Gill Hedleyback

Curator & Contemporary Art Consultant

Colin Booth

Gill Hedley speaking at Site Gallery, Sheffield, in 2006

Like the Spanish City Did When We Were Kids

Catalogue essay on playing and building in the work of Colin Booth. For the exhibition at the Laing Art Gallery 

poster for exhibition

Modernist architecture, children’s play and the building blocks that they have in common are the background and material of Colin Booth’s recent sculpture. He has had several exhibitions in the last year where he has explored these themes in sites including a national museum and a major office building in London’s Canary Wharf.

Institute of Play and Other Collections is Booth’s first solo show in his native area. International modernism never took root in the North East of England: Victor Pasmore’s 1969 Apollo Pavilion in Peterlee has not been much loved; Owen Luder’s notorious Brutalist Get Carter car park of 1962 was demolished in 2010. T. Dan Smith, while Leader of Newcastle City council in the 1960s, had tried and failed to involve both Le Corbusier and Arne Jacobsen in his ambitions to turn Newcastle into (in Smith’s words) The Brasilia of the North.

The Laing Art Gallery, in contrast, is an example of late Edwardian Baroque architecture designed by (the unfortunately named) Cackett and Burns Dick who built many civic structures for Newcastle including the piers of the Tyne Bridge and the police/fire station. But, just after the Laing, they also built the permanent funfair Spanish City at the seaside in Whitley Bay, evoked in Dire Straits’ 1980 song Tunnel of Love. Spanish City was a place for play while the Laing Art Gallery was an imposing place for improvement.

What was The Spanish City like when we were kids? It was fantasy architecture to entrance visitors and many came from as far as the Glasgow shipyards to Whitley Bay for their annual week’s holiday. Spanish City was a playground, exotic and gleaming white. It was a castle in Spain, a dream of future success and maybe, one day, of foreign holidays. It certainly was not modernist in form but, with its huge concrete dome, prefigured some values of international modernism: aspirational, playful and white, as if sun-drenched.

The first real success of British modernist architecture was on England’s sunnier south coast. The De La Warr Pavilion, designed by Erich Mendelsohn and Serge Chermayeff, was built in 1935 at Bexhill-on-Sea in East Sussex. It was the first public building in the new international style in Britain: a masterpiece of concrete, steel and glass with clean lines and generous light, first a “people’s palace” and now a major art gallery. The regenerative impact of contemporary art is well-known.

Colin Booth now lives just a few miles away from the De La Warr and his studio faces the site of the former St Leonard’s Bathing Pool, or Lido, which opened in 1933. His studio is often filled with the reflected light from the sea, a few hundred metres away. As a painter, his focus was on surface, light and texture, clearly showing his interest in the simplicity of minimalism and the use of the relief in British constructivist art. All of this and more has been extended and refined in his recent sculpture. Moreover, as a curator, Booth also explored the white modernist aesthetic in Colour White, a group exhibition which he produced for the De La Warr Pavilion in 2002.

As a sculptor, he can trace very direct biographical links. His father was a joiner in Gateshead and Booth remembers playing for hours, aged six or seven, with boxes of small blocks of oak parquet flooring which his father brought home, constructing buildings and towers on his bedroom floor.

About six years ago, he watched his partner’s teenage son and his friends gathered around a table playing for hours with some small wooden off-cuts from the studio, which Booth, in his turn, had brought home just as fuel for the fire. This triggered off a cycle of working with reclaimed wooden blocks. Even more potently, in the last few years, he has watched his own small sons as they learned to play in order to explore space, movement and pattern. And so, the child appears once more within the studio.

Booth began to read about children’s cognitive development and heuristic (exploratory) play and researched the links with artists and in particular the crucial role played by the history of the child’s building block.

The outstanding figure in this history is Friedrich Froebel, a German education pioneer who created the concept and name Kindergarten in the 1830s. His philosophy was that young children can best be taught about art, design, mathematics and natural history through play. He created toys which he called Gifts and Occupations that follow the child from babyhood through infancy to childhood. They consist firstly of woollen balls on a string to introduce colour and then wooden objects to explore shape, number, extent, symmetry, proportion then elements of geometry, surface, the line and the circle. The final Gift looks at the potential of play through beans or seeds, leaves, pebbles, pieces of card-board or paper.

The Occupations give even more focus to the way in which the child – proto-artist, architect or designer - is encouraged to create through working with range of skills like wood-carving, paper-folding, painting or weaving.

This self-directed approach to play became very popular in the United States where that country’s most important modern architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, was given a set of the Froebel Gifts when he was about nine. In his autobiography Wright explains that through them he learned the geometry of architecture: For several years I sat at the little Kindergarten table-top ... and played ... with the cube, the sphere and the triangle—these smooth wooden maple blocks ... All are in my fingers to this day. This reminiscence echoed strongly with Colin Booth.

Froebel’s theories had a powerful impact on the Bauhaus movement in Germany. Artists, architects and designers who taught there or who were themselves educated in the Kindergarten movement include Mondrian, Kandinsky, Le Corbusier and Buckminster Fuller.

