).
This is shown again the final room, which although I think doesn’t fit into the whole scheme of things as well as the rest of the show, it is still as enjoyable. Four photomontages are made to look like paintings and a digitally painted landscape has a skyline which shares both Barnsley town hall and the equally majestic Newham town hall.
Then there are two strange artworks; one a triptych of images featuring a mythical boat under a sky raining tennis balls, floating down a London river straight into an altogether stormier landscape. Who knows whether or not that stormier landscape is Barnsley but it did remind me of Stanley Donwood’s woodcuts of an post-apocalyptic London. And then there are two very random mixed media works of creatures in a red forest which appear to have absolutely nothing to do with the exhibition but are enjoyable for me all the same as they remind me of the wonderful illustrations of Mary Blair.
There is much I have missed out on, but I’ll leave that for you to discover in what is a highly recommended, thoughtful and interactive exhibition and I hope one of many art interventions to come from the Newham Barnsley Partnership. It is also the highlight of The Cooper Gallery’s displays so far this year.
The exhibition runs from 2nd June to 1st September.