Review: Norman Rea gallery's Art Speak


Emily Warner reviews the Norman Rea gallery's exciting new exhibition

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Image by Emily Warner

By Emily Warner

‘‘Art speak’ may seem like a paradox; of course, art can’t speak. Art is static and silent. Art hangs in galleries gathering dust, displaying itself to thousands of eyes yet unable to articulate anything of its own. However, Norman Rea, the only student-led gallery in the UK, have proved otherwise with their latest exhibition.

ArtSpeak: Conversations Between Art and Language explores how the visual intertwines with language. The gallery is transformed into a multi-media, multi-sensory journey through human expression, which explores ‘oral and written language, how these can be dissected, rearranged and sculpted’ and ‘more physical forms of language’. Language is in the fabric of humanity, and the opening night of the exhibition demonstrated this. The room pulsed with an energy that passed between bodies and works of art, inviting a non-verbal conversation to occur. Art had a voice – no longer relegated to the wall for scrutiny but interacting with the viewers, asserting its own message.

Upon entering, I was immediately drawn in by the artwork of Jennie Pedley. A former physiotherapist for deaf children, she now works full time as an artist, exploring human and environmental connections. Rather than expounding the differences between her two passions, Jennie found the point at which they intersect; the visual representation and startling beauty of sign language. Her artwork is a playful interaction between light and dark, silence and communication, art and language. These binaries are not only present in her finished pieces, but in the creative process too. Jennie (who is not deaf) worked alongside actress and creative consultant Jean St. Clair (who is deaf), forming a working relationship which necessitated alternative, visual modes of communication. Jennie also invited students to create artwork of their own, inspired by the shapes and movement of British Sign Language, creating a unique opportunity to interact with the artist and artwork itself.

This was not the only interactive piece in the gallery. There were several other artworks which encouraged students to touch them, move them or reshape them according to their own artistic vision. On an unassuming table in the corner, there was a typewriter adorned with lines of unintelligible print, which passers-by had absentmindedly added to. There was also a copy of Vogue. However, far from being the vibrant, glossy magazine we all know, this version of Vogue was entirely blank — or so I thought. When I touched it, I felt lines upon lines of delicate braille.  A whole sensory language that was foreign to my fingertips and invisible to my eyes, yet possessing a powerful voice for those who could decipher it. There was another piece which used braille, Can you see ME? by Clarke Reynolds. Beneath the piece was written, “Please Touch The Art”. Interestingly, most simply observed this piece and very few hands made it over the invisible barrier between viewer and artwork. Touch is not a language that most would immediately recognise, and definitely not one which is ordinarily acceptable in art galleries (most will have spent a whole childhood being told ‘look, don’t touch’). However, this exhibition boldly attempts to shift that mentality. It normalises alternative modes of communication, increasing the accessibility of art and expanding our entire definition of what art is.

The exhibition not only demonstrated a multiplicity of languages, but also the themes that these articulate; language is, after all, a means of expression. There were artworks which captured personal stories (I found Otty Allum’s patchwork quilt particularly evocative), conveyed political stances and raised important issues. Every piece of art spoke with a voice that was powerful and insistent, demanding not just to be seen, but to be heard and felt. Laura Nathan’s pieces were a deeply personal exploration of intergenerational trauma. Fear, Loss, Survival, Guilt, encapsulated her grandfather’s legacy, and his suffering, as a Holocaust survivor. As did her other two works in the gallery, Processing Documents 1939-1964 and, Hoppe Hoppe Reiter. Aylin Leipold’s pieces deconstruct familiar literary texts and ask the viewer to make their own connections with the works. In theory, this liberates works of literature from their potentially antiquated, problematic meanings and allows the language in them to be reclaimed. Similarly, Pamela Crowe’s poems challenge the line between language and art by by fusing her words with other forms of art; framed and displayed like art, performed like drama, recorded like music.

To call this just an art exhibition would be reductive. It is an exhibition of sound, music, and touch, of language and life. The artworks brimmed with power, spilling their stories across the room, establishing a dialogue with the viewers and with one another. The Norman Rea Gallery has achieved exactly what the exhibition title claims; they have let ‘art speak’.