Concrete softens to artistic touch

One of the works in Hannah Purvey-Tyrer and Aaron Prior’s Tea Vessel series in Brick Window Brick.


Brick Window Brick

Paper Mountain Gallery

Review: Laetitia Wilson

In the history of 20th century modernism one of the most iconic moments symbolising its demise is the demolition of modernist housing blocks. These structures of utopian promise became ubiquitous in the postwar era but were deemed unsuccessful over time because of crime, social division and alienation.

All brick, windows and dull concrete, there is something profoundly unattractive about the utilitarian facade of mass housing. It is impersonal and inherently contrary to the formation of a sustainable community.

Local emerging artists Hannah Purvey-Tyrer and Aaron Prior embark on a nuanced exploration of this theme in their show at Paper Mountain Gallery.

In Brick Window Brick, the artists seek “to move beyond the iconic brutalism of modernism” and work contrary to the narrative of mass housing as monumental disaster by making its main material — concrete — intimate, homely, sensuous, soft and feminine.

They place an emphasis on domesticity, on objects familiar to the home, discrete ornaments and accessories. A thin shelf is adorned with various concrete objects, small blocks, smaller blocks and small Japanese-style tea vessels. Little installations are evenly spaced and there is considered attention to detail with minimal distraction from the art objects, in the form of signage. Even the artworks’ numbers are subtly pencilled on the wall and the sale tags are silver, not red.

All these objects are created from concrete, which contrary to its usual materiality is made to appear soft and feminine. Some objects are coated in rich black velvet fibres and others are formed into small cubes to hang on elegant silver chains. A tiny mountain of blocks is playful in its tumbling arrangement and the tea vessels negate functionality by crumbling away to reveal holes.

These objects are purely ornamental. They position concrete as not only an architectural but also a decorative material, decorative in the way it is formed, left to express its dull grey texture and softened with velvet.

Contrasting with these pieces, a number of rectangular concrete slabs lean against the opposite wall. They replicate the look of hard-edged concrete art, with sections blacked out, like heavy shadows passing across a building. Only they are, literally, concrete and presumably too heavy to hang on the wall. Instead they rest propped against it, looking like paintings stuck in limbo.

On the floor space are some blocks wrestling between being circular and square. They bulge from their ridged geometries towards a plumper, pillow-like embodiment, bursting at the seams. They are arranged in formations that resemble and make an abstract pattern of the actual placement of housing blocks in the world.

As a nod to the demolition of mass housing, then, a broken-apart rectangular slab lies flat on the floor. As with some of the smaller objects it is coated in black velvet, which invests its brute materiality and violent broken presence with an element of sensuality.

Overall, concrete is made intimate, gentle, homely, expanded beyond the cold facade it usually is. It is made desirable aesthetic object and appreciated for its simple, puckered, gritty texture.

The exhibition is cohesive, exploring a range of concepts through an aesthetic of simplicity of form. It responds to the brutality of modernism in a contrary way with a colliding wealth of references — mass housing, apartment living, Japanese traditions, Modernism, gender.

It could be considered as ideologically confused, sending mixed messages, but somehow these things come together and it holds together.

Brick Window Brick is at Paper Mountain, William Street, Northbridge, until Sunday.