Booth’s research on Froebel coincided with an invitation in 2010 from the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Museum of Childhood in London to create a work for their monumental iron framed main hall. The resulting installation was Institute of Play, a work of approximately 2000 white painted tulip wood blocks. These were stacked and spread to create a major sculpture which successfully evoked both the effect of the canyon-like streets of Manhattan and the serenity of a Ben Nicholson relief, whilst the artist toyed with our sense of scale with an instant appeal to child visitors. Installed alongside historic items from the museum’s collection and others borrowed from a private collection were tiny sculptures from a series, made by Booth in deliberate homage to Froebel, entitled Gifts and Preoccupations. Froebel underlined the importance of not only the contents of a gift but the act of anticipation, opening, unpacking and revealing. The Gifts also teach the social skills of handing over or presenting and learning how to receive or accept. These are guidelines of good practice in creating exhibitions, too. Booth has made a limited edition boxed sculpture called simply Gift in which a white relief is revealed so the constituent parts can be stacked, arranged, changed and displayed at home.

Institute of Play has been remade for the Laing and joined by two other major works Streamline and Colony.

Institute of Play has a different quality to that which made it hold its own in the busyness of the Museum of Childhood. In Newcastle it is more massed, deeper and therefore somehow softer. Because the gallery has skirting round the walls, the work stands slightly proud and creates a shadow in places. It is starting to take on less of the form of a relief and more of a pyramid, hinting at a future incarnation where the work might be seen in the round.

The colour in Institute of Play and Streamline is limited to the original wood, changing with time and handling, and the white paint applied to the tulip wood in Institute of Play, a work made from specially commissioned blocks, not cut offs. What colour there is in both works is modulated and nuanced but because the blocks were specially made in Institute of Play the work has a rather ethereal quality. There is more of a sense of familiarity and recognition in the other two sculptures where the artist has sought form in the everyday material he has found.

Streamline, 2009, is a site responsive sculpture from found and recycled birch wood ply. Here, the elements are thinner, more layers than blocks, and some have gentle curves. A streamline is the natural direction of fluidity and is used to describe sleek efficiency in design. The pale ply recalls the clean lines of modernist Scandinavian furniture at the same time as the plan of an ideal sunny city. It is sinuous and dense but the lines invite the eye to turn corners and linger. Like Colony, it has been remade for the Laing’s large gallery; these two sculptures sit opposite each other, facing Institute of Play. Streamline has the elegance and gravitas of a modern downtown, full of mysterious and powerful institutions, while Colony is its foil, an area of playfulness. The larger work contains both elements.

Colony alludes directly to the seaside, setting its painted wooden blocks in rows as if they are a crazy quantity of chalets or beach huts. The sheer number and patterns created move us away from the literal, just as the purity and rhythm of the other two sculptures slide quickly away from the idea of townscape to abstracted form. The blocks in Colony are recycled and the paint splashes - bright blue, lighter blue and red – are factory markings. These blocks are small and any viewer, even a child, stands tall above them. From a distance they are tiny enough to become marks or dashes on a flat surface, like paint on canvas. Walk past the sculpture and, at a halfway point, the plain wooden back of each piece is succeeded by the colour on the front – the entire work flips visually. Each line of blocks, from wall to centre, has one hard edge and each “roof” is pitched, almost the profile of a house key with jagged teeth and flat edge. While the other two sculptures deny the floor on which they are installed (one on dance matting and the other densely packed), Colony echoes and stands up to the pattern of the herring bone parquet beneath.

In other recent solo exhibitions, at Canary Wharf and the University of Canterbury, Booth has shown a wide range of works filling these spaces. In recent group shows, he has integrated a major installation into a very varied series of other artists’ works on wall or floor. In the solo exhibition at the Laing, the walls have been painted a deep charcoal grey and each work carefully lit so that, while reconfigured for the space and larger than they have been shown before, each work looks less like an installation - something to be dealt with rather unexpectedly and often confrontational - than a sculpture, classically complete in itself. The overall effect is calm and controlled.

Booth has noted that a common theme in his work “is the relationship between intimacy (surface) and monumentality (structure) which embraces painting, sculpture and installation and brings into play the physical space of the gallery”.

All Booth’s works like Gift (made for handling) or the large installations, which are seductive but impossible to enter, have a strongly tactile quality. They are never neutral and balance precision with sensuality. There is also a simple pragmatism which the lyrical titles often disguise. Booth uses found material whenever he can and reconfigures each installation in response to its venue. Inevitably, showing in a white box gallery is a very different matter to a major museum like the Museum of Childhood or the Laing. Their architecture is often dominant and much attention is paid nowadays to the way in which these buildings can be made more welcoming through activities and playfulness.

The Laing’s architects built an institution for art and Spanish City for fun. But, in the case of Institute of Play and Other Collections, where the artist uses architecture and play as his subject, he also invites us to consider the way we look at contemporary sculpture in a classical museum setting.

Froebel chose the name Gifts with care and so Booth deliberated over the title Institute of Play. The word institute comes from a Latin root meaning to build, create, raise or educate. Colin Booth’s sculpture takes each of those ideas in turn and with a lightness of touch uses them to enable the museum in which he shows to be both an institute of play and place to explore the subtlety and thoughtfulness in his sculpture.