I haven’t been to Blackpool since I was a child when my mum and nan would take us for brief holidays away from Birmingham, which is as far away from the sea as you can get in the UK. For many, the town contains a sense of nostalgia. To those who travelled to avail themselves of the beach, fish and chips and illuminations, Blackpool was a weekender’s paradise of the 1940s, ’50 and ’60s. Although, I don’t know that I felt that way about it.
It was glamorous, and that glamour existed despite being neither polished nor new. I found its allure charming, and no doubt still would. Here, I don’t want to fall into the trap of comparing towns outside of London to the capital. However, it’s certainly the case that more and more people are leaving cities, and the UK’s seaside towns are becoming, for better or worse, more desirable sites for artists and gentrifiers. Against this backdrop, it feels pertinent to consider the work of Blackpool-based artist, curator and studio director Garth Gratrix in relation to their longstanding artistic and community engagement in their hometown and its coastal peripherality.
It beckons questions about how somewhere so accustomed to transience (the population of Blackpool can triple in the summer) maps onto an artistic practice. Gratrix is fond of the beach towel as a motif, the epitome of a transient marker. Their sculptural towels contain colourful codification befitting a knowledge of something like San Francisco hanky codes, famously documented in Hal Fischer’s photographic series ‘Gay Semiotics’ (1977). You might say that Gratrix deals in the semiotics of the seaside. For example, Shy Girl (2020), in which the artist painted nine-inch-thick walls at Grundy Art Gallery in stripes (in the colour Cottage by the Sea) like those you might find on a stick of rock, each proportioned nine inches in width. The self-imposed metric refers to a fruitless question they encountered on Grindr: ‘Do you have a nine-inch cock?’ But the curiosity I have concerning these stripes and towels, unlike Blackpool, is their impetus towards minimalism and, by proxy, a kind of cleanliness that I don’t associate with British coastal resorts.
In turn, I wonder about contemporary queer artists’ inclination toward minimalism when considered in dialogue with pernicious media ideas about the homosexual as unclean or unsavoury. Fisher’s exploration, an obvious evocation, I realise, is about the 1970s lone wanderer, pounding the streets, decked in carefully choreographed attire designed to attract solitary equivalents in search of the same. But a look at Gratrix’s broader output suggests a contrary urge towards queerness as embodied and shared networks of support, collaboration, friendship and co-operation, notwithstanding some codification, I’m sure. In 2014, they founded Abingdon Studios, Blackpool’s only dedicated studios for contemporary artists.
My interest in Gratrix’s work is in its relationship between singular and collective experience: the former, using close observation and intervention to inform compositions, measurements and structures; the latter, working with friends and collaborators to add to, complicate and enliven that basis. Gratrix poses questions about concealment and the clandestine ways that queer people have existed. Perhaps the unabashed silliness of something like Gratrix’s collaboration with another Blackpool native Harry Clayton-Wright, is a roundabout rebuttal to the conditions that necessitated the codification detailed by Fischer. I wonder what happens to secret codes when they’re no longer secret or, at least, not quite in the same way.
Sean Burns is an artist, editor and writer based in London, UK
(Part of a series of texts on artists participating in PIVOT, the inaugural artist development programme in the North West of England. PIVOT is delivered in partnership with Bluecoat, Liverpool and Castlefield Gallery, Manchester.)