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Residencies at Bluecoat

published by Adam Smythe

As we make preparations to reopen our galleries, Bluecoat curator Adam Lewis-Smythe reflects on the importance of artistic residencies at ...


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New exhibition, Abacus, opens at Bluecoat

Abacus, an exhibition developed and curated with children in mind, opened at Bluecoat this week. Below, Bluecoat Head of Programming Marie-Anne McQuay gives a rundown of the artworks and artists included in the show.


Friday 21 July – Sunday 01 October 

Featuring Simon & Tom Bloor, Polly Brannan, Rhys Coren, Frances Disley, Kevin Hunt, Anssi Kasitonni, Yui Kugimiya, Yusuke Mashiba, Trine Lise Nedreaas, Out of the Blue, Emily Speed, Mark Simmonds, William Wegman, Huw Wahl, John Walmsley Liverpool Free School. 

This summer Bluecoat presents Abacus, a new exhibition that invites children to take over the art centre’s galleryArtists from the north and beyond have designed or contributed artworks to inspire visitors of all ages to watch, play, draw and make.

Commissions which break the traditional rules of a contemporary art space include Simon & Tom Bloor’s new installation, New possibilities in familiar situations (2017). The artists encourage the audience to draw directly on the walls of the gallery as sculptures in the centre of the installation will be chiselled off throughout the exhibtion to be used as drawing chalk, sacrificing sculptures made by the artists in order to generate drawings by the public.  New possibilities in familiar situations is inspired by the Bloors’ enduring interest in pioneering teacher and designer Kurt Rowland (1920-80) author of a series of experimental classroom textbooks on art, design and visual literacy. His designs have inspired textiles designed by Out of the Blue, a group of school children working on a year-round basis with Bluecoat.  

Other twentieth century arts education pioneers cited by Abacus artists include 1960s radical community arts collective Action Space documented by Manchester based filmmaker Huw Wahl and the 1970s free school movement captured by photographer John Walmsley. Liverpool had two pioneering free schools which had no compulsory lessons, no uniform, no timetables, no rules. Local teachers John Ord and Bill Murphy set up the Scotland Road Free School depicted here at Bluecoat by Walmsley in 1971. Inspired by such movements artist Polly Brannan's video work, charts informal and improvised playgrounds, highlighting the ways that artistic and creative approaches to children’s play and learning takes place outside of the formal structure of the gallery or classroom. 

Elsewhere in the gallery, in Emily Speed’s Structures for Play (2017) the artist has rescaled structures to child height. These structures include a courtroom, a kiosk, a chapel, a Mithraeum (a Roman site of worship), and an Eton fives court (a handball game created at Eton in the 19th century). Speed has chosen sites that are ordinarily heavily coded with rules for how we act and behave. As children are unlikely to have encountered many of these spaces before, Speed opens up the architecture of these sites to a more intuitive response of play. Throughout Structures for Play, children are invited to dress up in the specially designed costumes provided and play on or with the structures. 

Kids Video Arta collaboration with Kunsthall Stavanger, features short films and animations by UK and international artists selected to appeal to children. The programme includes Trine Lise Nedreaass shimmering hula hoops, Rhys Coren’s snapping fingers and William Wegman’s synchronised dogs. Coren is also exhibiting a series of related paintings which provide a rhythm of colour and form running along the gallery corridor. 

Artists have also made ordinary items into art works with Frances Disley turning the curtain for the screening space in which Kids Video Art is shown into an abstract painting which children can touch. Designer Mark Simmonds has also made signage into an art work with this Exhibition Wayfinding; a decorative line running continuously throughout the gallery suggesting a route from room to room. The shapes derive from a pack of Stephens Play Shapes Adhesive Stickers, reproduced here as vinyl in seven colours and enlarged to five times their original size. Meanwhile artist Kevin Hunt has contributed amongst other new works a backdrop for our reading space. Hunt has pasted over 100 sheets of screenprinted newspaper on the wall of the gallery. His work suggests a more playful approach to reading and writing, using only commas and full stops to create a large work in which these punctuation marks form incidental smiling and winking faces, patterns, and gestural marks. Hunt has chosen to print on the same newsprint used for the Financial Times, generally regarded as serious and authoritative, contrasting with his cheery emoticons. 

In our 300th anniversary year, Abacus takes Bluecoat’s two histories as charity school and the UK's earliest arts centre as its starting point. The exhibition celebrates the importance of contemporary cultural spaces as alternative creative learning environments with the invited artists addressing children as their primary audience. 

The exhibition is free and has a full set of events and activities for all ages. Please see the Abacus event page for more details on these related events, or download our Gallery Guide here.

Image credit 1: Simon and Tom Bloor, New possibilities in familiar situations, Installation Shot, Bluecoat © Rob Battersby
Image credit 2: Abacus, Installation Shot, Bluecoat © Rob Battersby
Image credit 3: Emily Speed, Structures for Play, Installation Shot, Bluecoat © Rob Battersby
Image credit 4: Frances Disley, Curtain and Mark Simmonds, Exhibition Wayfinding, Installation Shot, Bluecoat © Rob Battersby


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Bluecoat is Liverpool’s centre for the contemporary arts, the oldest in the UK. Our landmark building, located in the ...

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Residencies at Bluecoat

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