It depends on how you look at things: what you see, what you notice, what you take heed of. Tony Heaton’s art, which is playful and sculptural, constantly wrong-foots you, diverts and demands your attention, revealing in the process what is often overlooked.
A tram ride away from its more prominent metropolitan equivalents, Bury Art Museum & Sculpture Centre provides a convivial space for this collection of Heaton’s work, encompassing the breadth of his practice as both sculptor and disability rights activist.
Entering the gallery, you are faced, aptly enough, with Heaton’s earliest work, a pyramid of red plastic collection boxes of the kind rattled for ‘good causes’ in town centres the country over. Dating back to the early 1990s, in the months past COVID-19’s apparent peak they have acquired an additional resonance from their distinct resemblance to rolls of stockpiled toilet paper. In fact, Shaken Not Stirred was originally conceived as a performance piece, its second show taking place, in the best spirit of punk Situationism, during the live transmission of an ITV Telethon when a well-aimed prosthetic leg, shod in a Dr. Martens’ boot, brought the whole structure crashing down.
The metaphor is at once both potent and hilarious. Indeed, the strength of Heaton’s work is in such structured instability. The pieces are capable of bearing the load of more than one meaning, and their strength arises from the tension that creates.
This specific ambiguity is more clearly embodied in Heaton’s figurative pieces, forms with all the solidity of a Beryl Cook drawing, sculpted a little in the manner of Henry Moore, although, unlike Moore’s work, these figures are unapologetically whole. One pair, who seem at first glance to be resting on a bench, are revealed on closer inspection as not only supporting each other, but raising themselves up. Its potency is all the more persuasive for its nuance.
There’s similar understated force in the wry Great Britain From A Wheelchair, in which the body of the mainland is resolved from the scrapped remains of two wheelchairs, at once a statement of belonging and ownership, echoing both Morrissey’s “England is mine”, and the corollary “it owes me a living”.
Seen in this light, it can be viewed as a companion piece to the smouldering anger of Damaged (Five Giants), a cornerstone engraved with the ogres of want, disease, squalor, idleness and ignorance, which The Beveridge Report hoped to slay through the foundation of the Welfare State. The stone, like Beveridge’s vision, has fallen into disrepair, relegated to a corner, left to gather dust.
Such solemnity is the exception, however, and is leavened by the collection’s poppier aspects writ in neon. But Heaton’s double edges remain sharp. Two pieces, made in the sign of the cross, ensnare the passer-by in their seaside colours. In the first, the words ‘brave’ and ‘tragic’ act as cross-pieces, suggesting how, subject to the labelling of the able, those denied the right to name themselves are crucified either way. The second, later work, A Bigger Ripple, goes further in reclaiming the rhyming slang slur, and recasting it in pink highlights so it is impossible to ignore.
Fittingly, the pieces serve as invitations, and their inclusive intent sits well alongside the welcoming primary colours of Suite: Fruits, the bright descendants of Heaton’s original Sweet Meeting, sharing with it the morphological DNA of the Polo Mint, themselves mass-sculpted miniatures of sugar and flavouring. Where Heaton’s rings differ is that their letters are sequenced anagrammatically, so that they read as the self-descriptive ‘LOOP’.
The difference is in the details but, in spite of the alterations, the similarities are apparent for anyone to see. It’s one final metaphor and one final flourish in an exhibition that’s well worth the attending.
Main image: Sweet Meeting. Credit: Brendan Buesnel 2018.
altered by Tony Heaton is at Bury Art Museum & Sculpture Centre until June 25, 2022. For more information, visit the website.