Text by Georgina Wright
The latest exhibition at the Bluecoat is entitled Soft Estate by Edward Chell, the title of which stems from the Highways Agency term used to define the natural habitats that have emerged on the periphery of our motorways. Soft Estate observes nature in adversity and explores the interface between history, ecology, roads and travel. Chell also examines the 18th century notions of the picturesque paradoxically centring the exhibition on the marginal and unaesthetic in a defiant and almost voyeuristic manner.
By focusing on the typically unobserved sights of wildlife and natural beauty, Chell provokes an enquiry in relation to modifying the way we think of these marginal spaces that connect rural and urban environments. Chell presents intricate and typically pleasing botanical drawings of common roadside weeds created using road dust and etched car parts yet described using their elaborate Latin title and shown alongside reflective road signs illustrated with prose “The motorist soon realises what wonderful and hitherto unknown views this new road provides” outlining the thoughts of the entire exhibition, illuminating negligible parts of the landscape. Above the main gallery space, manipulated photographs of passageways are projected onto the gallery walls, complemented by the sounds and deep pulsating tones of motorway life. As Chell explains, “While 18th Century tourists travelled to areas such as the Lake District to capture images of wild places, in today’s countryside, uncontrolled wilderness only springs up in the margins of our transport networks and the semi-derelict grid plans of industrialised corridors. These soft estates invite a new kind of tourist, new ways of looking and new forms of visual representation.”
Other artists including Tim Bowditch & Nick Rochowski, Day Bowman, Jan Williams & Chris Teasdale (The Caravan Gallery), John Darwell, Laura Oldfield Ford, George Shaw, Robert Soden and Simon Woolham interrogate similar themes of those familiar yet overlooked and indefinable spaces and have been invited to exhibit alongside and in conversation with Chell. Their works depict juxtapositions commonly experienced in what they describe as ‘edgelands’, such as beauty and pollution, wilderness and human agency. Robert Soden presents a series of landscape paintings of indeterminate urban spaces reminiscent of a Paul Nash war torn landscape, dark and at the same time aesthetically wonderful. By examining the unknown parts of the landscape artists such as Laura Oldfield Ford’s remarkable pastel drawings of subways and urban bridges reintroduces the familiar, revealing a renewed attraction. Photographs by John Darwell taken whilst dog walking along a river denoting the boundary between arable land and urbanisation focus on the mundane, bypassed subjects and add an imaginative significance to these borderline spaces. Simon Woolham also adds a particularly ominous intensity with a collection of disquieting sketches revealing the implicit narrative within these dilapidated environments. Narrative and renewal are recurring subjects within the exhibition and overall the exhibition promotes a renewed awareness of the possibilities that lie beyond the unremarkable and everyday.
Georgina Wright is a writer based in Liverpool.
Image: Laura Oldfield Ford, M6 Junction 9, Bescot, 2011. Chalk, acrylic & ink on watercolour paper.