Fertile artistry in England’s green and pleasant lands

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Toilet and Urinal (2003), which Sarah Lucas pairs together to blur the distinction between genders © Ryan Gander / Solid Haus

Toilet and Urinal (2003), which Sarah Lucas pairs together to blur the distinction between genders © Ryan Gander / Solid Haus

Suffolk is a good place for artists but not such a great place for seeing art. Over the past decade, leading UK artists Ryan Gander, Sarah Lucas, Cerith Wyn-Evans, Don Brown, Glenn Brown, Abigail Lane and Darren Almond, among others, have joined Suffolk stalwart Maggi Hambling to make the rural east England county their home.

But despite being such a crucible of creativity, there is not one Arts Council national portfolio organisation for contemporary art to be found in the entire county. “There’s nothing here— it’s only watercolours and paintings of the sea. Art is so London-centric,” says Gander, who lives in Saxmundham with his family, and whose studio is located in a former radio factory nearby, in the village of Melton. To remedy this glaring anomaly, this month Gander and fellow Suffolk resident Lucas are both curating ambitious mixed exhibitions that offer the art-starved region a much-needed shot in the cultural arm.

Ryan admits that the initial impetus for Flatwork, the multigenerational show of eight artists he is mounting in his expansive Melton studio, came out of boredom during lockdown. “Happenstance gave me a gallery in my studio, a bleak era gave me an excess of solitude, and as Suffolk is now undergoing a weird renaissance, I thought it might be nice to gather great people and make something happen that isn’t as flat as everything I have encountered on the internet over the past year,” he says.

Hunk of the Year by Sarah Lucas, a seminal newspaper work made between 1990 and 1992 Courtesy Sarah Lucas

Gander’s quest to “make it 3D again” includes Cory Arcangel’s large, vividly coloured Photoshop gradient prints, Oliver Beer’s video reanimation of Disney’s Jungle Book, and Lucas’s vintage 1990s tabloid newspaper work and two sculptures of a toilet bowl and urinal swathed in beer mats.

Alongside this is work by emerging names such as recent Royal College graduate Liv Preston and Norwich-based Simon Newby, who has used sticks found from his daily walks in the woods to make a series of ten folding chairs. Another addition to Gander’s curatorial mix, which he describes as “lots of nice collisions you wouldn’t expect”, are chimera-like sculptures of prehistoric creatures. These have been assembled from the bones of animals cooked and eaten by 11-year-old artist Luna Suzuki Stahl, with culinary assistance from her father Kajsa Stahl of the Abaki design collective.

According to Gander, the group of artists he has brought together represent “some friends, some really good friends, and some people I don’t know well but I thought I would like to know better. When I was thinking about what I wanted to show, it was stuff I wanted to see – some of it is from my own collection that I have never taken out,” he says.

There’s a similar, easy sociability to Pop Goes the Pastoral, the concurrent exhibition that Lucas, who has lived in Suffolk for 20 years, is also mounting in a former theatre in the market town of Framlingham where she has a studio housed in what was previously the Conservative club. “We don’t particularly want to go anywhere – it’s not like we are dying to get back into being international right now. It’s actually quite good to be local,” she says.

Pop Goes the Pastoral is defined by Lucas as “a peer group thing—we’re all the same age and we’re all friends. In a way, it’s a bit of nostalgia for the old days.” According to an accompanying statement, the all-new paintings, sculpture and drawings by Don Brown, Kate Boxer and Gary Hume, which are being shown with recent sculptures by Lucas herself, “present a playful divergence from the bucolic associations of rural Britain and its enduring pathos”.

Lucas is especially happy about the relationship between her friend Boxer’s punchy paintings of counter-cultural female figures such as Poly Styrene and Peg Plunkett and her own four most recent Bunny sculptures, each clad in vivid blue socks and high-fashion footwear. Lucas says they all represent the same character, sitting on similar chairs and striking different poses “with the languid indolence of teenagers”. Other works in the show include new paintings by Hume, including two portraits of Émile Zola’s son (who, according to Lucas, looks “incredibly androgynous”), and the latest bronze sculptures and paintings by long-time Suffolk resident Don Brown of his wife Yoko and his daughters, as well as some meticulously rendered still life paintings of flowers. “It’s a very feminine show,” Lucas observes.

As the saying goes, necessity is the mother of invention and these exhibitions, both conceived during the repeated lockdowns of the pandemic, are a reminder of the value of local, do-it-yourself initiatives and the advantage of using what is close to hand. In each, top-calibre works have been brought together not for the consumption of international audiences but for the benefit of communities closer to home—though it is likely they will also lure metropolitan artworlders to the market towns of Suffolk.

• Flatwork, Solid Haus, Melton, Woodbridge, Suffolk, until 12 September. Pop Goes the Pastoral, The Old Theatre, Framlingham, Suffolk, 4 September-2 October

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