Jane Hardy meets the artists behind Belfast’s Engine Room Gallery
LA Engine Room Gallery on North Street in Belfast city center is now arguably the city’s largest exhibition space.
Questioned by the artist and gallery owner Lise McGreevy, she totals the four main galleries over three floors and the corridor used as a wardrobe, before making a claim. âYes we are, although I don’t know the exact square footage. “
The engine room certainly gives the MAC and the Ulster Museum a run for their money in terms of being able to showcase the work of renowned painters and emerging talent. If there is an optimal space to see paintings, drawings and small sculptures, the engine room probably has it.
Too little space and a great work of art can run out: I remember once trying to take a sufficient step back from Stanley Spencer’s The Resurrection, Cookham (1924-27) in an overly narrow gallery of the Tate Britain. But here the work can sing.
There is material from famous names such as Neil Shawcross and Brian Ballard, who belong to the East Belfast Arts Collective which runs the show. They do not create together, unlike the recent Turner Prize winners, Array Collective, but democratically decide on the artistic policy of Engine Room.
There are gems, including a vibrant Shawcross still life with crudely outlined white objects against a deep red background. The second-floor gallery contains superb ceramics, patterned utensils, as well as non-uniform plates and round jars with neat openings.
The paintings are impressive too. Speaking to Fred Woodhead, a local artist delighted to have recently sold a cityscape for Â£ 140, he says: Then when I cropped I saw Triffids in the foreground that day. “
The result suggests that nature is fighting against human interference and is adapting to our times.
Artist Cliff Brooks recalls founding The Engine Room with his partner, Joanne, in 1996 at its original site in the Portview Trade Center on Newtownards Road: the gallery was named for the former function of its space original in this converted flax mill.
âI started it about 25 years ago and it’s been a bit of a roller coaster,â he says.
“I was just back in the studio, every hour of the day.”
Cliff’s remarkable artistic career began 63 years ago when he started working for Rowley Sign & Poster and he says he remembers designing movie posters, before spending time in Dublin.
“I came back and became independent. The gallery is great and has helped a lot of people including myself and my partner.”
Brooks adds that he retired from the board eight years ago, saying, âFour years ago I was also trying to step back from the constant curating and hanging of exhibits. Not practical.”
Enter volunteer Leanne McLean, who has work on display – a cheeky bird in a box (âSwears it, but I didn’t put that on the label,â she advises) – and is good at hang art.
âI’ve been involved for five to six years. This is one of those galleries where you don’t need formal art training to exhibit, which is quite unusual. And we encourage students.â
With Lise McGreevy as my guide, I descend the three floors, noting the abundance of imagery, abstract and figurative and expressionist art, as well as installations.
Downstairs is Lisa McGreevy’s own show called I Am Woman, which runs until January 14. Informed by the current #MeToo movement, she details the artist’s point of view on a deeply felt feminism.
In front of you as you enter the room, large female portraits depict aspects of the status of women.
âI’m a strong feminist and I promote equality, so it’s not just women who are included. Anyone can relate to these emotions,â explains the artist.
“I guess I wanted to produce a body of work and this exhibition, which has 20 works, took me two years.”
The stimulating exhibit has already made some sort of tour, being shown at Stormont where it has garnered support from politicians, including Nichola Mallon and Bertie Ahern. Lise, trained in art at “the old Met”, has facilitated related workshops.
She points to a large portrait of a woman surrounded by harlequin colors, seeming to be about to draw a curtain of colors: âIt’s I’m creative. It’s sort of related to the ideas of the peace and reconciliation agenda.
The artist reveals that she likes to focus on what brings us together rather than what divides us, painting a positive sense of Northern Ireland.
There is an attractive painting, titled I Am Mischievous, of which the subject has a sparkle in his blue eyes. There are photographs of London, with red buses, as well as new residents of Northern Ireland.
A talented photographer, Lise worked for The Irish News in the early 2000s where her photographic abilities were nurtured by one of the newspaper’s award-winning photographers.
âHugh Russell was brilliant, very helpful and taught me to wait and always take the second shot, not the one that’s obvious to everyone,â she explains.
There are views of the city of Belfast, as well as a touching photo of two intertwined swans, depicting True Love. One wall contains female nudes, shamelessly and depicting some sort of 70s or even 60s pop art poster style. They are brightly colored and also have a subtext on the status of women.
We stop at the impressive Â£ 50 Engine Room Gallery where you can pick up original artwork from artists nominated for five dozen. It is a way for the artists exhibiting here to contribute something and the money helps the gallery.
After tea and tarts, Lise and I head to the space newly vacated by the Royal Ulster Academy of Arts. Once again, we rub shoulders with a raft of works defining the range of contemporary art practice.
A side room contains witty, even charming, works by Sarah Falloon. His art involves surprising materials, with a badger, for example, shaped into a Brushhead Duck.
Thanks to a phased arrangement with the building owners, the engine room gallery does not charge entry. The gallery hopes to attract students and young people who would benefit from a bit of local modern art history and might even be inspired to produce their own work.
Each year, the engine room awards a prize to the best student they believe is a graduate of the Belfast School of Art at the University of Ulster. The price? You guessed it, an exhibition at the gallery.
This month there will be a student exhibition and the sales exhibitions are also continuing. If you want a pictorial idea of ââwhere we live, the engine room gallery is worth a visit or two.
:: The Engine Room Gallery, 59 North Street, Belfast. Open Tuesday to Friday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.