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Big things spoken softly

In Cornwall’s art ecology, Hweg punches above its weight and size to bring artist and audience together.

Words by Martin Holman.

Every vital area of existence has its ecology. The term is familiar from the relationships we know organisms in nature need with their surroundings to maintain their healthy existence. The world of visual art also has its ecology, made up of creative artists and the people and places interacting critically with these makers to promote awareness, furnish markets and, above all, to show their work. Gallerists, museum professionals and writers are parts of that ecology, and so is the public who look at, interpret and remember the art they saw. That last element in the culture is arguably the most important. For, like oxygen, it brings art into comparison with everyday life, its pleasures, challenges and aspirations.

That ecology allows artworks to be seen and to grow. Hectic times, such as the world is going through now, is perhaps when we most need to turn to art. When they occur, those channels that allow us to seek out the most effective examples are at their most crucial. To see art such as the careful, attentive and intimate objects of Jamie Mills, a Penzance artist whose work is both the product of and reflection on his regard for the natural world. Mills walks the landscape and coastline to observe and to absorb the sensations of shape, surface and movement of those places.

Elena Gileva, ‘Light Pink Weave’, natural threads (detail)

He collects as he walks - birds’ quills, types of seaweed, sticks, stones, wood; rubber as the flotsam of passing sea trade or abandoned picture frames; and shredded items in weathered clothing. He sifts and sorts, and assesses calmly how using the material might relay his experiences to the onlooker. All these substances appear in his newest work – as themselves but also transformed into subtly-toned objects harbouring lyrical resonances of a deeper life than those from which these residues and leavings were jettisoned. They re-emerge through Mills’ handling by way of signs and metaphors into a personal language.

In the way that, for instance, writers use words and musicians organise notes, Mills combines textures, shaping them by hand (often with needle and thread) into boat-like shapes that might imply the unpredictable wave patterns of life. He carefully judges scale and interconnection, so that objects are capable of transmitting meaning, through the space they appear in, to others prepared to open themselves to their rhythm and form. As in ship-to-shore telegraphy, maybe, or the delicate voicings of chords drawn from an instrument by a practised musician.

For a multi-disciplinary artist like Mills, whose seamless range extends to photography, musical composition and collaborations with writers and dancers, the framework of a gallery in tune with his outlook is both essential and fortuitous. His latest exhibition is titled Sanctuary (A Space under the Tongue) and takes place at Hweg, the ground-floor space on Causewayhead in Penzance that opened in 2021. The creation of arts educator and designer Joe Lyward, Hweg has already made a significant contribution to the arts ecology of Penwith – and thus of the county as a whole. That is because the most explorative and advanced visual arts activity is concentrated in the far west, close to Cornwall’s historic centres for new art, Newlyn and St Ives. The district remains fertile ground, attracting artists to work in the towns around its coastline and, for the most prominent few, develop careers into a national relevance, gaining them access to prestigious opportunities around the UK and Europe.

Elena Gileva, ‘Vocabulary of Tactile Language’, installation of ceramic sculptures

Bodmin-raised Lyward wanted to create a gallery with comparably wide horizons that yet still felt “local”. He welcomes visitors into an aesthetic experience with the work on show that encourages looking. They enter freely and have interesting things to greet them. He chose the Cornish word ‘hweg’ for its connotations with gentle, kind, pleasant, pleasing. The only stipulation on visitors is that there are no wrong views about what they see: all opinions are legitimate if sincere. The single white-walled space flows almost step-free off the busy pedestrian street; he hopes comparable obstacles to entering art are also absent, fostering an atmosphere building viewers’ confidence with the sometimes unexpected installations he offers them.

Installation view of In Flower Beds exhibition, June 2023, with (left) Mana Yamamoto, ‘Sotto Saite’ and (right) Ben Sanderson, ‘08/07/2022’

Such as Hiroko Watanabe’s installation ‘Omiyage’, a word most often translated from the Japanese original as “souvenir”. Lyward invited Hiroko to visit Penzance from Japan, and the work she brought was a remarkable and beautiful composition. Little boxes, individually wrapped in gift paper, were laid on a low-level table top. Overhead a shower of silk flowers on tiny cotton stems hung from a criss-cross of threads that spanned the width of the gallery, catching the electric light so that the strings resembled gentle rain. Watanabe thought of the boxes and flowers as potential gifts; brought by a Japanese visitor, the Penzance audience could take them home immediately for the outlay of a few pounds.

In the window area the artist hung an accompanying piece – a sheet-like cloth with an an embroidered decoration at the edges – so that it reached to the floor, as if signifying a greeting to a special occasion. The design left ample space for everyone who wished to to sign their names as expressively as they wanted with the coloured pens she left out for that purpose. Throughout the duration of the show, the previously empty space grew increasingly full. When the show finally closed, Lyward took down the cloth and, carefully folded into a parcel, posted it back to Hiroko as a souvenir, a return gift to her that bristles with the pictorial signatures of Penzance people.

All art is an exchange, a view that Lyward subscribes to wholeheartedly. And the success of Hiroko’s project was its openness to other people who fell in with it through their own actions. That is one route that art takes to evolve its significance, and how it breathes life into society. Moreover, Hweg is an example of a gallery where that transaction has no overriding commercial undertow, although Lyward sells the work he shows. Instead, the dialogue is unspoken and formulated in the mind over time; and it can be renewed with every future meeting. That is why Hweg bears no resemblance to a shop where art is bought and sold, but looks like part of a home that the owner has opened up to guests.

