The Rocket Artists, in partnership with the University of Brighton, present Side by Side - an international exhibition showcasing learning disability, art and collaboration. Nicole Fordham Hodges reviews the exhibition, on show in the Spirit Level, Southbank Centre, London until 5 April
Thirty-seven ceramic horse heads face me as I enter. They are mostly open-mouthed, caught in the act of neighing. They look like they are singing. Each one is unique, characterful, with alert ears. It's Norris Francesca's '37 Horses, 7 Rik and 4 Dog Heads'.
To the side of the horses are Lasmin Salmon's 'Collection of Sewn Sculptures' (mixed media, fabric, fur, thread) . The small, spiralled, fabric sculptures circle around a pillar. They are like waiting snails, curled as promises.
This is an expressive, welcoming exhibition. In keeping with its collaborative process, there is a focus on groupings of people, animals and objects. Angela Burchill's 'The Nativity' (pastel pencil on paper 2012) shows a group of people and animals bent around baby Jesus in prayer. Their postures mould easily round each other, whilst they look out open-eyed at the viewer. 'Come in and join us,' the drawing seems to say.
Amongst many portraits, John Cull's stand out. They show a seriously lovely use of colour. 'Layla', for example (paint, chalk and charcoal on MDF board 2012), who emerges gently out of her background in oranges and blues, giving the impression of a character in deep harmony with her surroundings.
Doreen McPherson's portrait 'Eyes all the Black' (pencil and graphite on paper 2009) is deeply worked with graphite smudges and finger-marks adding to a feeling of intensity of both subject and purpose. As she writes:
'I doing it for people. It's drawing, its people. I doing it for who they really are. I all feelings, all that putting all that pressure on all that my artwork.'
This is art about and for human beings, for 'who they really are.' Much of the artwork shares a quality of surrender. 'Sitting in the Office' by Aibhe Barrett (pencil and ink on paper 2012 ) shows the office worker sitting on the floor, legs out before her. She looks out comfortably at the viewer, surrounded by open files. Above her four clocks show time is passing.
The collaborative process involved in making and curating this art is itself respected, and forms part of the exhibition. 'A Conversation' is a 21 minute film of the collaborative drawing techniques used by Martin Lake (Rocket Artist) and Jane Diakonicolas (MA Student, Brighton).
The film shows a mesmerising dance of two pens, which take turns to echo and elaborate upon each other's work, but do not intrude on each other's space.
' We drew together communicating through the use of movement and line, and supported one another to make choices through collaborating... through conversation, but not necessarily the verbal kind.' (Jane Diakonicolas)
One of the resulting drawings, 'Conversations 3. Week 7' shows one black pen-line like the intricate wanderings of a coast. Another thicker sepia pen-line superimposes two faces, which have the benign feel of loving gods. For to me there is an indefinably benign feeling to this drawing: a surrender to the divine process of creativity that gives me goose bumps.
'Side by Side' shows us the power of creation without too much ego. It shows us how to be who we really are: naturally eccentric, unafraid. Peter Cutt's 'Rope Angel' (Screen Print 2012), for example, is gorgeously true to itself. Flouncy wings on a muscled torso, mannered moustache and delicate dancer's legs, it balances on a rope with ballerina feet. It is a perfect integration of male and female qualities.
The work of Rocket Artists (Brighton, UK) shines throughout the exhibition. '60 Jars' is from their 'Measures of Bodies' project. It is composed of 60 specimen jars containing body sculptures and autobiographical text. The jars are tiny pickled people, miniature riches, exquisite bottled portraits: a celebration of human detail. The artists label their own jars, reversing the notion of being 'labelled'.
As Alice Fox, Artistic Director writes:
'What do we stand to lose if we continue to exclude these important artists from contemporary arts practice?'
Side by Side is on exhibition in the Spirit Level, Southbank Centre until 5 April (free).
Exhibitors include the Rocket Artists, Project Art Works, Stay Up Late, Corali Dance Company, JumpCuts, Kunstwerkplaats, Mayfield Arts, Heart n Soul, TV Glad, Inventura, Barner 16 and KCat Inclusive Arts.
Side by Side film screenings on Wednesday 27 March
11am - 1pm Drama and Film - JumpCuts, Inventura and TV Glad
2pm - 4pm Working with people with complex needs - Anna Cady, Project Art Works, First Movement
6pm - 8pm Dance and visual art - StopGap, Project Volume, The Rocket Artists
Side by Side film screenings on Thursday 28 March
4.30 pm Living Colour by KCAT Inclusive Arts (90 minutes)
6.30 pm Heavy Load, the movie (90 minutes)