A group of artists offer their thoughts on Brexit in a new exhibition that is now on show at Dean Clough in Halifax. Stephen McClarence went to find out more.
The Brexit Show – a timely exhibition that recently opened in Halifax – was conceived as a broadly humorous commentary on the ups and downs of Britain’s withdrawal from the EU.
It could have been a tough call. How could artists, however humorous, match the all-singing, all-dancing, all-blathering farce of three bewildering jargon-plagued years of Irish border backstop, Norway-plus and super-Canada?
Of flextensions, transition deals, regulatory convergence and votes that could be indicative, confirmatory or meaningful, depending on the day of the week?
The exhibition, at Dean Clough Galleries, has met the challenge with 30 or so artists, mostly from Yorkshire, showing often quirky imagination.
Dave Pugh, for instance, has used vintage advertising as his starting point. One of his pictures shows staunch Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg, posing in front of a packet of Jacob’s Crackers (“Have real nutty flavour”). Another (“Boil with Brexit”) shows a mad-eyed Fifties housewife pointing to a packet of Brexit soap powder (“Adds brightness and whiteness”). And there’s a Brexit Circus poster featuring the Amazing Bojo the Clown and an act called Corbyn and May (“Dangerous Tightrope Walking”).
“I think the country looks back nostalgically to a time that didn’t really exist and maybe that’s why Brexit came about,” says Pugh, from Triangle, a village near Sowerby Bridge. The process, he adds, has demonstrated “how arcane Parliament is... and people said: ‘It will all be simple’!”
Together with three other artists, we’re sitting round a meeting room table at Dean Clough. It’s a lively, freewheeling hour’s discussion, perhaps a bit like a Cabinet meeting without the long faces (and the occasional long knives).
The project, bringing together painters, sculptors, printmakers, textile artists and photographers, was the brainchild of the Dean Clough-based sculptor Frank Darnley, also from Triangle (“it has a certain League of Gentlemen atmosphere”). “We’d all been going round with heads in hands saying ‘Oh my God!’,” he says. “But no-one seemed to be doing anything about it.”
Dean Clough duly put out an “open call” for artists to take part, with the aim of commenting on the political process rather than attempting to propagandise. All the artists who submitted work were pro-Remain, though Calderdale, the borough including Halifax, voted 55.6 per cent Leave, 44.4 per cent Remain, with a 71 per cent turnout.
“There were no rules, other than that it should be funny,” says Darnley. “After all, it’s been like being in a huge comedy, a satire, and I thought: ‘If we can get some humour into it, we may get through.’ So there’s a general sort of Dad’s Army theme.”
With that in mind, a Brexit HQ installation has been planned as part of the exhibition, inspired by the comedy series and promising out-of-date calendars, copies of Reader’s Digest and ration books.
Darnley himself has created a novel variation on a buzz wire – the children’s game demanding a steady hand to negotiate a hoop round a twisting wire without touching it and setting off an alarm. Darnley’s twisting wire spells “Brexit”.
The project appealed to Vic Allen, Dean Clough’s arts director. “I’ve always wanted to see more political work here – political with a small ‘p’,” he says. “But artists don’t always want to produce it.”
One artist who has been producing politically-inspired work for decades, is the prolific Pontefract-based Brian Lewis, here collaborating with printer and artist Eddie Leatham.
“I set out to do an unusual book: 50 drawings that could be read upside down – the idea of the world turned upside down,” says Lewis. “And I suddenly realised there was a correspondence between Brutus in Julius Caesar and Boris [Johnson]: ‘For Boris is an honourable man...’”
Lewis’ wife, the textile artist Reini Schuhle, brings an interesting perspective to Brexit. Born in Germany, she has lived in the UK since 1972 and worked for many years as constituency office manager for Yvette Cooper, one of the key Brexit players.
“2018 saw endless reflections on World War One and the unlearnt lessons which led to Nazi Germany and World War Two,” she says. “What seemed missing in Britain was an appreciation and a celebration of nearly a century of peaceful co-existence in Europe.
“It was important to me as a German to be able to live here, form relationships, bring up a family and make a contribution to society without giving up my nationality. My overwhelming feeling is profound sadness about Brexit. I no longer feel welcome.”
The show’s slot in the Dean Clough schedule has long been fixed. Its opening would have been three weeks after the planned date of Brexit, which, says Vic Allen, “would have absolved us from charges of trying to influence things”.
As our discussion draws to a close, Frank Darnley reflects: “While Brexit has mostly divided the country, there’s considerable unity about the fact that it has been a political shambles.
People might have lost respect for Parliament but they now know a lot more about the political system than they did, even if they may not know what to do about it.”
Dad’s Army perhaps offers the key: “Don’t panic, Captain Mainwaring!”
The Brexit Show runs until May 2 at Dean Clough Galleries.