Merlin Betts interviews Katherine Weston-Smith and Sophie Shrubb, two students  at UCH, about how they curated an exhibition at Dirty Old Gallery, West Street. The show is entitled “That Which I Once Knew And Thought”. It is a contemporary mix of sculpture, painting, photography and film by two artists: Charles Garrad and Rory Prout.

Firstly, can you give me a little bit of background on your course at Brighton and what they’ve been telling you about curating shows? I’m very interested in how the coastal arts scene is developing down here, particularly how it’s becoming the two Sussexes’ most visible output, and an important economic factor for local government. It’d be good to know if and how training/learning institutions are engaging with this process.

Part of Onward and Upward by Charles Garrad
PICTURE: Katharine Weston Smith

K&S: Sophie and I are 2nd year students on the BA Fine Art (Practice) course at University Centre Hastings (validated by University of Brighton). One of the 2nd year modules is Curation & Communication. We have had some lectures, workshops and gallery visits on curatorial practice, historic and contemporary, including from curators working locally at DLWP and Flatlands. But the thrust of this module has been learning from experience (with guidance as needed) by going through all the necessary steps to put on and promote an exhibition, including finding artists and a venue, selecting a theme, hanging the work and producing publicity materials. The University is keen for us to develop and make use of local links as well as encouraging us to be ambitious with the exhibition we produce e.g. contacting well-established artists.

Tell me about the title of the show – is it focussing on the loss of memory, the uncertain space between the event that happened and the image corrupted by repeated attempts at recollection? How did you come to your main topic/theme? Why the two artists you’ve chosen? Because of the variety of their work? I know there’s a Hastings/London dichotomy too, and Charles is better known while Rory is less so.

K&S: Combining the above questions: we selected the artists first – I know Charles personally (he’s my cousin, although I had’t seen most of his work before) and we were both familiar with Rory’s work because he also works at East Sussex College. We wanted to present an interaction or conversation between two artists. We were both particularly drawn to Charles’ glass pieces and the more we looked, the more we saw connections with Rory’s work. So we selected works from Charles’ extensive collection that seemed
to explore places that were remembered even at the time they were made. With the passing years they seem to have retained a timelessness – as if the details have been captured for ever and almost become part of our own memory. Rory’s paintings evoke something similar – a feeling that one has seen this before but it isn’t quite clear when or where, yet a moment in time and place has been preserved. Both artists, using very different techniques, choose to keep their images partly obscured and somehow dislocated from their context so we are encouraged to ask our own questions and draw our own conclusions.

We could also see connection in terms of scale: Charles’ encased images and Rory’s paintings are on an intimate scale, both artists drawing the viewer in close. There are further connections in terms of an emphasis on the process of making, the use of curve and line to guide the viewers eye, and the subtlety of the palette.

We wanted the viewers to think about spaces, places, connections, objects and words in different ways, by encouraging them to walk and look from different directions and levels, hence our decision to include non-wall-hung work and the film, and the perhaps slightly unexpected positioning of some of the pieces.

And yes, we were attracted to the idea of supporting both a younger local emerging artist and an artist who has not shown this type of work for a number of decades (Charles is now a successful film director), and encouraging an expansion of the art ecology in Hastings by inviting an artist from London to show here, and showing them what an exhibition in Hastings has to offer; something we feel other project spaces and galleries on the Sussex coast are doing.

[M: Flatland Projects, DLWP, Hastings Contemporary and Elisabeth Bauer are among those that have also done London-Hastings collaboration shows – it’s definitely a trend]

So coming back to the title; Sophie chose an extract from an abstract piece of her own writing in response to the work. She wanted the title to be both a way into the show (an obvious association with memory) but felt that both artists’ works have a distinctly dreamy quality to them, and a particular feeling of déjà vu, hence the inclusion of a thought element, as though the image may be recognised from a dream.

Part of Onward and Upward by Charles Garrad
PICTURE: Katharine Weston Smith

Do you have a favourite work in the show? Why that one?

Sophie: Rory’s ‘Pond’ painting is something I always find myself gravitating back towards. There is something so alluring about the finish and scale of the piece, and the whole image has a sense of haunting quiet which I absolutely love.

Katherine: I can’t decide. I feel very privileged to have been able to work with both artists and am pleased with the wholeness of the show.

Why pick Dirty Old Gallery as a venue? (I love the place, but interested to hear your thoughts/experiences). Why not somewhere like the Arts Forum, or maybe the Crypt at St Mary’s? Did you try to get in anywhere that didn’t work out?

K&S: We looked at both the places you mention as well as other venues. Both were above our budget and very booked up but we didn’t completely dismiss them. However when we saw the Dirty Old Gallery it felt perfect for the works we wanted to show. The interesting architecture, quirks and feel of the space, with its own memories of the past, fitted precisely with our exhibition theme and it was also about the right size. Of equal importance was the warm welcome we received from Megan and Joe, who wanted to do all they could to support us, to the extent of giving us free rein of their gallery leading up to the opening, and providing all sorts of practical tips. 

[M: they’re a great team for sure – always welcoming, always enthusiastic]

Full, Empty, Half Full, Half Empty by Charles Garrad
PICTURE: Katharine Weston Smith

Do you think Hastings and the surrounding landscape plays a substantial role in what kind of work artists make here? There’s so much history, so much faded glory, and the sandstone cliffs slowly decaying, or nearby the weirdness of the power station at Dungeness, for example. The almost other-worldly countryside towns like Rye and Winchelsea. Is it keeping us all a little obsessed with ideas of the past and loss, dreams and recollections?

K&S: Yes definitely. So many local artists are intrigued by Hastings and the surrounding area, exploring all aspects from the landscape to the people. And yes I do think the landscape and the history encourage contemplation of the past, perhaps especially for those of us a little past youth. But I also think artists are drawn to a very warm welcoming and vibrant contemporary artists’ community and we will need to do all we can to think of ways to continue this through the oncoming difficult months. 

That Which I Once Knew And Thought was scheduled to show from 13th-22nd March but closed slightly early in accordance with government recommendations.

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