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Expect the unexpected as contemporary sculpture comes to Bexley

Visiting Gallery No. 32’s impressive array of artworks sited in an open field and ancient orchard just a short walk from Bexley railway station is a must.

Founder and co-directors Megan Stuart and Kieran Idle talked recently about the genesis of the project with Gary Mansfield on his marvellous Ministry of Arts (Ep. 165) podcast. Megan said, “I wanted to make a wall, a gallery wall to put in the field and I asked Kieran to come along with me and look see what we could find in skips […] and we got this door that was number 32 from Welling High Street or somewhere and you suggested that as a name…” Et voila! The fast-evolving plan to create a free and accessible space for artists, and to promote creative exchange between them, with other galleries, with visitors and casual passers-by had a name: Gallery No. 32.

Solo artist and group shows followed, along with impressive collaborations and curatorial ventures such as partnering with The Factory Project in 2021. Fast forward to the present and Gallery No. 32’s most ambitious project to date, their Winter Sculpture Park is an open invitation to experience a remarkable variety of contemporary artworks and adventurous curation. A visit to Bexley coincided with the first draft of featured artists generously discussing their work on site.


Words by Adrian Burnham

In The Wardrobe, 2022 by Erika Trotzig

First up, Jyoti Bharwani was on hand to discuss her site-specific assemblage made in collaboration with Ema Mano Epps. Noting the organic forms clamouring around the base of a tree and fluctuating components suspended from its branches Bharwani explained that it’s central to the piece that materials employed relate to the environment and reflect human habits and behaviour.

The title, Vāsanā (2021-22), references the eastern philosophical concept of our subtle ‘wishing’ or ‘desiring’ tendencies; the idea that the choices we make in life – consciously and not – are all reflected in the materiality we are surrounded by. For example, the water in living branches of the tree relates to the water in our own bodies and, in turn, to the (variously threatened) water tables that support life on earth. “We don’t go to art shops,” Bharwani smilingly said as she told how the work is made entirely from items that are found and collected, things that are often overlooked and invisible. “It’s also important that the work isn’t too structured, it’s ‘open’, it’s intended to invite interaction and every time someone touches the work it changes.” Vāsanā (2021-2022) reminds us of the vitality of materials, the ‘ruckus of things’ that impact on human experience but also questions notions of human superiority.

Vāsanā (2021-22) by Jyoti Bharwani and Ema Mano Epps
Snowshoe, 2022 by Titus Davies

Snowshoe (2022) by Titus Davies comprises an arc of mirror partially encircling the trunk of an old, lichen mottled apple tree. Where you might expect to see a curved bench instead there’s an oxbow lake of light reflecting the branches above and, on this occasion, a brilliant blue sky. Of course, over time, Davies’ pristine intervention has transmogrified, there’s dust and dirt and insect gubbins, all of which will disturb, over time, the reflection of buds and leaves and fruit. “It’s a kind of ‘watcher,” says Davies, “it’s a hybrid object that’s about disappearing the damage we’ve done to the environment, to the planet.” On looking into the reflection, its faintly, slowly buckling surface distorts like a funhouse or carnival mirror. In a sense Snowshoe (2022) reorientates a surface with which we normally engage, an anti-narcissistic gesture then and another art intervention that seeks to question our presumed meliority over nature.

Dotted across the extensive site are four Matt Foster sculptures from his ‘Of Myths and Mortals’ series. These attenuated totem-like figures bisecting the horizon have an uncanny presence, they appear serene and ritualistic but their forms and rough surface invite interaction too. “I want people to touch the work, to look at them, and look through them, but it’s important that people touch them as well,” explained the artist, “for me, it’s a big part of what sculpture is about.” Foster’s figures owe a debt to Giacometti and Hepworth but their bright white, unpainted finish also reference classical Greco-Roman sculptures which we know now were originally painted but were for centuries admired as bare and monochrome. “The series celebrates fantasy and escapism, they’re about subsuming yourself in stories. That’s what I like to do and these figures are the result. And as people look at and interact with them they make up their own meanings and stories in turn.”

Folly: Of myths and mortals, 2021-22 by Matt Foster
super low frequency attenuation deflector, 2021 by Lorraine Snape

There’s a huge range of materials and methodologies employed across the forty-five works on display. After hearing about Foster’s work referencing classical aesthetics next up is Lorraine Snape. Her intervention on the landscape titled Super Low Frequency Attenuation Deflector (2021) is made of found industrial objects, chunky metal forms that are paired together with circular glass discs. The metal components were originally part of a sound dampening unit, the subtly tinted glass filters cast various frequencies of colour across the rough grassland. On one level the work, Snape explains, “Reminds us of the constant dance of particles all around us that we don’t usually register.” Weather, light and different points of view all affect the work and when sun shines through the iridescent elements it casts fragile, luminous coloured shadows on the surrounding tufted flora which then becomes a part of the piece’s understated but curiously magical quality.

There are too many fascinating artworks to mention all of them – stand out favourites include the ethereal and minimal These and Those and Them (2022) by Tom Witherick; the giant sized This Aint Enuf, Mark II (2022) marquetry addressing climate issues caused through post-colonial and industrial ideals by Fredrix Vermin; Gabriela Pelczarska’s Having a Break (2022) intervention is a gravity defying boulder hoisted up a tree and there’s a fresh iteration of Flagged Up (2021) which sees Helen K. Grant installing her string of ludicrously big hi-vis bunting around a tree which had been felled by Storm Eunice.

These and Those and Them, 2022 by Tom Witherick​
Flagged Up, 2021 by Helen K Grant
THIS AINT ENUF, Mark II, 2022 by Fredrix Vermin

Freak weather during the run up to opening Gallery No. 32’s Winter Sculpture Park was one of many, erm, ‘challenging features’ of showing work on a site that’s open to the public 24/7. Dog’s attacking sculptures was perhaps foreseeable, forgivable even. Passers-by setting artworks on fire maybe less so. Nicola Turner’s Past, Present, Future (2021) comprised frames of vintage stacking chairs cable tied into a column. Reflecting the title of the work the chair frames face in different directions. Above head height, dark against the sky, a bulbous hefty bundle form was lodged in between the metal frames. ‘Was’ because the morning we gathered round to hear the artist talk about Past, Present, Future only the chair frame tower remains. Charred fragments of the previously suspended bundle litter the ground around the work. Turner, whilst disappointed, was stoical, “Obviously it’s hard when you see your work burned but I’ve accepted it.” The artist had said she relishes opportunities for the public to have open access to and physically engage with her work, but arson goes too far.

Not to end on a downer, in their interview with the Ministry of Arts podcast Megan explained, “Artists are made fully aware the site is open to nature, the elements, fox piss, etc. They all agree to letting their work be, it’s a part of the work, surrendering it to nature…” And this includes enduring not just the vicissitudes of weather but chance and human behaviour too. Gallery No. 32 and their Winter Sculpture Park is an absolute boon to Bexley and beyond. Megan Stuart and Kieran Idle have worked wonders. Their ambition and determination to create spaces for artists to exhibit innovatively, explore new ideas and evolve an ever-growing supportive network of emerging and established practitioners is invaluable. Go see the show – there’s another free WSP artists’ walking tour on April 10th with more planned – and keep an eye out for future exciting projects courtesy of the Gallery No. 32 curatorial duo.

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