‘THUGS’ ‘HOOLIGANS’ ‘ANARCHISTS’ ‘MINDLESS YOBS’ ‘TERRORISTS’
– These are just some of the terms used by the media to describe the participants of the 2011 riots.
The riots that were born out of resentment, sparked conflict regarding concerns for the future of today’s young generation. For some time it has felt as though this minority (and it was a minority) have destroyed all positive notions of young people among the rest of the general public. Are these brutish looters a result of our ‘Broken Britain’, or are they the cause? How could they be so mindless as to destroy their own cities?
Few people stopped to consider the reasons why the riots happened in the first place – the social despair, the poverty, the racism – yet without understanding they were quick to condemn. Be aware that I am of the opinion that there are no excuses for the behaviour that took place, only contributing factors. I don’t consider questioning why events unfolded as a way of justifying behaviour, and that’s not my intention. My point is that as a young person living and contributing to today’s society I am concerned that onlookers put us in the same boat; we are all defined as the young generation who actively cause(d) disrupt. I feel it now, even in my successes; a sort of black-cloud-of-doom that hangs over ‘young people’ as a one-group definition, that is used to cover all individuals who fit the age bracket. It’s a kind of tension that sits above me, or inside me, and twists knots in my stomach. I am aware that people have little hope for me, but it’s not really ‘me’ – my desires, my knowledge, my sensitivity or creativity – it’s the ‘me’ that I have been assigned due to the actions of others; the ‘me’ that is part of a larger group known as ‘them’. We are now young people who are defined by the actions of each other. We must prove ourselves, for our intelligence, ambition and passion for life are no longer expected.
It is for this reason that I felt so refreshed upon visiting contemporary painter Sally Payen’s exhibition, at Hereford’s Museum and Art Gallery. Payen was commissioned by Wolverhampton Art Gallery to create work about the riots that happened there. The exhibition toured from Wolverhampton Art Gallery, and was brought to Hereford.
Her soft, painterly language articulates what has not been given a voice. Payen’s work exists as a quiet protest to the obstacles that have been set before young people, and through her work, she gives me (that is separate from ‘them’) a voice, and you too.
Payen’s work is sourced from media images, including CCTV footage of the riots. From reading the title ‘The Chase and the Ambush’ I expected the exhibition to depict a violent swarm of youths attacking the police force, the paintings replicating the awful scenes of bricks being hurled in the faces of the officers. However, upon entering the gallery, despite the obvious conflict the paintings depicted, there was a strange sense of calm. Muted tones, translucent paint and melting foregrounds create ambiguity that emphasize the title as being far less literal than understood when read alone. The work is about sensitivity, personality and above all, painting as a personal response.
Payen uses photographs to provide familiar structures, and narratives are created to inform the viewer’s understanding, but these are strayed from. The paintings depict the Police chasing young people, but ‘the chase’ is given the potential to become more personal to both viewer and artist. Through the lack of any specific detail it takes on philosophical meaning. The figures are blurred, melting in and out of the canvas. The imprecise distinction between background and foreground emphasizes the riots as being a place of misunderstanding and crowd influence that is hard to define. Payen invites the viewer into the space, encouraging them to step into a time, and to experience a place where figuration becomes something closer; personalized and internalized. The small and seemingly incomplete figures encourage curiosity; what are they doing here? Are they threatening? What’s their story? With this comes the desire to understand, and the reminder that this exists as one moment in time; one fracture of tension and unrest; one that is not defining of the future, or of all individuals.
In terms of painterly language, the figures exist in a space that is carefully balanced between abstraction and figuration; the space where things move into abstraction becomes just as interesting. With this abstraction comes a sense of time, and the tension that exists here. A lull or quiet contemplation sits within the exhibition, and replaces the anxiety and conflict that the works content suggests. The inclusion of multiple and hazy figures within one space creates opposition between mass movement and the slowing of time, perhaps understood as being representative of the mass understanding of young people as being set and defined by one event.
Perhaps what’s most successful in Payen’s work is its ability to referent multiple ideas, achieved through a response to paint as a material, as opposed to the politics of the events that she is drawing from. Painting without pre-design, and relying only upon instinct, allows a philosophical understanding of the notion of ‘the chase’. With this comes an indirect and polite protest that speaks louder than a physical act of violence or another ranting teenager, and it’s a protest that I am incredibly grateful for.