25 January 2016
Tanya Raabe-Webber's new exhibition at Glasgow’s Project Ability is so much more than just some sketches of the participants at a recent conference, as Paul F Cockburn discovers.
Every week of the year, Glasgow-based Project Ability works with hundreds of disabled people, and people with mental health issues, through a busy schedule of workshops, events and exhibitions.
Yet its influence goes beyond this, not least in collaborations with other local, national and international agencies – sharing and promoting ‘best practice’ in the field – and its support of disabled artists through specific projects and residencies.
Early in 2015 Tanya Raabe-Webber became Project Ability’s artist in residence, a period which included a three-day International Summit for learning disability artists and their supported studios. During this gathering, Tanya produced a significant number of portraits of artists, visitors and delegates; anyone, in fact, who was willing to be painted by her. This exhibition is a selection of those portraits; so, superficially at least, it is her record of the conference.
What is clear from the start is that these paintings are very much ‘of the moment’; rough, bold, and speedily done, they capture not so much the details of individual physiognomy but more fleeting expressions and emotion.
According to Tanya, most were completed in no more than hour; indeed, a series of five prints of drawings made on an iPad, entitled 'Artists in conversation', were individually the work of minutes. Their sense of energy and immediacy is palpable, enhanced by the sturdy construction of the frames in which they’re displayed.
The largest work in the exhibition is a large triptych titled The Event: a gathering and sharing of learning disability art practices and cultural influences. Filling one wall of the exhibition space (albeit not one immediately visible from the entrance), it’s a gathering of numerous participants at the conference within one work.
The scale and composition means that it’s all too easy to then view the rest of the work in the exhibition as ‘mere’ sketches; to be dismissed not so much because of their roughness but for their implied role as preliminaries for a more ‘finished’ work. Yet this is clearly wrong here; not least because there is relatively little cross-over between the subjects of the individual portraits and the triptych.
Tanya’s portraits are as much a bold display of her own working methods as the people she was painting: they highlight her concern with physicality and expression; her desire to look through the skin to find the emotion of a moment. The lack of backgrounds is also significant – our attention is not just focused on the people, but the process by which she has used line and shape to portray them.
Tanya’s enjoyment of this creative process is evident not just in the results, but also her willingness to produce work ‘live,’ as she did during the opening weekend of this exhibition. Painting ‘her first couple’ – the actor, writer and director Robert Softley Gale and his partner Nathan, an equality campaigner – those in the room, or watching via the gallery’s webcast, witnessed a remarkably peaceful record of human creativity and the undeniable connection between artist and subject.
To see some of the fabulous work from Tanya Raabe-Webber's Arts Council funded project, please go to her wordpress site, here.