• Rachel Connor

All Work and All Play

AIR gallery and a4 studios are situated on the (right) side of the tracks in Altrincham - just next to Navigation Road station. The gallery is aptly named: there’s a sense of spaciousness about it – especially in the main exhibition room with its windowed roofs, which has the feel of an atrium.

The current exhibition, ‘All Work and All Play’, has been brilliantly curated by Alan Baker and Becky Wild as part of #ManifestArts19. The show has a wonderful, unbridled irreverence, and a playfulness you’d expect from its title. But there is also a depth and breadth to it, a genuine desire to investigate how sculpture intersects with a range of other media – with jewellery, painting and performance. This is clearly a family-friendly gallery, which welcomes children to the ‘extra event’ workshops that have been running alongside the show. So, the aim of the exhibition is apt: to explore the impulse to investigate or play and to challenge the visitor’s experience of art objects in an exhibition setting.

The first thing you encounter is a vending machine. This is a stroke of pure genius. It contains tiny works of art for sale: ‘Arabian Families’ for example (a take on the ‘Sylvanian Families’ miniature toys that were big in the 1990s) and ‘Soap Star Soaps’, which include UK soap opera icons from the 70s and 80s (who remembers Hilda Ogden from ‘Coronation Street’ and Benny from ‘Crossroads’?!).

This lyricism continues through the gallery. Michael Shaw’s ‘Rhubarb and Custard’ installation consists of a couple of brightly-striped beanbags in the colours of the boiled sweets.

GianPiero Franchi’s ‘Pinging blu tac with a cocktail stick’ (from his series ‘Mischief or life skill’) is wonderfully engaging, deconstructing the idea that art is only to be looked at and reinforcing the notion that we learn through doing. Two crystalcast hands are set into the wall, grasping a cocktail stick. The visitor is invited to load blu tac onto one of the sticks and fire it at the weighing scales balanced above the sculpture. This activity is frustrating, fun and hugely addictive, and it has the effect of unleashing the inner child, which is the very thing the curators intended in the show.

There is a joke, it appears, at every turn. In random corners, Rosie Dowd-Smyth has filled the gallery with pears that are posed to look like people (Rosie also led one of the ‘extra event’ workshops, using food to transform everyday consumables into sculptures). Mike Chavez-Dawson, with his customary nod to French conceptual artist Marcel Duchamp, incorporates a football kit and football that can be worn and used for real, decorated with a ‘fountain’ logo that recalls Duchamp’s 1917 sculpture of a urinal the same name. And, staying with toilets, the gallery’s disabled loo has been taken over by Robin Broadley, whose ‘Hidden Package’ reproduces one of the figures from Grand Theft Auto, reproduced in cardboard. In the bar area, Alan Baker’s ‘Mouse Trap’ – a giant version of the children’s game – has taken over the space and needed to be de-assembled to make room for the workshops that run through the duration of the exhibition.

The associated studios, a4, flank the main gallery. Lined with wooden pallets, the space is a reminder of the freight associated with railways, an echo, perhaps, of the nearby station (not to mention clever reuse of materials). Members of the studio include a stone engraver and a manufacturer of steampunk artefacts. I am entranced with the use of colour – in particular, the green – used by ceramicist Helen Felcey.

Given the exhibition’s focus on the kinaesthetic, it would be wrong to leave without participating in a workshop. In BLIND-OBJECT-DRAW, Jayson Gylen and Jay Ottewell lead us through a process that involves being blindfolded and having to ‘tune in’ to the sense of touch in engaging with a range of everyday objects. The idea is to use materials (pastels, chalks, pencils in a range of colours) to represent on a piece of paper in front of us the object we cannot see. I feel both daunted and liberated by this experience – liberated because, without the primacy of sight, there is a freedom from the pressure to ‘get it right.’ I am led by my curiosity to produce an example of what Jaysen and Jay term ‘unstill life.’ As someone with very little experience of drawing and no visual art practice, this is a true leveller. And an example of the pure play of creativity that the exhibition itself seeks to amplify.

There is still time to catch ‘All Work and All Play’ at AIR until Saturday 20 July.

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