The lucky eight: Portfolio NW at the Bluecoat

Mike Pinnington

The gallery’s latest show sees eight artists explore everything from abandoned Romanian villages to sci-fi.

It’s hard to work out what common thread should be in Portfolio NW. Rather than the routine “thematic” curation, the exhibition centres on the Bluecoat’s commitment to supporting the region’s artists, and by extension, its creative infrastructure. “Portfolio NW exists on an arc of engagement with local and regional artists,” explains exhibition curator Sara-Jayne Parsons who commissioned the eight local artists featured in the exhibition.

Any concerns about how such ambitions translate into practise are alleviated by Rebecca Chesney’s “Still in Silence.” A darkened room housing family photos, a dead blackbird and a video installation, the piece is inspired by Chesney’s recent residency in Romania, where she visited the abandoned Carpathian village of Vadu Zbor. Following an uncanny disappearance of thousands of birds, it is said that the village’s residents, so disturbed at the sudden absence of birdsong, packed up and left. Chesney weaves together village life, myth, superstition – and some good old-fashioned research – to evoke the real-life events that led an entire village-worth of people to abandon their homes. How to follow that? We arrive at Hannah Wooll’s collection of drawing, painting and found ceramics. Rooted in imagination rather than real events (although we are told her work makes reference to “historical depictions of women”), Wooll’s pieces form something of a centrepiece to the exhibition, and not just because of their scale and number. With titles like “Through The Trees,” “Loner, Watcher, The Moon” and “Neandergirl,” it wouldn’t be a huge leap to say that Wooll is informed by traditional fantasy-art, but combined with chilling eyes peering out of child-like faces, it becomes clear that a darker force is at work here. Tadhg Devlin’s photographic studies of Irish migrants to Liverpool from the 1950s to the present day don’t quite achieve the same depth. He comes close to telling compelling and probably heart-wrenching stories, but falls short of doing them justice. The historical portraits work well, but the modern-day ones, with handsome yet roguish men looking into the middle distance, play into so many Irish tropes that they’re soon rendered cliché.

Chilling eyes peering out of child-like faces suggest a darker force is at work here

Onward, to Dave Evans’ sci-fi-inspired sculptures. Evans makes use of commonly accessible materials including plastic bags, string and tinfoil, and at first glance it’s easy to dismiss the work as amounting only to the sum of its parts. But in using such odds and ends, Evans may have tapped into the frontier age of sci-fi TV; back when prop men ambitiously (and with fingers-crossed) used what they had to hand to create the next space-ship or space monster, often succeeding wildly beyond expectation. From here on in, we enter “performance” territory as collaborative project 0point3recurring’s MODZ presses vehicles rather than people into action, presenting a video of three cars driving through Preston. With a trio of screens, car seats and analogue synthesisers employed to mimic the sound of car engines, the installation ranges from merely diverting to, if briefly, experiential.

Finally, we come to the similarly experimental performance of Kai-O Jay Yung’s, who, on the day of our visit is in the middle of a yoga class. This isn’t an inappropriate use of the Bluecoat gallery space though, Yung’s “Shadow Dance,” is, as she explains post-class, “in between theatre, dance and performance.” For the first week of Portfolio NW, Yung has been receiving tuition in hula-hooping, b-boying and yoga, and this week she leads sessions with visitors to the show. Her work sees physical exertion as a means of working through problems, and it would be fascinating to hear her conclusions – if any – after the two weeks “performance” is up.

Portfolio NW sees the Bluecoat capture a group in the gap between emerging and established artists, and on this evidence, we’ll only be hearing more from many of the eight involved here.

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