Caitlin Heffernan, Caravans. Photo Richard Moss
The Whitstable Biennial opened last weekend with a series of one-off performances, art interventions and exhibitions spread across the well-to-do seaside town on the North Kent coast.
Midst this colonisation of contemporary art, performances, films and other artistic interventions is a show that seems to capture the faded glamour of the wider British seaside perfectly.
Transition Gallery are holidaying from London and camping out each weekend in local painter John Butterworth's studio – an old sail loft with a beautiful view of the sea – for a seaside inspired exhibition called That's Entertainment.
John Butterworth. Photo Richard Moss
Part of the Whitstable Biennial Satellite programme, That’s Entertainment brings together a group of artists who share a similar raw aesthetic and, evidently, a love of being beside the seaside.
“This show is about entertainment and, when you’re at those kind of holiday destinations, what entertainment means,” explains Transition Gallery curator and participating artist Cathy Lomax. “It’s kind of got that British slant on it – it’s something I’m really interested in in my own work but I also really enjoy curating shows and collaborating on this idea with other people.”
This enjoyment comes through in the buoyant work of the nine featured artists – all of whom seem to share a similar aesthetic – art that is roughly hewn around the edges but has an energy to it. The resulting images will evoke the sense memories of anyone who has ever been to the British seaside.
Keara Stewart. Photo Richard Moss
One of the most striking pieces in the show, slowly revolving in a corner of John Butterworth’s picturesque garret studio, is Cathie Pilkington’s grotesque Mister Punch. Perched on his silver stand he makes for an alluring though slightly monstrous sight and, like a good old-fashioned seaside waxwork or a laughing sailor, he demands that you look at him again and again.
He also offers juxtaposition to the other less finished work on show. “Generally I like an unfinished edginess to artists,” explains Cathy, “so it’s more about a kind of passion rather than about an amazingly finished piece.”
“The exception to this is Cathie Pilkington’s piece, which is amazingly finished and really slick but I think, because of the materials she uses, like a lot of found things combined with other kitsch qualities, it still kind of fits quite well into that sort of idea.”
Alex Michon. Photo Richard Moss
Another exhibitor using found things to create her artwork is Keara Stewart. She has been combing the beaches of Whitstable in search of small pieces of driftwood and other bits of flotsam and jetsam from the Thames Estuary to produce two beautiful but rough hewn maquettes.
Similarly, Caitlin Heffernan’s piece, Caravan Park, seems to typify the unfinished edginess that Cathy Lomax is interested in. Based on childhood memories of caravanning, a dozen or more of her strange miniature caravans painted in seaside pastels are oddly lined up on shelves. They seem to occupy a far-off Technicolor world - somewhere between whimsy and weird - and they are remarkably effective in triggering far-off recollections of holidaying by the seaside.
Elsewhere, next to the large shutters offering a picturesque glimpse of slatted buildings and the sea, Alex Michon’s work explores the life of a local rockabilly kid called Billy.
Cathie Pilkington. Photo Richard Moss
Part fiction and seemingly part hallucination, Michon has woven a narrative around this young anti-hero and her portfolio of rockabilly inspired drawing recalls the kind of kid you used to get working the fairground Waltzers.
Flicking through these images – all quiffs and leather jackets - you can almost hear Del Shannon’s Runaway or Dion’s The Wanderer floating under the rafters of the studio. Interestingly Michon used to design clothes for the Clash – look closely and you might recognise Joe Strummer’s shirt in one of her rockabilly portraits…
You will find a similar 'shirts and Brylcream' world in the work of Cathy Lomax, who has constructed a piece that works as an homage to celluloid representations of the seaside.
Cathy Lomax. Photo Richard Moss
Taking stills from old films and home movies – her own mother makes an appearance as a beauty queen – she has presented them flickering across a screen for a nostalgic and painterly trawl of seaside entertainment. Some of these scenes are reproduced in postcard-sized paintings – again, very effective in their gaudy rawness, and they make for a handy link with the kitchen sink realism found in John Butterworth’s paintings.
“I think that’s what I’m kind of interested in – that kind of work,” says Lomax of both her own and the other art in the show. “I just think it’s quite raw – that’s the kind of work I like – something that has quite an edge to it that you can see it’s something somebody has made and maybe its not absolutely perfect.”
“I always think of it in terms of music and how a live performance might be rough around the edges and there might be a few mistakes, but actually it's so much better than a slickly produced track in the studio.”
Or perhaps that should be an old rock n roll classic belting out at a seaside fun fair…
That's Entertainment runs at the Whistable Biennial, Friday to Sunday until July 6 2008 at Artist Studio, Back of Harbour Street (entrance in Sea Street), Whitstable, Kent.
A companion show to That's Entertaiment is currently running at Transition Gallery. Fan Fair brings together a group of artists delivering a similar bucket load of seaside pleasure in the gallery in Hackney - until July 13 2008