Jamie Mills, (above) ‘Vestige (Umbra)’, 2023, paper, steel wire, beeswax, thread, 36 x 37 cm and (below) ‘Talisman i to iv’ , 2023, bronze, 7 x 2.5 cm

When he decided to put his ambition for a gallery into practice, Lyward had a model in mind. Since his time as a student at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge, he has admired the ambience surrounding Kettle’s Yard. The building just outside the centre of the city is deeply associated with the radical British modernism that emerged in the pre-war studios in St Ives where Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson worked, and which flourished there to international effect in the following decades. For Lyward, that focus had another value. “I struggled with living up country,” he recently told the Cornwall-based artist Rupert White. “I was very aware of a difference in culture and values. So having all that Cornish art around me was nice. It brought me back home in a way.”

Lyward drew special inspiration from the couple who created the house. Jim and Helen Ede bought four tumbledown cottages in the late 1950s to convert into a single dwelling which they filled with their collection. Every item was placed with extreme care, in dialogue with its neighbours. The special qualities still felt at Kettle’s Yard (which is now a public venue with an exhibition gallery of its own) are atmospheric harmony and attention to how different artworks can interrelate.

Then the Edes invited students from Cambridge University to visit and absorb the ambience and become familiar with the artists and their work. Not only did the setting energise Lyward, it encouraged other young people to become curators. One visitor in the 1960s who knew Ede was Nicholas Serota: he later became director of the Tate Gallery, created Tate Modern and transformed the British public’s perception of new art.

In his house, Jim Ede set out objects in a way that was totally foreign to the usual museum environment. There were no labels and artworks were displayed alongside furniture, glass, ceramics and natural objects – and that has not changed after almost 70 years. No distinction exists between art and craft: what matters is the inflection between form, surface, colour and space as the eye travels between rooms, rather than by dates or ‘schools’.

Lyward worked in the house as an educator for a year and, he says, “I think of working at Kettle’s Yard as my training, how to create a considered space in which art is shared. I’m happy that ambience is felt by visitors to Hweg.” Visitors are as likely to encounter ceramics (the building once housed a pottery) or a sound installation as painting and sculpture. Russian-born and London-based artist Elena Gileva recently showed her small-scale woven and clay objects, shapes pulled into vibrant, abstract latticed and lurching shapes, brightly painted and glazed.

Since opening his gallery, Lyward has followed his aspiration for a living place where works of art can be enjoyed by all ages, unhampered by the formality of public places. Indeed, Lyward lives upstairs from the gallery and projects the same warmth and pride to exhibition visitors as a homeowner shows to guests. “The space has this domestic scale and I’m sensitive to that in the way I curate. Hweg is also essentially a white-cube, a neutral setting and the kind of space that I’ve visited in Tokyo, which could add something unexpected to the high street in Penzance.” There is a resident cat: Koyangi roams the gallery, settles to look at people looking at art, and on cold days seeks full advantage of the under-floor heating.

Installation view of Hiroko Watanabe, ‘Omiyage’, 2023

Lyward’s house, however, does not have a garden. So a recent show invented an indoor one for him and for those calling by. A “living space” Hweg may be, but the show did not involve plants, only their evocation by nine artists from at least three continents. As well as images in paint, print and tapestry, there was text in the form of an essay, a poem and a bookmark.

Mana Yamamoto contributed a suite of cyanotype prints reframing branch and leaf forms as lines of poetry in Japanese against a background of evening blue. The prints measured only a fraction of the area covered by Helston-based Ben Sanderson’s double-sided collage drape: fabrics, processes and media coalesced into a single visual field. Sanderson’s piece was free-hanging, partitioning the space into impromptu front and back areas, and catching the draught so that it swayed contentedly. The gentle beauty of its tones and the robust, concentric, sewn linear elements encapsulated a quiet, productive and restorative corner of nature, the garden.

Nearby was a still-life painting by Winifred Nicholson of a vase in an open window, a bucolic touch by an historic piece borrowed from a collector. It seemed to be in conversation with a delicate watercolour plant study hung opposite, made on handmade paper by Jatinder Singh Durhailay, a London-born artist and musician whose present-day images recall the style of historic Indian Sikh painting.

The collaboration between scale, surface, image and idea defines Lyward’s sensitive presentation. It benefits from the space works are given, both within the room and against the light filtering through glazed doors at front and back. The entire room constitutes the exhibition. He spent a year in Japan after graduation and was deeply impressed by the careful arrangements of objects within lived interiors that give stability and calm to a room and whoever is in it.

Installation view of Jamie Mills exhibition, November 2023

In every ecology, there is a pecking order as well as a spread of relationships. West Cornwall’s art network spans publicly-funded Tate St I ves and Newlyn Art Gallery and commercial operations like Anima Mundi in St Ives. In addition there are groups of artists’ studios, Falmouth University and the latest iteration of non-vocational courses at Newlyn School of Art.

So where does Hweg sit? Lyward’s confident installations and sensitive attitude have naturally moved the gallery quickly towards the centre of that scene, bringing an international perspective built on insightful choices to otherwise parochial viewpoints.

Alongside similar new arrivals, such as the varied activities at CAST in Helston and Kestle Barton on the Lizard peninsula, Hweg stands out for the quality of its own relationships with interesting artists and a breadth of vision that embraces big ambitions.

The current exhibition at Hweg by Jamie Mills, Sanctuary (The Space under the Tongue), continues until 25 November 2023. All images (©) the artists.


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