Thursday, 27 August 2015

The Minories & First.Site exhibitions report, Colchester


On Thursday 20 August, Centrepieces members had an enjoyable day visiting two art galleries in Colchester, the first of a series of trips we hope will become a regular event.

Based in a converted town house dating from 1730 on Colchester High Street, the Minories Galleries have a relaxed atmosphere, fostered by largely retaining the layout of the original building – for example, one of the exhibition areas is named ‘The Front Room’ – which allow a generous amount of white-walled, parquet-floored space in which to appreciate the exhibitions at your leisure. The laid back, friendly vibe extends to the cheeky slogans in the cafĂ©, ‘No phones at the dinner table!’ and ‘What’s the wi-fi?’, as well as the provision for artistic study, music and theatre performances and, if you’re so inclined, getting married. All this has helped make the Minories an important part of the local community, as well as ideal for an outing on a summer’s day.

This summer’s ‘Masters at the Minories’ exhibition features work by Master of Arts students who’ve studied at the Colchester School of Art. One of this year’s graduates is Sonia Serro, who is also a Centrepieces registered artist. Her work in the exhibition reveals a mature, stylish and sophisticated creative: Sonia’s mixed media composition All at Sea combines digital photography, text, plastic fashioned to resemble the contours of waves and bespoke leather-bound boxes, all in a three-dimensional map of her personal world. It’s elegantly done, and you can spend a long time puzzling over the textures, layers and intriguing and enigmatic phrases she’s used.

Other highlights are Sue Caddy’s Black Vessels, impressively organic ceramic sculptures which could have been anything from clams to upside down mushrooms; Jayne Wallett’s particularly striking gowns and customised dress patterns, adorned with cryptic phrases like “As women get older they become invisible and come into their power” and, a personal favourite, Helen Armstrong Bland’s presentation of found objects such as vintage toys and ceramic ornaments. With some of them backlit through a parachute fashioned into a pyramid, the overall effect – for me, anyway – is of a nostalgic view of childhood.

Worth noting by the door is a sculpture fashioned in the style of an arcade-game shoot-‘em-up. You pick up the gun, point it at a small van in a model landscape, pull the trigger and a cockney voice starts demanding, “Give me the money!” Maybe you had to be there, but I found it very funny, and somehow it sums up the Minories’ refreshingly unpretentious and laid back attitude to the arts.   

The same is equally true of First.Site, a visual arts organisation that was founded in 1994 and originally operated from the Minories. In 2003, a consortium that included Colchester Borough Council and Arts Council England agreed to build a new arts centre next door to The Minories in a concentrated attempt to develop an artistic centre in Colchester’s city centre.

It’s a great place. Here you’ll find exhibitions, films, art installations, televised live theatre and vintage ephemera, from old car radios to electric guitars, for sale. The building’s been constructed in such a way that a large, gently sloping corridor guides you through everything from a genuine Roman mosaic to ‘Art Games’, one of which encourages you to interpret recorded sounds by drawing with chalk. It all feels pleasingly organic and effortlessly thought through – the record player by the door quietly playing the Grease soundtrack was a sweet touch – and, because the layout has been so well crafted, you can spend many pleasant hours wandering through First.Site’s artistic nooks and crannies. The management has even provided a children’s play area, and you can’t say that about many art galleries.

(Image Copyright: John Virtue)
The principal exhibition here at the moment is John Virtue’s The Sea, forty paintings developed from some two hundred notebooks which celebrate the brooding Norfolk coast. Andrew Graham-Dixon’s book John Virtue: 40 Paintings notes that “the series as a whole embodies an obsessive revisiting of the same primal place,” but anyone’s who’s grown up by the sea, like myself, can totally relate to Virtue’s Jackson Pollock-meets-J.M.W. Turner-inspired stormy maelstroms of black and white. He’s really captured the exhilaratingly violent collision of wave and cloud that you only seem to find in Norfolk.

After enjoying all that, there was time to dally in the bookshop and for the Centrepieces co-ordinator to have a quick acoustic jam on one of the guitars. You couldn’t do that in the Tate Modern.

At the risk of quoting Wallace and Gromit, it was a grand day out: rewarding and educational with good company. Seven of us went on the trip this time, but it was so worthwhile that in days to come, I’d like to think we could we could expand the attendance to a minibus full. We’ll see.

Robert Fairclough

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