Northern Art Prize 2011 exhibition rewards time and effort at Leeds City Art Gallery

By Elizabeth Hughes | 06 January 2012
A photo of a triangular green sculpture inside a warehouse
Exhibition: Northern Art Prize, Leeds City Art Gallery, Leeds, until February 19 2012

Visitors to this year's Northern Art Prize must be prepared to roll their sleeves up, engage their brain and put in some work.

The four competing artists all produce challenging, conceptual work. An investment of time and effort is required on the part of the viewer to understand and appreciate the work on show.

"It's like Marmite," says the gallery's Robert King, acknowledging the demands of the display.

"Some people love it, some people hate it. Not all art is immediate, and that's okay."

It is well worth speaking to one of the knowledgeable and enthusiastic gallery assistants find out more about the stories and ideas behind the art on show.

One of them brought Liadin Cooke's Miserable Object to life by describing the remarkable historical source for the work – and clarifying the names of the works on show.

Initially I thought the title referred to a large brown pile of wax and car paint resembling a giant pile of dung or wet, rotting autumn leaves. Actually titled Some Particular Place, Cooke’s sculpture is repulsive and fascinating in equal measure.

More fascinating still was the real Miserable Object: an abstract drawing of red wax and ink on white paper which demonstrates Cooke’s interest in objects of emotional significance.

It is based on a remarkable embroidered sampler by a young woman in the 19th Century who, in 1,600 hand-stitched words, described her sad life of hardship and abuse at the hands of her employer, positioning herself as a "miserable object".

Knowing this allows you to view the simple red lines of Cooke's drawing with new understanding. It enabled me to make my own emotional connection with the work.

So it is worth taking your time with this show. This is not an exhibition you can rush through.

One artist who wants us to slow down and forget hedonism and immediacy is James Hugonin.

His large, colourful paintings are subtle and ask that we spend time with them as we might with a piece of music.

Hugonin is not a man in a hurry. Each piece is made up of more than 55,000 individual marks. His methodical way of working means that each takes 12 months to complete.

"I am not phased by the fact that it will take me a year to finish," he says. "It's basically about creating something of integrity."

These large canvasses could be visual symphonies. The colours and shapes appear to pulse and shimmer as you approach. I go with the flow and allow the multitude of colours and rhythms to wash over me.

Without slowing down it would be easy for visitors to miss the telegraph poles installed in the gallery stairwell by Newcastle-based artist Richard Rigg, despite their presence in this setting being so incongruous.

Once spotted, it is intriguing to be able to examine them from top to bottom. At street level our view is limited, and we barely notice them at all. But Rigg invites us to look at these commonplace things from a different perspective.

These are the only found objects exhibited by Rigg in this show. His other works required considerable technical skills to produce.

He subverts ordinary domestic furniture such as desks and chairs by building them stacked upon each other or fused together.

The effect is playful and surreal – visitors do a double-take as they enter the gallery, their comprehension of the everyday is challenged.

The fourth and final artist, Leo Fitzmaurice, also wants his audience to take a second look at things we take for granted.

Horizon uses a selection of 19th & 20th century paintings from the gallery's collection to create a new work examining historical views of landscape.  

His second piece, The Way Things Appear, comprises 60 images of the modern urban landscape, taken on the artist’s mobile phone.

The pictures are a form of note taking by Fitzmaurice and were never intended for exhibition. They are projected as an informal slide show inside a wooden box, reminiscent of a crate. The impression is of something temporary and unfinished.

This is an exhibition to the cerebral pleasures of exploring new ideas and seeing things in a different way.

The art is not immediate and the enjoyment is not instantaneous, but this year’s Northern Art Prize leaves a quiet satisfaction and plenty of food for thought.

  • Open 10am-5pm (12pm-5pm Wednesday, 1pm-5pm Sunday). Admission free.

In Pictures: The Northern Art Prize 2011

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