The virtues and sins of deepest Yorkshire hung out on show for curious eyes.
As my friends and I traversed our way through Barnsley town centre from the car park towards the Civic we were kindly told to fuck off after refusing to give a bunch of kids 80p for the bus. As we drew closer, the sound of indie classics blaring out of the multitude of busy pubs drowned my ears and the sight of bald brutish men day drinking filled my eyes.
We were greeted at the Civic by two teenage boys smoking a humongous spliff and blamming a tag on the storage building outside. They told us they’d just dropped some acid which had us rather perplexed. After all, Barnsley town centre is hardly as idilic for tripping as the rolling hills of Yorkshire which surround it. It was a strange welcome to the town which embodied all the textbook characteristics of a place which previously relied on it’s mines for economic growth.
Inferred in its name, Lads not on tour addresses all the highs and lows of growing up and living in Barnsley head on. The four friends Sam Batley, Sean O’Connell, Harley Roberts and Sam Horton immerse you in their experience of the town through a flurry of photographs, paintings, sculptures and installations.
It begins with with a hybrid confessional booth/toilet stall thats meaning surpassed me at first. It references the familiar story of the toilet on a night out being an elusive safe space to be vulnerable infront of your friends. The shared intimacy of pissing or jangling keys does a lot to remove the usual barriers of conversation that exist around the pub table. A keen and emotive observation served in the form of a clever provocation and indicative of the wonderful work to come.
There is a duality to the moments captured in Batley and O’Connell’s photographs. On the one hand they are bleak, depicting poverty, pain, violence and unemployment. On the other hand they show that no one knows how to have it off quite like the working class. Images of Air rifles, dirt bikes and massive piles of bash demonstrate that the inhabitants of Barnsley make their own fun. The images pull you deep into their world, constructing a picture that is vivid and fascinating. It is difficult to imagine that the culture of a former mining town has ever been documented from the inside to such a high standard.
The level of artistic prowess is compounded by the fluidity in moving through mediums whilst maintaing a clear focus on the core themes. Objects are woven into the journey of the exhibition making it feel like one big installation. They range from a rusted minature pylon to battered mobile phones to sodden vests with the link between them appearing entirely tangible thanks to the the paintings and pictures filling in the gaps.
Many of the paintings themselves are collages, some of which elaborate on images taken by the two photographers. They add a surrealist element to the whole exhibition helping to bring the experience into a realm that is spirtual and psychedelic rather than simply documentarian. The scale of the paintings varies, the smaller often feeling intrictate and sensitive whilst the larger feel brash and agressive.
One of the installations features a recreation of one of the artist’s Grandmas living room which had one of the pals I visited with taken aback. They were deeply touched by seeing something so familiar to them in a gallery space and as a budding young artist himself it was a wonderful moment to observe. There is tremendous value in making art an accessible outlet to every type of person and exhibitions like this show creatives from less privileged, less documented backgrounds that there is importance in presenting their experience of life. So often the perspective of the working class is hijacked by artists and journalists who are cultural tourists but Lads not on tour shows what happens when the stage is given to those who have truly lived the experience.
The exhibition is a story with narratives interwoven in ways so complex that it could only be possible between four artists with a intricately deep understanding of eachother and the subject matter. Upon visiting you’re essentially observing the most cathartic chat between four friends making sense of who they are and where they come from. The honesty in presenting their pain is inspiring and shows that dissecting your demons through making art can be the greatest therapy of them all. With the relationship between men and mental health being nothing short of a crisis, observing how Lads not on tour confronts addiction, self loathing, displacement and many of the other triggers fuelling the crisis illustrates that the path out of it is through conversation and self expression.
Though the standard of work on show is deserving of any of the country’s finest institutions, seeing it in Barnsley makes sense. The additional bit of context you receive in absorbing the surroundings in which the work was made add to the experience of it all. Even though it was a short thirty minute drive through God’s country, the vibe of Barnsley was a strong juxtaposition to the budding metropolis of Leeds.
I implore anyone who’s interest has been perked by the words above to pay it a visit at The Civic in Barnsley before it closes on the 3rd September.