Thanks to Linda Pittwood, for Artworld, Shanghai Magazine, for travelling to the Grundy last month, to write a review for their magazine, Art World, Shanghai http://www.yishushijie.com/. Linda Pittwood is an art critic, journalist and researcher – lindapittwood.org.
If you can’t read Chinese, Linda has kindly provided a translation below:
What stands up/what falls down:
‘Architecture of Joy’ by Jenny Steele at the Grundy Gallery, Blackpool, UK
In the intimacy of the room at the top of the stairs, a cool summer light descends and rests on a small group of works that seem to flow from the architecture itself. Outside the rain has made everything grey, affecting the tone of the place, making me melancholic. But in this room the sorbet colours are piquant against marble-white, with an interlayer of warm wood: furniture, floor and frames.
Repeating designs on wallpaper and textile, as in the pieces ‘The Sea Breeze Was The Cure,’ 2016, and ‘A Restorative Resort,’ 2016, are the most shining and successful of the works in Jenny Steele’s solo show. The origins of all the pieces are in ‘moderne’ – a style of architecture and design from the 1930s. A point in time: backwards to our imaginings of what was, forwards to what might have been. This was a style seeped in optimism. Curves, geometry like rays of sun, a little Art Deco, healthy bodies swimming into infinite pools, wide staircases that glide to no particular place. All of these form the artist’s palette.
The artist’s hand is present in some painted details and small hand-worked textiles, but the use of recurring pattern speaks to mass manufacturing and advertising. The contrast of home-made and factory-produced goes to the heart of a style that we don’t necessarily associate with named practitioners, but that even non-experts would recognise in the attitude of a slogan or a tea set, a particular point of view articulated using light, space and proportion. That said, Steele has looked to designers Otti Berger, Marian Mahler, Gunta Stölzl and Lucienne Day in the course of her research.
This exhibition acts as a point of convergence between the artist’s long-term research project (called ‘Looking Back | Moving Forward’), the artworks she has produced so far, of which those on display are a selection from a bigger body of work, and the questions that the work provokes. Some of these questions were addressed, or at least asked, at a recent discussion event at the gallery titled The Legacy of Seaside Moderne. The questions concern place and time, preservation, fashion and futures.
Steele describes her research focus as ‘seaside moderne’. Prefacing the style with ‘seaside’ hints at how the style travelled to and from the West and its colonies, adding a darker dimension in contrast with its lightness and brightness. Like Gilroy’s Black Atlantic, it is constructed through its international interaction. The artist says that the starting point for her project can be traced back to time spent in South Africa where the style interacts with post-colonial and political narratives. The next chapter could be to extend her research to the 1930s-era seafront architecture of Miami, USA.
There are examples of this radiant ‘seaside’ variant of modernism in several places on the UK coast, most famously in Brighton in the South. But Steele has focussed her attention on the North West of the country. Here the buildings, in particular where they have been restored, such as the Midland Hotel in Morecombe – built in 1933, reopened in 2008 – are a positive note against a backdrop of relative social depravation. They speak to the ghosts of British holidaymakers in a post-war boom. They offer themselves to a present that can’t move on from, or live up to, its former prosperity.
The modern or moderne style is very fashionable right now in the UK. As well as the buildings bought back to life for the 21st century, furniture items are reaching high prices at auction, there are magazines and social media accounts dedicated to it. Steele attributes its popularity to the cleanness and simplicity of the look, the uplifting, even spiritual, feeling it rouses, but also “an element of collective nostalgia… informed by a dissatisfaction with the present.”
Steele cites the book ‘Why buildings stand up/why buildings fall down’ by Mario Salvadori as an influence. It is about “the principles of how buildings bear weight and why they sometimes collapse, in relation to engineering and social narratives,” she says. I tell her that her work makes me think about why some styles, some items, some buildings are preserved, but others are not. “This is interesting,” she replies, then goes on to say:
“I hold great importance in looking after historical architecture, as a reminder of history, past governments, social histories, I really think historical architecture creates a sense of place and identity for those who live in and around it, and those who visit it.”
I think it is probably true that we need to live surround by layers of history; but sometimes juxtaposing old and new identities can create tensions. I see flashes of this problem in Steele’s own work. Some of the artworks on display in Blackpool seem like experiments still on their journey to final expression. However, the artist’s skill in translating architecture into painted motif and then into textile and installation prompts a feeling that can best be described as: ‘joy’.