Salthouse 09 art festival

Ian CollinsAs Salthouse 09 prepares for a surge of summer visitors, former curator Ian Collins cheers an annual celebration of contemporary art in a beacon church near Blakeney.Ian Collins

Every July since 2001 Salthouse church on the north Norfolk coast has hosted diverse displays of art linked to the county but reaching out across country and planet - with each adventure guided by a new curator.

Salthouse 09: Salt of the Earth has been plotted by Norfolk-raised Simon Martin, now of Chichester's Pallant House Gallery. The theme suits a village in a saline setting recorded in the Domesday Book as 'a house for making salt'.

The title is taken from the Sermon on the Mount just as salt, the great preserver, gave the root of the word 'salvation'.

Simon Martin says: 'Beyond the Biblical metaphor, this common English idiom features in literature, poetry and even a song by the Rolling Stones.

'Artworks in the exhibition explore how salt has shaped civilisation and its central place in world history, revealing how it is not just a mineral, a culinary flavouring, but an important commodity and a political tool: wars have been fought over salt; it has been the subject of taxes; and an excuse for the display of wealth in golden saltcellars.'

Salt carries a destructive element, and several of the 50 Salthouse 09 artists explore the fact that this dramatically exposed coastline is steadily being swallowed by saltwater.

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Success can also corrode and, following a rising tide of parochial church council pressures, this year's show is diminished by banishment from key parts of the building.

The Lady Chapel is now out of bounds and even Brian Whelan's screen of icons, centred on the magnificent Coptic and Celtic-inspired painting of the Last Supper at the point where Judas spills the salt, has been banned from display as an altarpiece.

Similarly, Colin Yorke's twisted and tortured wooden heads have been deemed unfit for the churchyard - even though such sacred fields are adorned with all manner of macabre historic symbols, from sculpted gargoyles to skeletons incised on gravestones.

But creativity flows from tension and the Yorke carvings have been renamed The Outcasts, arrayed just beyond consecrated ground and hugely empowered. They now represent all those poor souls rejected by the Church down the ages.

Even with the unprecedented constraints, Salthouse 09 remains a feast for eyes, minds and spirits. The assembly embraces ceramic, installation, painting, collage, printmaking, textiles and sculpture - plus an animated film by Daniel Bell with a suitably ground-breaking subject screening in the pulpit.

The cast ranges from emerging to established artists and includes several talents with international reputations - headed by Ana Maria Pacheco, the Brazilian sculptor formerly resident in Norwich, and once artist in residence at the National Gallery.

Her installation in the tower, Memoria Roubada II (Stolen Memories) - a spirited and spiritual discourse on the displacement of native peoples and cultures - is an exhibition in itself.

Norfolk pop artist Colin Self has reworked a witty collage of fishy and chipper images, while Maggi Hambling dives once more into a North Sea wave to surface with a tumultuous painting.

And a brilliant 1994 driftwood construction called Oceanic celebrates the life of modernist artist Margaret Mellis (1914-2009), now set for a posthumous show in Tate St Ives, in the Cornish town where she led her famous friends (Nicholson, Hepworth, Gabo) in 1939 having so nearly brought them to Happisburgh or Southwold.

Dominique Rey's impressive The House is Black - built in etched acrylic on breezeblocks and pierced by neon shafts - universalises the grief from Niobe's salt tears over her slaughtered family and complements the artist's solo exhibition in Dragon Hall, Norwich, this month.

Suspended above the Salthouse nave is Light Vessel - an ethereal salt-crystal-encrusted wire boat by Marcela Trsova surrounded by mesh fish, while Malca Schotten has created monumental drawings portraying local fishermen and lifeboatmen - the latter echoed by Beth Marie Groom in memorialising lives saved by 'Bumshee' West in an installation of 57 cast oxidised terracotta rings around the font.

Floating above everything in corner roof rafters is an apparent patch of sky - but the blue of a medieval illuminated manuscript is studded with dried starfish. This is the latest work by the ever-innovative Margie Britz, stalwart member of the North Norfolk Exhibitions Project from the outset.

Christine Elliot Grey has sewn crab-pot rope scraps into a white damask tablecloth to frame words from the Pablo Neruda poem Ode to Salt, and Jill North offers a new line in origami with her scattered Salt Houses - paper boxes using pages from Mark Kurlansky's book Salt: A World History.

Surrounding swathes of North Norfolk saltmarshes have inspired paintings by Jane Lewis and David Page, etchings by Ross Loveday and bronze sculpture by Kabir Hussain.

Salt also saturates the work of featured abstract artists: Dom Theobald's monumental 18-part painting The Doer, The Undoer symbolises positive and negative elements; Jazz Green uses salt's chemical properties to produce a display of 25 subtly-stained squares; and Michael Horn presents a monumental Saltpan and Saltpillar diptych of salt-white strokes in seas of blue.

Given the cue for salt-glazed ceramics, there is more than a sprinkling of work by studio potters - including Antje Ernestus, Stephen Parry and Jane Wheeler. Ruthanne Tudball represents Lot's Wife in stoneware while Sarah Wilson tackles the same flesh-into-salt saga in collage.

A gigantic wooden salt-mill by Charles Sharpe can be turned to grind Maldon sea salt (as supplied by one of the exhibition's sponsors).

Christine Durrant provides a graceful marine meditation in waves of hand-woven indigo and ikat textiles seemingly washing over found stones on the floor of the centre aisle while carvers Gary Breeze and Louise Tiplady give sculpted responses to Salthouse history (the latter in Carrara marble mimicking a block of salt).

Then there are intriguing collaborations. Jane Frost and Liz McGowan (two stars of last year's show) invite us to take part in Salt Trails - a series of 'woven' walks and conversations about the encroaching sea.

Jules Allen and Krystena Hamera claim the most hauntingly atmospheric area of all - the ruined and overgrown chapel in a corner of the churchyard - for their Sal Sapienta (The Salt of Wisdom) installation composed of altered book, chapel chairs, salt pans, seawater, salt and sound.

They share this hallowed space with a rock salt wall by Mary Crofts - the building blocks licked into shape by the artist's cows.

Nearby are the Red, Roe, Fallow salt-lick-and-wood carvings begun by Miriam Grey and ready for completion by wild deer.

The exhibition is announced in the church grounds by the brilliant banners of Lizzy Harvey, but the approach via Cross Street has already revealed a Salt of the Earth installation by Judith Campbell. It features photos of 14 senior Salthouse citizens, together serving 773 years on land or sea, mounted on clay blocks and netting.

The Campbell montage also marks the start of Salthouse Sculpture Trail, launched last year and now expanded along a marked route to Kelling Heath (www.salthousetrail.co.uk).

With its potent and poignant theme the ninth Salthouse summer exhibition is one of the best. But, as ever, the real star of the show is the ancient church and its wild setting.

Go and savour - and, indeed, rejoice.

t Salthouse 09: Salt of the Earth runs until August 2. Entry to the exhibition, open 10am-5.30pm daily (but closed Saturday, July 25 1pm-5pm), is free. Many of the works are for sale. Fully illustrated catalogues cost just �1 thanks to support from the East Anglia Art Fund.

t The event also includes a programme of concerts, recitals, talks and workshops starting on Saturday with a musical evening presented by operatic tenor Darren Abrahams and pianist Lindy Tennent-Brown. Visit www.northnorfolk.org/salthouseartandevents for details.

t Salthouse Church is just off the A149 north Norfolk coast road and can be reached by the CoastHopper bus running from Cromer to Hunstanton.