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Review: Shape Open - disability arts online
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4 May 2012

portrait painting of a young Korean person's face

Luna Jung-eun Lee won the Peoples' Choice with her painting titled: ‘Anonymous Cheol-Su, North, 2010’

The award ceremony for Shape Open exhibition at Portobello Gallery last night was a crowded affair. Colin Hambrook went along to soak up Shape’s outing into a mainstream gallery space in West London.

There were substantial prizes of £500 and £250 for the Award winners, so it was not surprising that the quality of the work submitted was very high. And the winning prize was given to two entrants, so all credit to Shape for coming up with an extra fee. The exhibition contained an enjoyable mix of painting, photography, sculpture and artists’ film, which provided some very thoughtful and thought-provoking chat amongst those in attendance.

A first prize went to Ilsun Maeng, whose ‘Blurred Portrait’ was used as the publicity image for the exhibition. Highly crafted, the photograph is intriguing as a comment on the mutability of gender. It is also a representation of how the artist sees and as such, is part of a tradition of painting, photography and film made by visually impaired artists - going back to Monet.

The other first prize went to Lauren Nicholas for her affectionate and telling animation about the world as seen from her grandfather's point of view: ‘An  Ageing Thing’. Mixing animation with real-time footage, this short film is clearly a labour of love. It contains a dramatic tearing away of the elderly gent's right eye, giving a powerful visual image of his emotional response to becoming visually impaired.

But to my way of thinking, both these works are as much if not more about ‘impairment‘ – albeit as something “to be expected and respected on its own terms, rather than pitied, excluded or reacted to with hostility.” (Colin Cameron in interview on DAO). When I see works like these, poster campaigns for “seeing the person, not the ‘disability’” come flashing in front of my eyes.

The People’s Choice was called ‘Anonymous Cheol-Su, North, 2010’ by Luna Jung-eun Lee. In terms of technique, the painting is beautifully executed, employing an exacting drip technique to create a portrait of a young face. The painting gives an impression of someone struggling for identity, perhaps, or for recognition.

In terms of ‘disability’ the message is ambiguous, which is maybe how it should be, although I would have liked there to have been some kind of written documentation that put the work in context. In fact, a big missing factor for the exhibition as a whole, was the omission of context… and to my mind context is everything! It was lack of context that allowed the American Government in the 1950s to use Abstract Expressionism in a campaign to "culturally" fight communism – to the disgust of many of the artists themselves.

In terms of Disability Arts, context has perhaps never been so important. As disabled people, we struggle for recognition of the power relations that exist in respect of our inclusion in society.

The tabloid press in particular has been in the throes of a major campaign to discredit the majority of disabled people for some time now.  We are looking at all the hard won rights that the last generation of disabled people fought for, rapidly falling by the way side. There has been a spate of demonizing the Social Model and I would have thought that now, more than ever, was a time for supporting it.

I just didn’t believe that as Ben Fredericks stated in his interview on DAO that the brief for the Shape Open would “generate new ideas… to survey what 'disability' means to contemporary artists.”

I would be interested to know if Shape think the exhibition did this and how artists and audience commented on the process?

As an adendum I thought it might be helpful to add the following defintions of 'impairment' and 'disability'.

World Health Organisation’s 1981 International Classification of Impairments, Disabilities and Handicaps (ICIDH) define impairment in terms of inferiority

Impairment: any loss or abnormality of psychological, physiological or anatomical structure or function

Disability: any restriction or lack (resulting from impairment) of ability to perform an activity in the manner or within the range considered normal for a human being (WHO, 1981)

Affirmative Model definition:

Impairment: physical, sensory and intellectual difference to be expected and respected on its own terms in a diverse society.

Disability: the loss or limitation of opportunities to take part in community life on an equal level with others due to physical and social barriers.
(Cameron, 2008:24).

The exhibition is on until 6 May 2012. Go to Shape's website for more details



14 May 2012

its a brilliant site - well done,

Pearl Findlay

8 May 2012

I am one of the selected artists from this exhibition. My photographic work purposely addresses issues surrounding disability and questions people to asses their sometimes detrimental attitudes. There was a wide range of art work when I went to visit the exhibition at the prize giving award; video, photography, sculpture, paintings, fine art etc. All of which, I felt, interpreted disability and created work that reflected disabled people in some way.

However, I do feel that my work and many other pieces of work would have been enhanced with an artist's statement or description of the work. Often it is difficult for people to grasp the context of work without some additional information, explaining the origin and concept. I feel if this was included, the work would have been better understood and more approachable to discuss. I did feel that my work could have been misrepresented without information or even a title, which is rather vital tool in the art world.

Marian Cleary

5 May 2012

Gorgeous image. Important debates to have...

Rich Downes

5 May 2012

is it a collection of pipes?

Colin Hambrook

4 May 2012

Yes exactly Debz. So often you hear the argument that by giving accompanying text or audio that gives another perspective on 'reading' visual artwork that you are disavowing the notion that "Art should speak for itself."

The argument is backed up by the idea that you shouldn't tell the audience what to think about the work? You have to make up your own mind. Fair enough! But, so often the curator and whoever else has written about the work, has made up your mind for you.

So often Art isn’t about creativity at all. It’s about monetary value and the hype that you can create around an artist. That happens precisely because of the disavowal of context in a language that everyone can understand.

Open conversations are very important. To my mind where the Shape Open fell down was in not providing the audience with an idea of the artists’ understanding of ‘disability.’

Deborah Caulfield

4 May 2012

I forgot to say that the picture is called: 'This is Not a Disabled Person (after Magritte)'.

Deborah Caulfield

4 May 2012

I take 'lack of context' to mean explanation or narrative by way of accompanying text.

Part of the application process involved submitting a description of the work and how it came about. My understanding is that this was in case it was felt the works didn't speak for themselves.

In my blog of 22.02.12 I asked: ‘Might [the exhibition’s brief] be an open invitation for non disabled artists to express what we already know: that disability remains, to a large extent, something to be feared or dreaded, ignored or deplored?’

I might have added: Will it be an opportunity for un-politically aware disabled artists to depict disability negatively in terms of personal experience of impairment.

I haven't seen the exhibition, but from Colin’s editorial, it appears that Shape has totally lived up to its promise of a completely open exhibition. Their intention, as I understand it, was not to make a statement, or to reserve a platform for any particular voice or message.

Shape’s view, as told to me by the curator, is that disabled people have claimed the word disability. Job done.

If there's a lesson here, perhaps it is that disability rights and the social model need to be constantly reasserted and reaffirmed. As for equality and inclusion, look around; it’s not exactly job done. Not yet.

This picture is not the one I submitted for the exhibition.

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