Exploding into existence less than a year ago, Leeds multi-arts venue ‘Canal Mills’ has already played host to an impressive program of live music, arts shows and even Shakespeare productions, courtesy of Backbreak theatre. With future planned events including a pop-up film festival, a fashion show and the 10th anniversary party for Crosstown Rebels, there doesn’t seem to be any let up in pace or quality; evident in their latest coup, a permanent installation by internationally renowned street artist and muralist, Phlegm.

Phlegm’s work spans both commissioned and non-commissioned (illegal) street art, cartoon work and illustration, yet his style remains constant and instantly recognisable throughout; often featuring recurring humanoid characters and archaic technology in monochrome.  Here, curators Unit 44 who have more than a little experience in street and graphic art have brought Phlegm to Canal Mills as part of an expanding collection of work to adorn the space. You would imagine that there would be somewhat of a challenge in curating an artist who remains completely anonymous, even to the point of refusing to engage with the press about his own practice on any level.  Talking to curator Danny Hughes however, Phlegm’s pedigree combined with the choice of space made the task a breeze.

According to Hughes, the artist’s signature style was a deciding factor in his selection as one of the venue’s remits is to tie contemporary arts into the historic context of the building. Although Phlegm’s work differs hugely from the entrance installation (created by Mad Ferret, the Parklife Festival originators) comprised of objects found within the factory, both complement, rather than impose on the space itself. The mechanical, astronomical orrery centre piece of the painting, grounds the mural in terms of time and place, yet when combined with the side-on, sequential characters, reminiscent of cave art, Egyptian carvings, even the evolution of man; allows room for more open, fantastical interpretations. Indeed, these characters crop up time and again in Phlegm’s catalogue of work and as Hughes is quick to point out, the artist has created a Tolkienesqe mythology that surrounds them. As such, Phlegm doesn’t even need to sign his work, let alone set out on diatribes regarding its meaning, he allows the work to speak for itself.

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Marked out with mini-rollers in white, before the details were added in layers, the piece is painted on a huge, aluminium composite wall that was originally installed to separate the space into dance areas. The matifying effect from this surface mitigates the harsh, fluorescent lighting and the size of the mural can only be described as imposing. It is the ability to work at such scale that makes Canal Mills a perfect home for such artwork, as the legal grey-area surrounding street-art when the artist is known to paint illegal work, means that many institutions in the UK are often loath to fund it. As such, venues such as these are integral to the scene and to the continued propagation of street art and its culture.

Hughes has hinted that Unit 44 and Canal Mills will be looking to collaborate again, in bringing other artists into the space and judging by the quality of this first foray, we at JAM are extremely excited to see what the future holds. For now, Canal Mills has an excellent program of music events running through until early May, a link to which you can find at the bottom of this article and for which we highly recommend you make space in your diary.

Words & Images: Benjamin Paul


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