An exciting Leeds-based, and Leeds-focused exhibition is currently on display in, you guessed it – Leeds! Desire Lines is the culmination of artist Jill McKnight’s residency at Leeds Art Gallery, for the Collections in Dialogue project. The show resulted from McKnight’s deep dive into the gallery’s collections and archives as well as the British Library Sound Archive.
Based in the city, the artist has an intimate understanding of the place, its communities and everyday life. All of this has fed into the multifaceted exhibition of prints, drawings, sculptures and videos, exhibited alongside some of the works from the gallery’s collection that influenced the artist.
Most importantly though, McKnight took inspiration from the lives of Leeds citizens past and present, using archival material that she found in the course of her residency as primary inspiration, as well as footage that she captured herself. The ordinary and extraordinary intertwine in these video works, with more mundane scenes punctuated by moments of energy embodied in singing and dancing. In one of the pieces, the artist herself dances using “the working postures of the figures in a drawing called Mining, 1921 by Jacob Kramer” as well as the figure from the 1990 drawing The Dancing Stevedores by Jack B. Yeats. This footage is also paired with historic photographs from Leeds Libraries archive as well as recordings from the British Library’s sound archive.
During the period of extensive research, McKnight found several pieces, photographs or sounds, that caught her attention. Her sculpture We (2022) is based on a photograph of two men working in a fish and chip shop, wearing white overalls, appearing to merge into one. This image, translated into Jill’s signature colourful sculpture style, became a sculpture with an underlying message of community and togetherness, and a pinch of humour.
The show also includes a Desire Lines: digital sketchbook, which serves as a visual representation of McKnight’s process of research, contemplation and working through ideas with the tip of a brush or pen. It records the most memorable findings from the collections that the artist had access to, as well musings on labour, the nature of work and the influence of community and sense of belonging.
For example, a notable element that’s a recurring episode in the exhibition is a recording of a Leeds resident describing her weekly schedule of chores in which she suddenly mentions that she would do the “Romeo and Juliet act” with people passing in the street. The bizarre brushes shoulders with the everyday in McKnight’s works and this is what the artist is drawing our attention to.