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Review: Utopia Deferred at Corke Gallery

Utopia Deferred
Corke Gallery, until 9th September 2016

Words, Julia Johnson, Messy Lines

Look at any great human civilization and you can’t help but notice that people have always liked creating on a grand scale. People who design and build for other people want their work to be great, to be remembered and admired for all time. The problem, as history repeatedly tells us, is that nothing lasts forever. The paint will fade first, then the buildings will crumble. We enjoy visiting sites of historic interest but no matter how intact the site appears to us, what’s left behind is really just a shadow of a former glory. Corke Gallery’s “Utopia Deferred” explores the social ideals envisioned in the 20th century, through the work of three former John Moores Prize nominated artists.

Of the three, Paul Collinson portrays the most literal scenes of failed utopias. Each of his scenes is given a title (Heritage Trail, Temple of Liberty) which speaks of the high intentions the architects had for these sites. But they have fallen into disrepair and sunk far from their original purpose. You don’t recognise at first that Collinson’s scenes are all drawn from his imagination – these could easily be places in Liverpool, or in any other British city. Each is beautifully brought to life in a photo-realist style, the light falling on each scene of disrepair in such a way as to make it seem almost beautiful.

For Conor Rogers, the success of his work is not just in your impression of the painting, but in registering its components. In practice, this means that the objects used in various ways in his works, such as a kitchen sponge, are part of the overall image. The most striking of these is Et In Arcadia Lego. Unable to find his vision in the real world, you can admire the details of the model Rogers has created as much as the resulting painting. In other works, though, it feels less like an enhancement of the artistic experience and, instead, as though your attention is being distracted from the painting.

Mandy Payne’s works are all based on explorations of Sheffield’s notoriously ugly and deprived Park Hill estate. The estate is currently being redeveloped, but Payne finds beauty in the original architecture. It’s the structure of each of her small paintings that is striking, the way she finds formal idealism in the bold architectural lines. Park Hill and other estates of the 1950’s and 60’s were imagined as new social utopias, and Payne’s work finds angles from which you can imagine that this dream would be possible.

Knowing all the history that has come and gone before us, the 21st century is a very disillusioned place. Surely now there are few people who believe that Utopia is possible to create. This exhibition looks upon the ruins of failed dreams – but then each artist, separately, also offers us the same alternative. What if instead of trying to plan an ideal, we seek beauty in what we already have?