Salthouse 06: modern art, ancient setting

IAN COLLINS An annual summer art exhibition in a beacon church on the Norfolk coast blends the spirited and the spiritual. Ian Collins reports.


Each summer since 2001 Salthouse church, high above the wild and wonderful north Norfolk coast, has become a new kind of beacon - for contemporary creativity.

This fusion of ancient and modern in a (very) mixed art show has become a model of how hundreds of hallowed medieval buildings across East Anglia can provide new galleries, stages and concert halls for the 21st century. Here the spirited and the spiritual happily coincide.

Salthouse 06 curator Sarah Cannell, art development officer for the Norwich-based property company Targetfollow, has chosen almost 50 Norfolk-linked artists whose work - spilling through the church and churchyard - crosses the boundaries between art and craft.

Metal, clay, stone, wood, wool, wax, wire, silk, linen, cotton, lace, felt, glass, plastic, paper, light, and the flotsam and jetsam of found objects have all been employed to provide an echo of how our great churches looked when they were also market halls in the Middle Ages. Or, indeed, of how this particular place of refuge appeared when a store for household items salvaged from the 1953 floods.

I was looking forward to this show because I heartily agree with Sarah's contention about the blurring of creative barriers between whatever art and artefacts have the power to move us. It's the creed of William Morris. And Walter Gropius, in his Bauhaus Manifesto of 1919, added: “Architects, sculptors, painters, we must all turn to the crafts…

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“There is no essential difference between the artist and the craftsman - the artist is an exalted craftsman. In rare moments of inspiration, moments beyond the control of his will, the grace of heaven may cause his work to blossom into art.

“But proficiency in his craft is essential to every artist. Therein lies the source of creative imagination.”

But whatever the chosen theme for the summer Salthouse show, what works best is the work most carefully applied to the glorious space and setting.

Nick Ball's brilliant arrangement - or derangement - of recycled Perspex tubing in the church tower looks like crazy scaffolding or the disembowelling of organ pipes.

As he explains: “The church rests with no foundations. Mass keeps it anchored. This fact extrapolated by the presence of the walls alone keeps the pipes aloft.”

Veteran textile artist Kathleen McFarlane has almost a solo show in the Lady Chapel with woven works on abstracted marine themes, and the vivid figurative expressionism of Yarmouth-based painter John Kiki gains a new depth with the addition of fabric.

But I was most moved by weavers, threaders and embroiderers who responded directly to Salthouse's fishing heritage.

The meshes of Vanessa Burroughes, stretched against a photographic backdrop of sea and shingle, seem to have trawled up a mass of local memorabilia.

And Stephanie Gilbert has gone a stage further in a hanging tubular net, like a ghost of a church column, in which the body of the cage is formed by wiry fish which detach themselves at the base to swim free.

Sculptor Chris Hann has also been inspired by the reaction of salt within an acid-etched sculptural process to make a panel in which boat-like shapes float (like the graffiti of 17th century sailing ships carved in a nearby choir stall).

Salthouse Church is a symbol of weathering, and Jayne Ivemey's 12 banners hanging along the length of the central aisle are abstracted meditations on the Beaufort wind scale from mirror-like calm to hurricane.

They strike me as more elemental Bridget Rileys. If only they could billow in a breeze, and shimmer transparent.

In the churchyard I admired Alison Hodgson's bank of knitted copper sedges and Ros Newman's Freedom Flighters - in which doves take shape in, and finally wing clear from, a stainless steel sheet.

Most startling is a flat installation from ceramicist Stephen Parry - akin to a tombstone. Just Resting is a 48-tile, full-length portrait of the artist in repose, stretched in the grass.

For me the best work in this show is the piece that is hardest to find. Even when discovered it seems almost not to exist…

In a green and tangled corner of the churchyard there are the haunting ruins of a medieval chapel which Juliet Arnott has partly reconstructed in woven willow. In the centre there seems to be the supporting post for a spiral staircase, splaying out into a vaulted ceiling and then into woven walls with open spaces - windows on to slabs of sky.

Salthouse 06 runs until August 6. Open 10-5.30 daily. Free entry. All exhibits are for sale.