A country park in Gloucestershire may not immediately demand analogy with London’s East End in the late 1970s, but Blackrock, an artist residency programme located in Lydney Park Estate, triggers some unlikely comparisons. One link is Robin Klassnik, who founded the non-profit Matt’s Gallery in his SPACE studio on Martello Street in 1979, and is now one of three Blackrock directors alongside artist Roy Voss and Rupert Bathurst, the custodian of Lydney Park Estate. ‘The three ‘R’s’ – as they refer to themselves – are keen to emphasize that Blackrock is not simply ‘Matt’s in the country’, and any attempts to make comparisons with Hauser & Wirth’s countryside gallery in the neighbouring county of Somerset are swiftly checked. While there is a modest white cube space named Matt’s Gallery + Blackrock, currently showing work by Matt’s artist Willie Doherty in a newly converted barn, Blackrock itself is a distinct project with its own emerging identity.
Now in its second year, Blackrock awards invited artists a stipend, production grant, accommodation and studio space on the estate. Between May and July, the artists – this year, Patrick Goddard, Sally O’Reilly and Alison Turnbull – are free to devise, develop and make new work with access to Lydney Park and its surroundings, which include a deer park, a Roman camp, ancient forestry and an array of outbuildings in various states of repair and accessibility. As summer passes, the artists have time for further reflection and possible changes of mind, before the resulting work becomes accessible to the public in autumn. The inaugural Blackrock opened for just one weekend; this year you could visit on two weekends in September. Klassnik’s influence can be seen in this weighting of time, which favours process over result – an approach that has characterized Matt’s Gallery since its inception.
At Martello Street in Hackney an artist might work on a project for months while the final show would open for just a week. When Matt’s Gallery moved to a larger space in 1993, on the ground floor of Acme Studios in Copperfield Road, southeast of Martello Street in the neighbouring borough of Tower Hamlets, two gallery spaces were built allowing one show to be open while another artist spent that time making and developing work in the other. In this way exhibitions at Matt’s Gallery have always had something of a residential quality. While the London art scene and market grew rapidly and fused with an exponentially expanding art world in the 1990s, Matt’s Gallery’s has adhered to this slower onsite approach which fosters particular relationships between gallerist, artist, the artwork and the space in which it is made. Retaining its not for profit status has enabled Matt’s to continue to offer artists time and space free from market pressures in which to test possibilities and take risks. In the years before the East End was ‘discovered’ by the market this included the risk of not reaching a large audience or selling work, for artists and galleries based there. These kinds of risks present themselves once again in the Blackrock project. Its potential audience may simply not want to make the two-hour journey from London on some of the country’s ricketiest trains to a place where the roads have verges rather than pavement and wild boar roam through viscous red mud.
The Blackrock residents are not briefed in regard to the nature of the work they are expected to produce during the residency but a place so remote and alien from their usual working lives inevitably impresses itself to some extent. The sense of being an outsider, trying to assimilate into and make sense of oneself in an alien pre-existing and self-contained environment, is central to one of O’Reilly’s Blackrock works. The video All the Knowledge in Age Concern (2016) is shown on a screen set in a shelter constructed from charity shop floral curtains which is in turn set within a cavernous greenhouse. A first person narrative recounts the plight of a feminine noun trying to gain admittance into a language ‘whose border is guarded by weather and nettles’. While waiting for admission in a camp set up by other coinages and neologisms she constructs a knowledge of the language in a ‘library’ comprised solely of books found in Lydney town’s Age Concern charity shop which range from The Top Ten of Everything to Hot Guys with Baby Animals.
One of the challenges of making and showing work beyond a conventional gallery space is negotiating the existing characteristics of a particular place. At Lydney Park Estate the artists find ways of working with, against and around the weight of its history and its visual grandeur. Turnbull finds interior nooks and quietly extends centuries of diligent bookkeeping and collecting with drawings, photographs and paintings. In the estate’s small museum Turnbull’s photographs of moths and paintings abstracted from plans and drawings of the Roman camp emerge slowly from the wunderkammer of ancestral paraphernalia and archaeological treasure. In the estate office her pencil and ink drawings made directly in antique ledgers echo the precise intensive labour of generations of office clerks.
From a wilder place Patrick Goddard, whose work often involves a humorously awkward and self-conscious engagement with class relations and social conditioning, both accentuates and conflates distinction with They Think of the World in Terms of Us and Them (2016). The words ‘THEM’ and ‘US’ constructed from wood in a steel frame face each other across a rolling meadow high in a forest clearing as if poised for battle. The weekends are bookended with the burning of each in turn – first them, then us.
Art thrives on the incongruous. When artists moved to the East End of London in the 1970s the collision of disparate worlds opened up new physical and imaginative spaces for art to reinvent itself. Rent was cheap then, too. Now that the market continues to hastily sew up these pockets of potential, for the time being at least, such spaces are becoming harder to find in the capital. This situation has perhaps reinvigorated similar organizations and galleries in other parts of Britain outside of the London property bubble. Matt’s moved from its East London space on Copperfield Road earlier this year to a temporary space in Southwark in South London. In 2019 it is due to relocate again to a new permanent space in Wandsworth in southwest London. A project like Blackrock, meanwhile, may suggest that those hard to reach places beyond our cities and suburbs may have a lot more to offer than a nice weekend in the country.
Main image: Patrick Goddard, They Think of the World in Terms of Us and Them (detail), 2016. Courtesy: the artist and Matt's Gallery + Blackrock Residency