Come Together at Workplace Gallery

There has been much discourse about the arts suffering one crisis or another in recent years, which are sometimes just shorthand for saying that society (see: austerity) and the way we access things are changing, and the industries haven't worked out how to catch up yet. I'm thinking about the rise in pirating music back in the early 2000s, followed by streaming solutions, then the rise in using Instagram to view art instead of visiting galleries in person, which has generally led to an increase in the public's interest in contemporary art. However the current predicament of arts venues being closed for public health reasons presents issues that will be slower to recover from, including factoring in the mental health tolls of such a hit, especially in the UK where we are dealing with an unforgivable number of cases and deaths. For the time being, online exhibitions are continuing to be rolled out, and 'Come Together', a show hosted by Gateshead and London-based Workplace Gallery, is showcasing work by gallery artists inspired by music, and is partly in aid of the Music Venue Trust, working to support grassroots music venues nationally.

James Bartolacci, It Was a Blur (2), 2020. Pastel on paper, 46cm x 57cm. Courtesy of Catherine and Robert Jones, James Bartolacci and Taymour Grahne Projects.

By this point, people who are really missing visiting exhibitions in real life have most likely rinsed the online viewing room format, but it must be said that Workplace Gallery have done something slightly different to keep it interesting. Each artist has a small number of works shown as part of this exhibition, plus a short quote and some audio pieces at the end; it's a necessarily refreshing take. James Bartolacci's work is first up, and the vibrant colour palette of the paintings already bring out a mournful emotion in me; beautiful reds, electric blues are reminiscent of both nature flourishing and the synthetic aesthetic of nightlife, and in winter during a lockdown these things are fairly devoid. Bartolacci's practice focuses on queer nightlife in the artist's home city of New York, which has been suffering a loss in the years prior to the pandemic due to various degrees of gentrification and what some would argue is a social cleansing. 'It Was a Blur (2)' not only evokes memories of hazy nights on the dancefloor, but in its visual ambiguity we are reminded of these spaces, now lying dormant, uncharacteristically quiet. 

Susie Green, Unbound Avatar, 2021. Acrylic on acid-free tissue paper, 200cm x 175cm. 

It would be easy to develop an entire exhibition off the back of Bartolacci's ideas on [queer] nightlife and the chasm it has left in our social and creative infrastructures and, indeed, lives. Workplace's remit is wider, however, so we have insights into how music has affected visual artists differently, and the text accompanying Susie Green's work provides some much-needed light relief, as she discusses the ways in which the likes of Neneh Cherry and Madonna awoke her as a child through not only their music but also their fashion. 'Unbound Avatar' is reminiscent of contemporary drag culture, specifically contestant Gottmik's stylised anal bead hat in a recent episode of RuPaul's Drag Race US. Having also just watched the Framing Britney Spears documentary, it is particularly interesting to think about the fetishisation of women musicians and singers, in ways that are totally removed from their talents and the service of entertainment they are providing. 

Laura Lancaster, Phantom, 2019. Acrylic on canvas, 120cm x 150cm. 

I was very pleased to see Newcastle-based artist Laura Lancaster included as part of the show, as she has become a firm favourite of mine after seeing her solo show 'Shadows and Mirrors' at Workplace's central London space back in 2018. There is a distinctly sinister element to Lancaster's work, but one which is offset and balanced by a soft, sweeping yet highly active painting technique that is popular at the moment. Despite its popularity in technique, the artist's work is incredibly distinctive, primarily due to the splashes of black paint used to darken and intensify any scene. The theme of music and contemporary art might be a little looser here, and I did look into whether 'Phantom' is inspired by an album cover perhaps, but I haven't found anything to confirm this. Regardless, Lancaster's work is always a joy to behold, and I feel that the paintings tell stories that activate the viewer's imagination more than most, so the potentially tenuous link isn't problematic.

Joel Kyack, A Younger Man's Clothes, 2021. Pressed board, styrofoam, foamcore, acrylic, 53.3cm x 40.6cm.  

One difficulty with online exhibitions is that the viewer has neither the freedom nor the energy to explore the works differently to how they've been uploaded by the gallery. We are all now at the point where we can agree that scrolling for any purpose is depressing; even when the content isn't sombre, it serves to remind us that we are doing Nothing with our time. That aside, it is nice to have the option of listening to tracks by some of the exhibition artists. The link between artwork and audio work is fairy loose, as is connection of songs to each other, but the diversity of mediums certainly allows a richer experience. A pairing of a track, not necessarily authored by the artist, to each artwork may have been a more exciting, and tight, concept, but I always appreciate new tip-offs for music; I particularly liked Susie Green's collaborative duo Splash Addict's electro beats. 

Given the communal, shared experience that live music facilitates, I can't help but feel the weight of the gap that has manifested following the obliteration of the arts under the current climate. Somehow, the alternatives offered (often but not always including online exhibitions) only remind us of what we are missing. 'Come Together', rather amusingly, doesn't come together as a particularly linear, nor logical, narrative, but I feel that this can be pardoned given its ultimately philanthropic purpose. Galleries showcasing video or sound works will often have them accessible via headphones, but once the art world is back open it would be great to see curators allowing us to feel everything, after such a prolonged period of numbness. Even if sonic tracks aren't entirely coherent together, I want to walk into a wall of sound and see the reactions of other people as they pass judgment on the sights, the sounds and the marriage of both. There is a calling, a longing for intimacy now that our generation has never seen before; regardless of size, exhibitions must stimulate group, or otherwise social, engagement. The art market never loved us; it is the joy and the respite from the depths of despair that will revitalise us coming out of this dark chapter. 

'Come Together' is available to view online on Workplace Gallery's website until 20 March 2021. 

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