Written by Rhianwen Williams
I had the pleasure of visiting the Nicola Ellis and Ritherdon & Co Ltd: ‘No Gaps in The Line’ exhibition at Castlefield Gallery. This is Nicola Ellis’ first solo exhibition, and unlike anything I’d seen before – this exhibition shows the wonderful possibilities of when art is introduced to new social contexts and produced outside of the traditional studio – read on to find out more!
To provide some context to this exhibition, Nicola Ellis is an artist whose main interest lies in various ecosystems and environments, and how they function as a whole. In this instance, Ellis has created a body of work which is a product of her time at Ritherdon Factory in Darwen, Lancashire, where Ellis undertook a 2-year artist placement. Ellis is interested in the relationship between people, materials, and processes, and in creating a dynamic in which the artist and manufacturer can learn and benefit from one another. During her time there Ellis worked closely with the workers and the equipment – observing and challenging the workings of the ecosystem of the factory, and how the equipment could be pushed beyond their limits to work in new ways. Some works in the exhibition were directly dictated by the systems of the factory, and others were made to fit the gallery space – as a result, we can see a fascinating crossover of two industries.
Now, for the exhibition itself. I was firstly met with the upper gallery, which displays Ellis’ ‘Powder Coated Documents’. This is a series of steel sheets coated in ‘dead powder’ – which is the left-over paint from the colour spray booths of the Ritherdon factory. Ellis is known for often working with recycled and low waste materials – this body of work being no exception. The spray booths are usually cleaned after each use to avoid contaminating various colours, but in this case, Ellis has embraced this hybrid of colours, making a series of paintings which are totally unique to one another. These pieces are both autonomous artworks as well as a form of data, as they are visual records of the factory’s daily activity. They reminded me of colour field abstract paintings, and they even have a sort of digital quality to them. These pieces had me thinking about alternative spaces that art can be produced – perhaps the artist’s studio and industrial spaces such as Ritherdon & Co are not as different as they seem?
When walking down to the lower floor, there is a site-responsive work titled ‘S.A.M.S.P.S.E (semi-automatic machine self-portrait: Sculpture edition)’. This is a steel sculpture which dominates the gallery from upper ceiling to floor, towering over the viewer. This piece was made using the factory’s press break machinery which is used to bend and sculpt steel products. Ellis disrupted the CAD (Computer Aided Design) design process by programming a photo of a press break, creating a self-portrait of the machinery, translated into a 3D steel sculpture. This is a product completely unique to the artist and is a result of pushing the machinery beyond its limits to create what I perceive as an abstract sculpture. This piece blurs the lines of fine art and product design– it is a piece which looks like it should be functional due to its aesthetic but rejects this expectation.
On the wall going through to the lower gallery is a screen which documents the workers themselves in the factory in real time. Titled ‘Personal flash in real time (Tony) and Personal flash in real time (Andy)’, this screen is connected to two sets of lights hanging from the ceiling of the gallery, with each set responding to the movement of both workers in the factory and transmitting data. It was these sorts of kinetic touches in the exhibition that made it so fascinating to view in person – it really showed the cyclical nature of a factory environment and the sheer creativity that can stem from the crossover of these two industries.
Further into the lower level of the gallery is an installation titled ‘Donk, Spray, Clean, Repeat’. This piece was made up of 4 screens and projectors, each screen hanging from a big rectangular structure. Each screen showed a glimpse into the Ritherdon Factory, with one of the screens for example showing a worker cleaning out a spraying booth, and another showing a production line in motion. The sounds and movement from this installation really compliment the static works of the exhibition such as the ‘Powder Coated Documents’ and function as a reminder of the processes and the origins behind the exhibition of work. It was quite jarring having this purely industrial subject matter in a traditional white cube gallery space, but it was effective in reminding viewers of the crossover of these two industries, and of the pace and rhythm of the factory. This installation also complimented the movement of the city surrounding Castlefield Gallery, such as the passing of pedestrians and the transport going in and out of Deansgate station. This multisensory aspect of the exhibition, including the light installation above, added further dimension to the exhibition as a whole and really tied things together.
Overall, this exhibition was a really interesting experience and a prime example of how art can be produced within new and unusual contexts. Though at times I found it difficult to grasp without the context given on the information sheet, I would say it is well worth the visit and taking the time to read about the process. It really opened my mind up to new ways that art can be made. I would recommend this exhibition to anyone looking for something new to explore.
‘No Gaps in The Line’ is available to view until the 1st of August 2021, at Castlefield Gallery.
Our guest blogger is Rhianwen WIlliams: ‘Hi! I’m Rhianwen, I’m from North Wales and I’m in my final year at MMU studying BA Fine Art with Art History. My practice revolves around abstract painting, which I use as a way of exploring topics such as memory and grief. Art is something really cathartic for me, and alongside painting I also love printmaking and zine making! I was really drawn to working with Cotton on MCR for their accessible approach to the arts – this is something I’m super passionate about, and I think is really important in achieving a more diverse and inclusive art world!’ @rhianwenart