Can You Hear Me Now? 

Stephen Carley and Anna Mawby at Derby Museums and Art Gallery

Over the last decade there has been a transformation in how public art galleries in cities such as Derby present art to their citizens, particularly when it comes to engaging children and reaching out to communities, some traditionally not seen as being interested in art. And this has extended to a wide range of minority communities, reflecting their increasingly cosmopolitan nature. A widespread reserve of creativity has been discovered.

As a result public awareness of and interest in art has never been greater, added to by a great splurge of millennium new gallery building, such as the Quad in Derby and Nottingham Contemporary.

Unfortunately the other part of the story is not so encouraging.

Even in good times, regional art galleries can still find it difficult to generate the resources needed to sustain imaginative and engaging, work and exhibition programmes. Unfortunately, despite all the attention, art remains the poor relation when it comes to local authority priorities and spending.  And now in much harder times, this is even more the case. The dependency on other sources of funding, such as the Arts Council, has never been greater. And they are also being cut.

All the more reason then, to applaud a fine new show in Derby, “Can You Hear Me Now”, from Anna Mawby and Stephen Carley.

Some argue that artists work best when times are hard. I don’t know whether the verdict of history confirms or denies this but in their different ways, Carley and Mawby have succeeded in producing both challenging and approachable work.

In this case it is also their partnership with Derby’s curator, Andrea Hadley Johnson that has added to the substance and impact. Many gallery visitors are generally in the dark about what a curator does, a bit like the mystery of a conductor waving their baton in front of an orchestra. Where’s the added value they ask?

In this case the curator has made a clear difference. Firstly, I think it is her understanding that has sensed that in bringing Mawby and Carley together, that the sum of the parts stood a good chance of adding up to more than the parts themselves. And in my view the chemistry has worked. But it could have gone badly wrong. Carley absorbs information and creates ideas and projects at seeming quick fire speed. By contrast, I sense that Mawby absorbs things in a slower and more measured way. And it shows, in how they have approached, CYHMN. Carley could quite easily have run riot and dominated the show. If you look at which artist has created which piece then one clearly out produces the other. But the chemistry works because the slower, digested impact of Mawbys pieces balances the zippy, dynamism of Carley. The curator has understood that here are two artists who will develop and respond to ideas and stimuli in complementary ways, without the one overwhelming the other.

But perhaps the critical ingredient in CYHMN are the people of Derby who responded to eight questions around the emotions of joy, fear, desire, guilt, sadness, disgust, delight and anger. Without their openness in answering such questions as, “What makes you tremble with…Desire”, there would have been no show.

For far too many people the art gallery door remains a block they never get past. But we know that the great efforts going on between galleries like Derby and local schools are doing a lot to break down this barrier, such that a new generation will escape the sound bite, narrowness of much of the popular media.

In this case, CYHMN, bridges that gap. Between them, the artists and the curator have carried out a snapshot census of feelings at a moment in time.

Contemporary art, sometimes struggles to illustrate societal tensions. But it can open a window, stimulating wider thought and reflection. In the words of Ernst Bloch, it can encourage us, “to stand outside the darkness of our own lived moments”.

CYHMN does this by a rich mix of visually enticing, levels, formats and applications, in which the use of different letter fonts, often Times New Roman, play an important role, where the physical forms match the expressed sentiments.

Carley and Mawby manage to be clever and inventive and not smug or affected.

It means their work is approachable, experienced as a laugh and a smile, as with the line high up on the gallery wall, “In the future we will all be fucking glamour models”, or in the stillness of quiet thought, where inside the cheap, gilt frame is the shock of, “Being poor all of my life”. As a result it crosses age and class backgrounds.

Interestingly the experience has also reached deep into the artists own emotions. Anna Mawby describes how she was drawn towards sadness and found it more difficult to connect with desire and delight. She also wonders at peoples inner thoughts, using the example of, “Steak and Kidney pies” as a response to fear.

She is also very conscious of trying to make the fonts she uses, “neutral and timeless”, painstakingly creating her letters, by piercing them into a base of sugar or salt, such as with, “long grass”.

I don’t know how many of Derby’s good councillors have been to see this show but if they ever wanted to understand why public money is spent on art, particularly in hard times, then they could do a lot worse than visiting, “Can You Hear Me Now”.

Can You Hear Me Now continues at Derby Museum and Art Gallery until 10th June 2012.

ÓKeith Hayman – March 2012.