Cut Garth Gratrix open and he’s a stick of rock. The artist is the founder and director of Abingdon Studios, one of Blackpool’s first independent gallery spaces to open more than 10 years ago. Increasingly, his work and reputation are leading him to work outside of the town, but the influence of his home is apparent in everything he does.
“Being working class, from limited means economically and identifying as openly queer, inevitably presents an arena where many people think they understand me or seek to pigeonhole the opportunities I might be entitled to,” he says.
For that reason, when he finds himself standing in the Saatchi Gallery curating a major new art prize, as he has done over the past three years, or curating large-scale shows, as he is currently doing for The Whitaker in Rossendale, he always makes a point of saying where he’s from and who he is.
“It’s not my shame to carry, it’s for others to consider the bias and judgements they may place upon that,” says Gratrix. “It’s ensuring that we understand the demographics of people working in the arts more authentically.”
Working-class people are not well represented in leadership roles in the cultural sector, but Gratrix wonders if they are underrepresented because they stop sharing their origins when they reach a certain level, in favour of matching the majority of people in the room.
“We lose a sense of achievement rather than presenting as other,” he argues. “My beliefs in Blackpool are reflected in my approach to making work and collaboration…I think that’s a good foundation to have in mind when developing ideas, as well as supporting ideas around rest, play, adventure and a pinch of camp.
“We are seeing a return of the assault on those who live differently to societal norms, in particular the trans community globally.”
A pinch of camp may be underselling the themes of Wink Wink, the new exhibition of contemporary art at The Whitaker in Rossendale, curated by Gratrix. Sculpture, drawing, mixed media, textile and film are all drawn together and have been selected by Gratrix for their contribution to queer art and culture. Each piece, he says, holds significance and bravery.
“There are artists I have worked with many times and have strong bonds with and there are new relationships forming which I’m equally excited to explore,” he says, before highlighting a few notable contributions.
Helen Cammock, a Turner Prize-winning artist, is showing works that were developed in nearby Rochdale through community engagement. Her photographic stills highlight marginalised voices, which Gratrix says brings a sense of civic pride and storytelling into the exhibition.
“Then we have injections of pink perfection with artist Sarah-Joy Ford and her lesbian tracksuit and quilt works, which for me offer up activism and reclamation of identity in space, ensuring that lesbian culture, symbols and voices aren’t lost.”
Jonathan Baldock’s ceramics, he adds, are “incredibly playful and well-made objects” and he’s proud to have been able to display a work by Derek Jarman, “a significant artist that’s heavily influenced British queer art, history and culture”.
“There’s a spirit of collaboration, generationally, in Wink Wink,” Gratrix says. “I’ve been amazed at the calibre of artists and intersectionality when looking at lived experiences of queer people. I can’t wait to navigate all the artworks in the space together. Silently speaking to one another in solidarity.”
The title of the exhibition was inspired by the name of a paint colour Gratrix picked up in a DIY store, which struck him as “playful and flirty” – ideas he hopes to convey through the exhibition.
“I want to hold a level of invitation to flirt with ideas and imagery,” he explains, adding that it also aims to explore the idea that art can enable people to “world differently” – a term coined by historian and curator David Getsy.
“I wanted to present an invitation to explore art and the role of exhibitions as an alternative place and opportunity to look at the world we live in and be reflective and contemplative,” says Gratrix, who says the legal and social limitations on queer bodies throughout history have led queer artists to create subversive and abstract work.
“We are seeing a return of the assault on those who live differently to societal norms, in particular the trans community globally,” he points out. “‘Worlding differently’ is an attitude of resistance, which I think many people relate to needing to build and sustain.”
Gratrix pitched the exhibition to The Whitaker a year ago and is proud to have developed it to a point where artists are paid and audiences are given a large-scale, high-quality exhibition representing LGBTQIA+ inclusion in a mainstream gallery.
“If we don’t create and provide inclusion, then we can’t understand diversity, therefore we can’t explore equality and make change,” he argues. “Most galleries I have worked with have been publicly funded and hold publicly-funded collections. Therefore, as a taxpayer, I contribute to the safeguarding of culture and society in its archiving of art.
“I seek to have more queerly-made things preserved. That being said, I invite and encourage the public to be active in making the decision to go and see art in the plethora of spaces that are free to access. They are for you, you have permission to go in and they present one of few options in the current economic crisis to go somewhere, be leisurely and take time to breathe.”
The curatorial process has been one of organisation and admin as well as creativity – “artists love paperwork” laughs Gratrix.
“What I get the most enjoyment out of is continuing to see the passion and ambition that artists in the sector have and then how this is married with a willing and engaged gallery team. It’s when these collaborations go well, we see really exciting outcomes.
“It also involves a lot of sex noises,” he adds, with a metaphorical wink. “As I unpack, place and look at amazing art, it just makes me happy. I can’t help but make these joyful noises, which usually makes others laugh.”
By Antonia Charlesworth
This article first appeared on Blackpool Social Club.
Wink Wink is at The Whitaker in Rossendale until July 23, 2023.
Main image by Matt Wilkinson: Gratrix pictured with his own work, Shy Girl, currently on display at the Grundy Art Gallery, Blackpool. All other images copyright Northern Soul.