26 April 2015
Scotland on Sunday (Spectrum p.16-17)

Glasgow’s Open House Festival provides a DIY showcase for artists in the most unlikely venues.

If you ask a group of Glasgow artists of almost any vintage what the best things about the city are, you’ll get the same answers: the supportive art scene, the affordable rents, and the can-do attitude of artists, who don’t wait for opportunities to come knocking, but make them happen.

The history of contemporary art in Glasgow is jewelled with artist-run projects, from Douglas Gordon and Cathy Wilkes showing their work in a flat in Garnethill, to Switchspace, inspired by the same ethos more than a decade later. Often they are short-lived in themselves, but with important descendents: part of Gordon’s house is now The Common Guild, and Glasgow International (GI) has its origins in the grassroots-driven Real Art Weekend.

The latest chapter in the city’s DIY art history is being written by Glasgow Open House Art Festival, a city-wide long weekend of exhibitions, gigs and events in people’s homes and in “unsung” spaces. Created last year by a group of recent graduates from Glasgow School of Art (GSA), it is already making its presence felt. More than 200 artists will show or perform work in more than 50 venues across the city, from a laundrette in the East End to a Bowling Club in Dowanside. The toilets in Central Station become the venue for a piece of performance art, and glass grids in Merchant City pavements will be illuminated to suggest an underground world.

As the city becomes the backdrop for art-themed magical mystery tours, I decided to go on a tour of my own. But first, I met the directors of Glasgow Open House, Laura Campbell and Phoebe Barnicoat, both GSA graduates from 2013. “The committee who set up Open House were all painting students who’d been out of GSA for a year, in a bit of a rut, trying to make our first shows,” says Barnicoat. “A lot of people applied to GI but weren’t quite established enough to take part. We were looking to start something small, but it grew.”

They quickly found more established artists – Sara Barker, Chris Coleman-Smith, Ellie Harrison – coming on board. “I think for them it is opportunity to do something completely different, attract a different audience, try new collaborations,” says Barnicoat. “A good way to give younger artists confidence is to see their names next to bigger names. In Glasgow it’s a level playing field, so you could be seeing work by Marvin Gaye Chetwynd and then, down the street, someone in their fourth year at GSA.”

My first visit is to Marvin Gaye Chetwynd (as Spartacus Chetwynd she was shortlisted for the Turner Prize in 2012), who moved to Glasgow two years ago with her artist husband Jedrzej Cichosz and their baby son. At their rented flat in the Southside, they are in the process of covering every inch of the magnolia walls with art: Cichosz’ paintings and the black and white graphic backdrops from Chetwynd’s performance work.

Cichosz has already covered one wall of the lounge with a vast nude inspired by Scottish Colourist JD Fergusson, with another planned for the bathroom. There are figures inspired by post-war avant-garde group COBRA in the hall, and printed backdrops in the bedrooms. Both are clearly excited by the project, and they plan to involve two-year-old Dragan in some “toddler action art” as part of a performance night on Saturday.

Chetwynd says they were inspired by work they saw in museums in Glasgow, including the recreation of interiors of Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s Glasgow home. “We believe that as artists you’re experimenting, making economic sacrifices, wanting to question things, putting energy into that rather than having a better lifestyle. This encouraged us to be a bit more brave and do something.

“We talked about a lot of weird ideas. Jedrzej was painting on wallpaper because it was cheap, so I just suggested putting it on the wall. I’ve made backdrops for performances for 15 years. I was excited about putting them up next to his painting, they seem to really complement each other.” She is full of enthusiasm for Glasgow’s DIY art scene. “People are very generous here, it’s very conducive to creativity. I think you need a balance of commercial galleries, institutions and artist-run spaces [in a city].”

My next stop is in the West End, where Keith Moore is in the process of turning his hallway into a small museum. Moore is not an artist, but he has decided to open up his home to show a selection of work by the late Glasgow artist and designer Robert Stewart. A contemporary of Lucienne Day, Stewart designed fabrics for Liberty and Pringle in the 1950s and 1960s but had a wide-ranging career, teaching at Glasgow School of Art for the best part of four decades, designing ceramics, tapestries and murals. Central to the exhibition, which includes paintings, ceramics and home-designed Christmas cards, is a vibrant length of his Ardentinny fabric.

Moore says: “We discovered Open House last year by accident and thought this would be a really good thing to take part in. We love Bob Stewart’s work. Most people in Open House are showing their own work, but what we’re doing is a fascinating journey. We’re lucky that we had a source, and a pile of friends with some enthusiasm to help us.”

Meanwhile, in the kitchen of her flat above WASPS studios in Dennistoun, artist Emily Shepherd is making very different preparations. Shepherd is the host of MONEY M€AL, a dinner party with money-themed food in which fellow Glasgow artist Ellie Harrison will facilitate a discussion about money and its role in our society. The event is inspired by Death Cafe, a now worldwide initiative to discuss death over tea and cake.

“Open House seemed the ideal opportunity to be part of a wider event,” says Shepherd. “Money is one of the big subjects, similar to death, you can’t escape it. My understanding of economics is really basic, so for me it’s an opportunity to learn more from other people.”

Much of Harrison’s work has an economics theme. “It’s the thing that rules our lives, that dictates what we can and can’t do,” she says. “It’s interesting when you think about what it actually is – it’s a belief system. I make work as an excuse to find out about stuff, to research and ask questions, and also to make visible the invisible forces within the economy, but I try always to tackle things playfully.”

Just down the hill, Whitehill Laundrette will be the venue for Washing Lines, a photography project by Glasgow-based Eoin Carey. Portraits of the local community, with key objects and garments hanging from a washing line, will be exhibited among the washing machines and tumble driers.

Commercial photographer Carey says he was interested in finding out more about interactions within the community in an increasingly digital age. He and girlfriend and producer Paula Morgan set out to meet people and hear stories, from long-time residents to recent arrivals. “Nothing about this project is documentary, it’s about the nature of community,” Carey says. “Dennistoun is a changing place, but there are still a lot of people who have been here for ages. It’s looking at what happens when you scratch the surface of a place. You can’t take anything at face value; the surface might be quite grey and hard-up, but it’s packed with life and colour. When we saw the laundrette, we knew immediately this was the space for it.”

Festival co-director Laura Campbell says: “The thing with contemporary art is people can feel it’s not for them. We’re not waiting for the public to come to us, we’re taking it out into the city, more comfortable engaging with it in a really familiar setting.”

Susan Mansfield