Unmanaged Reproach | Claire Bentley-Smith | May 2019

Holbeck In Doom.jpg

One of the most joyous aspects of working on such a long-term experiment, and it is an experiment, as BasementArtsProject, is being able to programme projects that amplify a narrative of individuality, without falling into a uniformity of style or aesthetic. No two projects in the last eight years of exhibitions at BasementArtsProject more clearly amplify this than May’s exhibition by Claire Bentley-Smith ‘Unmanaged Reproach’, and its predecessor ‘Mellifluous Arcana’ by artist Paul Walsh. Both of these exhibitions came from a very personal place, anchored in past experience whilst depicting what are very much concerns of the here and now. 

In the case of Walsh’s exhibition, we were presented with what seemed to be a very slow and deliberate analysis of a life that begins with stasis and slowly morphs, through itinerant patterns of thinking and behaviour, into a gradual change from one stage to the next. We see a glimpse of the past whilst wandering through the present until we reach a signpost to the future. 

The work of Bentley-Smith also operates as a sign-post towards the future indicating different possible scenarios and outcomes. The question implied in the work of Bentley-Smith is that if none of the futures are perfect, how do we work towards what we think will be the best possible outcome? As Winston Churchill once suggested, we vote “not for who is best but who is the least-worst.” Whilst this may seem like an unsatisfying way of looking at the world, it may be a necessary evil until consensus about direction can be achieved. The only way to reach an outcome that is in anyway acceptable is to not accept something that is a poor substitute, but to constantly and consistently strive for a better version than that which we may already have. All of life is about learning and the future needs to be based on lessons of the past. If you don’t remember the past, then you are doomed to repeat it, as the old adage goes.  

‘Unmanaged Reproach’ takes a subject that is close to the artist’s heart as its central theme, building a narrative around the discourse that has led to the formation of this work. Entering the darkness of The Basement via the narrow staircase, flanked by walls of crumbling plaster and cobwebs, your eyes adjust to the gloom just in time to be greeted by the first of several characters that populate this exhibition. ‘Where There’s Muck There’s Brass’ is a self-contained sculptural installation featuring a woman, partially hidden in the semi-darkness of the void beneath the staircase, surrounded by her meagre belongings spread on the floor around her, a made-up mask being raised to cover a tear stained face. 

Coming into the darkened exhibition space at the rear of the building as you do, you are confronted by a number of troubling tableaux’ depicting some of the concerns of the neighbourhood that has led Bentley-Smith to develop this work. A 1950’s style dolls house with a long winding pathway strewn with gifts: I-phones, jewellery, perfume etc. Within the house dark shadowy figures loom ominously over a porcelain doll resting on the end of a bed with an unreadable expression. Spot lit in a corner is a blue heritage plaque mocked-up on found scrap metal. Heritage plaques usually indicate the birth place of people of note, but here it instead marks the death of Daria Pionko; a sex worker murdered in 2015 by a lorry drivers assistant for £80 within the managed zone. The question is raised as to how we view heritage and legacy? In this work alone the reproach wordplay of the title comes to the forefront questioning the nature of what is permitted, and whether or not it helps the situation of those for whom such risk is a part of daily life. Taken alongside the other works on display, it also suggests that the path to some kind of resolution is fraught with vociferous disagreement and is by no means straight forward. Elsewhere in the exhibition a sculptural depiction of a Holbeck street scene has porcelain dolls on street corners and businesses relocating.

‘Overheard in Holbeck’ is a series of works, and a wordplay on the facebook page ‘Overheard in Waitrose’, built around a number of small vignettes that tell troubling stories from the lives of people one might casually encounter on the streets of South Leeds, any day or night of the week. This sequence of old-fashioned porcelain figurines dotted in corners and on window sills seem at first quaint until you read the speech bubbles that have been added afterwards; violent arguments between punters and workers and casually distributed obscenity.

The subject of the ‘Managed Approach’ has been a contentious issue since the day it was first put forward and it will continue to be so for a long time to come, but what the ‘Unmanaged Reproach’ exhibition did do was create a space for dialogue away from the heated argument forums such as facebook and twitter. Instead the dialogue was muted and respectful as people came face to face and discussed the issue from their own personal perspectives and experiences. The exhibition did come with its own set of opinions and was created with the artists own life experiences in mind, but it would be wrong to assume that any two versions of life experience could be the same and therefore opinion is just that. Ultimately it must be remembered what is at the heart of this ultimately tragic story and that is the people, on all sides of the fence, that are affected by the stories and problems outlined by the exhibition.  

Claire Bentley-Smith is an artist who lives and works in South Leeds. Examples of her work as a prop maker and commercial artist have been seen centre stage at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in the form of a life size replica of The Duke of Wellington statue and her murals and window paintings can be found at many bars, events and eateries across Leeds and beyond. 

Unmanaged Reproach looks at more personal aspects of her work as an artist. Over the last year she has focused on making a series of paintings and sculptural objects in response to the societal challenges affecting the Holbeck & Beeston community which in turn became a contemplation of her own experiences of life, growing up abroad then living, working and raising a family in South Leeds. This body of work looks at the debate, dilemmas and difficulties around inner city living in the 21st Century. 

Unexpectedly, this process became a catalyst to dredge the remnants of my own challenging childhood and 20s and I found many common themes between my experiences and those of the girls trapped in the street sex trade . . .Claire Bentley-Smith

Friday 17th May | 7:30pm - 9:30pm

Exhibition Open
Sunday 19th May | 2pm - 4pm
Monday 20th May | 11am - 2pm
Thursday 23rd May | 11am - 2pm
Sunday 26th May | 2pm - 4pm
Monday 27th May | 11am - 2pm
Thursday 30th May | 11am - 2pm

Exhibition Remains Open By Appointment until
Monday 10th June

Lunchtime Conversation: Claire Bentley-Smith
Monday 3rd June | 12pm - 3pm