This year's Shape Open exhibition questions how we perceive disability, using painting, audio, textile, and even a mask made of meat to look beyond that which is visible. Currently in its third year, Shape Open is an annual call-out for both disabled and non-disabled artists to submit work of any medium in response to a disability-focused theme - this year, '[in]visible'. Mik Scarlet wheeled his way through the vast Westfield shopping complex to the exhibition.
Westfield in Stratford is not one of my favourite places on earth, which is strange as I usually love shopping. It's just a little too "pack em high and sell them cheap" for me, and I also find that it can be filled with the rudest people on the planet.
It is one place that you can guarantee that no-one will get out of your way if you are disabled, and even if you try to give off an air of hyper-confident aggression you still end up diving out of the path of over-eager bargain hunters if you want to remain in one piece.
So I was unsure how the Shape Arts pop-up gallery would sit within this "cathedral of consumerism", as the world renowned sculptor and CEO of Shape Arts Tony Heaton OBE described Westfield in his opening address to the gathered art lovers as the night kicked off. Luckily it proved to be a oasis of high culture within a desert of capitalist ideals.
Even from outside the glass doors of the gallery you are challenged and terrified by Claire Butler's ‘A Response to Anxiety’, a life-like sculpture of of an "angry and frustrated child", which the artist sees as a metaphor for her own experiences with mental health. It really is so life-like it takes a moment to accept it is a statue.
All of the work inside is of an equally high standard, and I didn't know really where to start. A drink I think, and so with glass in hand (or in the hand of my PA and wife to avoid my spilling drink over the art works) I wheeled off to take in [in]Visible.
Alongside bumping into the usual faces of the disability arts scene it was joy to see so many new and young faces. Works by new artists sat cheek by jowl with established names providing an exciting smorgasbord for culture vultures.
I immediately found myself drawn to Frederico Gallo's ‘Masks’, where the artist has painted grotesque faces over fashion photographs to explore the concept of invisible disability, and the stunning pencil drawing ‘Family Tree’ by Terence Walton, that confronts the hereditary nature of some impairments. These two encapsulate the extreme's of outcome that make [in]Visible such an enjoyable show.
The video art room was of a particularly high standard, with Jane Gauntlett's ‘In My Shoes: Walking In Slough’ being a personal favourite. Her use of Point-Of-View camera work to explore epilepsy and brain injury was amazing, and she took the viewer by the hand and allowed them into her existence as they saw and experienced the world through her eyes.
Dolly Sen's ‘You Are Here’ also took a personal approach to invisiblity, as she used a simple technique of printing you are here on a white canvas to show how it feels not to belong.
I just don't have enough words to tell you, dear reader, of all the wonders that are part of Shape's [in]Visible. Whether you are in Westfield and need respite from the frenzy of the desire to shop, or have ventured Eastward to steep yourself in truly inspirational creative endeavours, a visit to the Shape Pop-Up Gallery is a must.
It marks a point at where we see the disability arts movement grow and flourish, especially with the new blood that has added to it's ranks creating such wonderful work. It also is a show that you miss at your peril!