Heather & Ivan Morison/ Ben Rivers/ David Thorpe

In my short life few places have been able to compare in stakes of sheer cold to Wakefield Kirkgate station at 8am on a February Wednesday morning. Whoever designed the platforms for Northern Rail must have made their name building wind tunnels.  I set off on my first visit to the Hepworth site and I was pleasantly surprised (albeit lightly frostbitten) upon reaching the gallery, which is nestled like a strange concrete armadillo among the industrial estates surrounding the station.

This exhibition represents the first of what promises to be a regular programme of spring exhibitions at the Hepworth, which was recently longlisted for the prestigious 2012 Art Fund Prize (no mean feat, especially considering that the gallery only reopened in May 2011.) It also represents their first collection not focused on the work of a single artist.

The programme pitches together a group of less-established contemporary artists over four large interior exhibition spaces. Heather and Ivan Morison have created a body of work based loosely around the life and work of the 20th century novelist Anna Kavan. Anna, an allegorical play performed with two bogwood puppets, will be shown regularly until the close of the exhibition in June. The three narrators of the play, The Warden, The Woman and The Child are represented respectively by two large pigment murals and a huge netted balloon which hovers ominously over the gallery, while sculptures made from iron and river clay are placed strategically across the exhibition space. These will be showered with rainwater from drip points in the ceiling, causing the sculptures to corrode and dissolve gradually over the course of the exhibit. The slow erosion of the works on display will create a separate overarching narrative within the gallery space, accompanied by narrated extracts from Kavan’s post-apocalyptic  novel ‘Ice’ played at intervals through concealed speakers. The system was not fully operational pre-show, but the whole thing sounds ambitious and exciting – I’m definitely making a date in my diary to go back and see things in action.
David Thorpe (whose sculpture work was included in ‘The Shape of Things To Come’ at the Saatchi gallery last year) has contributed several of his works to the exhibition. His simple sculptures and watercolour works heavily reference the 19th century arts and crafts movement. All of the pieces here are covered by meticulously hand-crafted floral patterns which William Morris would be proud of. The effect, whilst obviously technically extremely impressive seems alternately enticing and repellent. The twin ceramic walls of his piece ‘Endeavours’ tower above the visitor like a paisley cliff face. A patterned cube on four stout wooden legs acquires an unexpected menace as its electronic drone intensifies at your approach. The repeated, intertwining leaves adorning his works become a protective shield against intrusion and prying eyes. These painstakingly crafted pieces seem to reject the mechanised cheap production of modern consumer goods and sit defensively in the gallery like insular relics from a bygone era.

The fourth artist exhibiting is Ben Rivers, a video artist who is showing his award winning film ‘Slow Action.’ Rivers’ work is a post-apocalyptic narrative shot on 16mm film at three different island locations across the world. He continues the themes of deliberate archaism and insulation with a study of how societies and nature exist in geographical isolation. The film is set in a future where rising sea levels have forced the remains of the human population to exist in confined isolation and examines the repercussions of such a dramatic ecological change. Rivers’ will also be screening several of his favourite post-apocalyptic sci-fi films in the evenings during the run of the exhibition (check the Hepworth website for more details on this.) I’ve been promised that ‘Escape from New York’, a personal favourite, is getting an airing at some point, so I’ll be bringing my popcorn to pay homage to Kurt Russell’s mullet and eye-patch combo in the near future.

All in all, the Spring Exhibition is a sensitively curated and well-presented body of work. If you haven’t been to the Hepworth before, I encourage you to go. If you’ve already been, go again to support a valuable local resource or even to check out Kurt’s snake print leggings. I’ll see you there.

The Spring Exhibition runs from 10th February – 10th June 2012.

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