By Nick Pelling

By now, anyone with a vague interest in the art world, probably knows that our local art collective, Project Artworks, has been short-listed for the national Turner Prize. Over the years, of unmade beds and dissected cows, the prize has become a kind of reliable controversy machine within the media-world, which has already given Project Artworks a great blast of the artsy limelight. But, the odd thing is that the media circus around the prize has served to obscure what Project Artworks actually is.

Even the title of the current exhibition at Hastings Contemporary – ignition – is perhaps slightly misleading, in that it implies an explosive start. As if the group had just fired itself into being. In truth, Project Artworks has existed for over twenty years. In that time it has become an inclusive collective of ‘neurodiverse’ artists, other art practitioners and trained support workers. According to Kate Adams, the collective’s Art Director, the people working in this group make up an “ecosystem of inter-dependencies.” This may sound a little pretentious but their absolute commitment to this practice over such a long time is surely the very antithesis of the momentary gimmickery that has, rightly or wrongly, come to be associated with the prize.

Untitled by Stanley Ellis and Louis Newham

I think the thing which confuses people is that Project Artworks is not one artist. In evaluating art people seem to want a name, a fractured genius preferably. There is something written deep into the DNA of art that art is made by individuals and is the expression of the soul of that individual. Or something like that. If you think that way, it becomes very hard to think of a collective as an artist. Can a committee be an artist? However one thinks of it,
the curious fact is that all the five short listed candidates for the prize are ‘collectives.’ As Waldemar Januszczak, the Sunday Times art critic, says, with a tone of disapproval, collectives are now suddenly “fashionable.”

Detail from Toy Story by Michelle Roberts

Putting such issues to one side, what is the actual art like? Walking into the Hastings Contemporary gallery, one is first struck by the fact that all of the paintings are on a large scale – huge pieces of textured Fabriano paper about nine feet high – and most of them have great energy of line: almost abstract expressionist, if you had to put a label on it. But labels are probably irrelevant. It is just strong, bold art with plenty of zap to it. And not just paintings; there is also sculpture and film and sound art. At the risk of contradicting the whole idea of an inclusive collective, I found the work of Stanley Ellis and Louis Newham pretty special. 

 But there will always be nay-sayers. Januszczak, has recently weighed in with his great wisdom that the Turner Prize is “an insult to art.” To be fair to him, he argued that a worthy cause, such as helping neurodivergent people, is just that, a worthy cause. Not Art. Januszczak seems to subscribe to the elitist notion that an artist is a higher being bringing us great truths about this pompous thing known as “the human condition.” Probably the only way to decide if you think the Hastings collective should be the winner – or if art has been insulted, or if old art critics are a bit tedious – is to go the gallery and have a look for yourself. To put it another way, as in The Big Lebowski, why not go and check out what condition your condition is in?

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