By Dr. David Stent, Fine Art Subject Leader
Last month the Fine Art students and a few staff members visited the New Art Centre at Roche Court, East Winterslow, Wiltshire. As part of Professional and Contextual Research study units, the students were tasked with writing a critical review of the current temporary exhibition, Psychotropics, curated by Iwona Blazwick (Director of the Whitechapel Gallery).
Having arrived in a winter gale and pouring rain, we were kindly given a tour of part of the wider sixty-acre sculpture park by Jenny Cooper, on behalf of the Educational Trust. This gave a taste of the variety of artworks displayed in and around the grounds and gardens of Roche Court, the elegant nineteenth century house at the centre of the estate, still the private residence of founder Madeleine Bessborough. Originally built for Lord Nelson in 1804, the year before Trafalgar, the house is surrounded by a huge number of artworks by artists such as Barbara Hepworth, Richard Long, David Nash, Practice Architecture, as well contemporary artists with connections to West Dean, such as Laura Ford and Eva Rothschild, the latter currently working with West Dean Tapestry Studio on large-scale tapestry commissions. Originally founded by Bessborough at London’s Sloane Street in 1958 the New Art Centre relocated to the Salisbury area in 1994. Its founding principle of supporting emerging artists and giving many their first public exposure or exhibition opportunities continues to this day.
After braving the rain, the group then moved into the rear courtyard of Roche Court to visit the Artist’s House, designed by architect Stephen Marshall on the model of Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge. The minimal design of the Artist’s House, with elegant wooden floors and wide windows overlooking landscaped courtyards and flower-covered garden walls, carefully frames a changing display of works over two floors, including an extensive collection of pieces by Edmund de Waal. Viewable by appointment, the space showcases a restrained domestic setting and scale that emphasises the Centre’s commercial imperative in relation to the presentation of work, connecting potential buyers with projected impressions of works in the context of their own collections.
The students then moved on to the first section of the ‘Psychotropics’ exhibition, taking copious notes in the glass-walled main Gallery, another award-winning design by Marshall that opened in 1998. The eclectic nature of the exhibition and its stated theme of “nature in the 21st century re-imagined by artists working in the age of a digital wilderness”, became immediately apparent in the large installation by Jonathan Trayte. Orange Foam, Cola Moon dominated the former Orangery, its consumer gloss and composite nature bolstered by a materials list including crushed glass, horsehair and flocked steel. The Gallery space then opened out onto a series of large-scale, digitally-inflected paintings by Dan Perfect and intricate, hyper-synthetic floor-based sculptures by Alice Channer.
The exhibition continued in another recent space, this time a new building attached to a former gardener’s cottage beside the walled garden, now known as The Design House. Across a variety of rooms of different sizes, further works by Trayter, Perfect and Channer were joined by Salvatore Arancio’s kaleidoscopic ceramics, paintings and prints by Andreas Eriksson, Diane Howse and Amy Stephens. The exhibition’s focus on the near-hallucinatory topographies of digital technologies, industrial processes and synthetic materials consciously aimed to connect the work of these artists with the urgent concerns of the Anthropocene era evidently driving much of their work.
Our visit was topped off with a chance to meet and talk with Creative Director, Lewis Gilbert, tasked with linking up the previous fifty years of the New Arts Centre with the next fifty. Lewis generously provided an overview of his role at NAC, highlighted some exciting upcoming shows, as well as his previous experience working at White Cube and Frieze. He spoke of the different demands of running a commercial gallery in a rural setting, at the same time revelling in the freedom granted by not being pressured to stay ‘on trend’, or being in direct competition with the London art world - with the challenges of creating buzz around exhibitions and getting people to visit and see things in the flesh rather than via digital documentation. Lewis also spoke of his working relationship with Madeleine Bessborough, emphasising her presence as a key continuity to the Centre over the previous sixty years, their shared focus on ‘intent’, ‘quality’, and materials / making, whilst stressing the vitality inherent in embracing a constantly shifting aesthetic sensibility.
The visit was both enjoyable and productive, with each student tasked with writing their own reflective and critical response to ‘Psychotropics’. It will be fascinating to see how each of them responded – it may be that some of the reviews will be posted on this blog in future. Many thanks again to all those at the New Arts Centre for their hospitality and enthusiasm for our visit.