Colin Hambrook reflects on entering the first open exhibition to embrace Disability Arts and asks how we push the debate for quality to a further level.
Pushing the disability agenda has always been a struggle - a struggle which some disabled people have taken to the streets and even put their lives at risk for. Nowadays there is still a strong sense of the need to challenge attitudes and prejudice, but there is less of a sense of cohesion and purpose.
There was a time, not so long ago, when Disability Arts was about standing up to be counted as a disabled person. Now, it seems, the issues are a lot more complicated. In part this is to do with the shift of emphasis from performing arts to visual arts. Holton Lee's First Disability Arts Competitive Exhibition, was surely a manifestation of that shift.
Disabled artists are exhibiting and touring, and proving their professionalism more than ever before. Some have argued (take a look at Paul Darke's essay Now I know why Disability Art is drowning in the River Lethe) that professionalism is the death of Disability Arts. I can see the logic of that. But I can also see that producing work, which is issue-based and also ticks the much lauded, art historical reference boxes, could the take Disability Arts an extra mile. That is certainly what I understood as a premise behind the Holton Lee competition. The exhibition had some excellent work on show, which exemplified what Holton Lee set out to do - ie. show that Disability Arts is a vibrant and developing medium. But asking all entrants to show that their work comes from a disability perspective, wasn't enough to make this a cohesive experience. Some more thought and imagination in the theme could have produced something that really pushed the debate for quality as the accompanying brochure asserted.
An addition to the exhibition comment book read, "what impressed me is that this work is about real things". This is key to Disability Arts. It's the thing that keeps me engaged and enthralled by it. Both Jon Adams Devil Drives a Yellow Car and Rachel Gadsden's Touching Angels were deserving winners of the two prizes on offer. The Yellow Car in question was a large yellow canvas with books screwed to it. They were covered with black glass plates that revealed disparate words from the text. It was a painful piece of work (apparently Jon was sick when he painted the yellow), and incredibly descriptive of how someone with dyslexia perceives a page of text.
A daring attempt to take Disability Arts to another level
Rachel Gadsden's extraordinary Touching Angels, won the Peoples' Choice award. As far as the disability context goes, it was the one landscape, which transcended the convention. I've often wondered why so little Disability Arts focuses on war, as a theme - it being one of the major, and certainly the most horrific, causes of disability.
On a frivolous and lyrical note, I loved Alyson Lomas' pen and wash portrait, affirming the power of difference. But as a whole I was struck by the fact that work by Jon Adams, Olivier Jamin, Sunny Chana, Caroline Cardus, Barbara Romain and Angela Edmonds all used text / language as a theme. It was an aspect of the show I found intriguing. Perhaps this is because the disability perspective is about redefining language and taking control of the perception of our authentic experience as disabled people. Angela Edmonds summed it up with the epitaph on her Casket: Just because you're fit, doesn't mean you'll live longer. In context it resonates as a cutting epitaph against day-to-day prejudice.
Competitive exhibitions rarely hang together. Despite some stunning, original and thought-provoking work, this exhibition was no exception. Firstly, there was too much work - and secondly a big disparity in terms of quality of materials and presentation. It also seemed a mistake to include work that didn't burst out of a disability context. There was surely enough in that vein to fill the gallery, without trying to cover every bit of wall space in a Royal Academy Summer Show-style hanging. Maybe the context doesn't always have to be apparent? But I felt the disability perspective within the interior and exterior landscapes (which as it happens, included my own daubings), was only evident with reference to the artists' statements.
This was a daring attempt to take Disability Arts to another level. I hope the competition develops as an annual event - perhaps even a travelling exhibition? Elements of this exhibition could have easily commanded an airing in a more prestigious, mainstream setting. It is important we push the quality debate further. As much as anything else it could become a crucial marketing tool for the National Disability Arts Collection and Archive, based at Holton Lee. But the exhibition revealed that some artists are maybe not quite ready for this kind of exposure - and I'm including myself here.
I was delighted to enter some artwork for the competition. But having done it, pushed me to question what it is all about? My art-making has always been an on-off thing. It is an expensive and messy business, creating anything you would want to put in a gallery. Thus periods of making work and not making it, often reflect how flush I am. In the last year I've spent 20 per cent of my income, before tax, on this obsession. Just the cost of framing and transporting work to Holton Lee, represented 5 per cent of my yearly income.
I've often been admonished over the years by an assortment of people, to not sell out, as an artist. I've never been told to not bankrupt myself! I think this illustrates the dilemma of attempting to be that most auspicious of things - a professional artist. It is especially difficult, when working within a context, which is persistently viewed as being about community or participatory arts. Making visual art is an expensive and time-consuming business. Without the contacts and the support to keep going, is a very precarious business.
However, seeing my work on show, gave me a fantastic opportunity to judge it critically for myself. There was also the kudos of having the work accepted and receiving a commendation - even if I don't believe I would have awarded it to myself. Getting some objectivity on work intended for a fairly large space is not an easy luxury to accommodate. But it is a necessary to find out what directions the work suggests for future development. I'd love to see Holton Lee thriving as a place where disabled artists can work and develop and gain confidence in what they are doing, to really push the boat out. Finally, what an exhibition like this should be looking to achieve, is about finding a real confidence. Not the kind of bravura statements, which so often convey a pointless self-justification. We are worth more than that. Disability Arts is worth more than that.