The curatorial and editorial project for systems, non-objective and reductive artists working in the UK

Website: Chestnuts Design

Constructing Exchange   |  Tony Charles and Jamie MacDonald    

ARTSHED, Glaisdale, North Yorkshire, 9 July to 6 Aug 2022

A review by Annie O’Donnell

©Copyright Patrick Morrissey and Clive Hancock  All rights reserved.

Constructing Exchange, the second exhibition in ARTSHED GLAISDALE’s opening season, is the first time that work by artist and gallerist Tony Charles and photographer Jamie MacDonald has been presented together. It is a clear demonstration of mutually significant concerns around aesthetics, narrative, and process. Here, MacDonald’s photographic documentation of industrial dissolution focuses not only on the fragmentation of geometric structures but also forms a trope for us to understand the lost workplaces and lifestyles of the people who populated them. For Charles, construction, deconstruction and (re)construction forge a personal industrial chain through the very act of painting.

The road running from Middlesbrough’s landmark Transporter Bridge to Northern School of Art in Hartlepool forms the daily commute for colleagues Charles and MacDonald. It bisects a head-swivelling landscape that resembles an enormous chemistry-set, with industrial structures standing as flasks and test tubes. The distillation of RSPB Saltholme, the nuclear power plant, mudflats with basking common and grey seals, and a chemical plant completely shrouded in white titanium dioxide, produces a particularly dense solution. Skeins of cars along the road discharge wildlife watchers and twitchers to vantage points and hides, where they train telephoto lenses and binoculars on the flat land and big skies. For Charles and MacDonald, this place is a petri dish of oscillating reactions.

Where the river Tees finally glides to meet the North Sea lies Able Seaton Port (ASP), one of the world’s largest dry docks, noted for its decommissioning of oil rigs and the controversial international ‘Ghost Ships’[1]. The ever-changing site demonstrates iconoclasm in action: the slow death of monumental industrial maritime structures and the easiest way to trigger the forgetting of old narratives.

Jamie MacDonald Untitled Rig (ii) (2017) 1 of 7 framed prints, each 31 x 24cm © Jamie MacDonald

After its arrival on here on the ‘Iron Lady’ barge, Jamie MacDonald tracked the top-down deconstruction and recycling of the Brent Delta oil rig, a spectacle which unfolded over more than eighteen months [2]. The 130m Delta topside was subjected to cutting, pulling or explosive processes to free sections of the huge structure, which then dropped onto beds of sand surrounding its base. The demolition workers themselves are entirely absent from MacDonald’s photographs, and in fact from the road, their presence was only evidenced through the sparks of their cutting equipment. MacDonald’s rig project traced the reduction of the topside into rectangular steel ‘coupons’, forming part of the waste streams of component materials that lay firstly in heaps, and then in an ordered taxonomy, around the shrinking rig [3]. In this way, he questions repetition, erasure, viewpoints, proximity, and wider conceptual frameworks by being out in the world with an analogue camera and tripod in changing light and weather conditions.

MacDonald’s seven silver gelatin prints, Untitled Rig (2017), are a non-chronological narrative around this process of dismantling and recovery. They reduce the colossal rig structure to the size of pages in a book, things to be closely read, rather than simply motifs to be viewed. His repeated documentation of the combinations and juxtapositions of half-recognised elements (the drilling, module, and cellar decks) are simultaneously surreal, disjointed allegories for social and political fragmentation in the sub-region.

Jamie MacDonald Untitled Rig (vii) (2017) 1 of 7 framed prints, each 31 x 24cm © Jamie MacDonald

Moving closer to the black and white images, details of the excising of vertical and horizontal elements become more apparent. The prints disrupt our perception of the surface texture of the real world, unveiling things that cannot be seen by the naked eye at a distance. They highlight the extent to which the geometry of the structure had been abraded by forty years in extreme sea conditions and trigger thoughts of wet/dry and smooth/rough, as presented through the powerful gaze of the photographer. The surface, tone and weight of the works themselves have been tightly controlled through location shooting and darkroom alchemy to make prints that reveal and perhaps conceal MacDonald’s vision of photographic images as material objects in the world. They also replicate the sensations felt when confronted with Delta on land, its collection of box modules resembling a behemoth sculpture. [4]

Jamie MacDonald Rig and Road (2017/2022) 106 x 76cm pigment print on Innova Fibagloss (Classic) on aluminium © Jamie MacDonald

Certainly, here in rural Glaisdale, the alien quality of the rig structure becomes emphasised and Rig and Road (2017/2022) a larger pigment print by MacDonald takes on the quality of a bizarre double portrait [5]. Its mounting on aluminium also lends it an objecthood and presence different to his framed prints. Compositionally, the eye is led into the image by the serpentine shape of the road in the foreground, the texture of which to the left resembles shallow water. Fences on either side funnel the viewer through to the waiting rig with its drilling derrick and cranes. The partially deconstructed Delta seems to have gathered around itself a variety of tall metal attendants, the like of which travel regularly up and down the river. Overhead power lines run diagonally, slicing the image.

Tony Charles Fettled Layers (2019) 244 x 122cm gloss paint and resin on aluminium © the artist

Tony Charles’ academic research recognises his previous experience in the steel industry as being inherent in his praxis, serving as both an overarching lens and providing an in-depth set of skills. Fettled Layers a work on aluminium carrying the paint colours of Delta, is part of a body of work he calls ‘unpaintings’, a term he understands as a reversal of painting as a verb and as a noun [6]. Aluminium panels are painted flatly with industrial gloss and then as much paint as possible is removed with an industrial grinder in a pre-set time period, leaving behind tracks in the metal. Predictability of results is avoided by experimentation around grinder and panel sizes. This strict adherence to time reflects the rhythms that form the heartbeat of industrial manufacturing processes. The unpaintings are then covered in a resin and blowtorched until glossy. The work now combines a highly manufactured finish with the gestural ‘brushstokes’ of the grinder, symbolising Charles’ balancing of industry and art, fetish finish and the hand of the artist.

Measuring an industry-standard 8 x 4ft, Fettled Layers’ proportions disturb those of ARTSHED’s gallery space, and its shining mirror surface reflects both gallery visitors and the nearby garden. In Fettled Layers, blue predominates, with yellow, orange and red clustering around a plain aluminium diagonal, like filings around a bar magnet. For Charles’, the colours in the work reference the signage and structures found in his previous working life in steel construction and its title refers to fettling in metalworking - the cleaning of layers of excess material from welds with a grinder. The gestural erasure of the applied colour is largely seen in vertical loops and swoops resembling agitated writing. These marks would have been made along the work while the panel lay flat on a bench. Through the resin, some appear to bite strongly into the metal, others are more subtle, like whispers or asides. The aluminium diagonal itself is virtually devoid of grinds, resulting in it being thinly banded in warm colour.

Charles and MacDonald’s work shares this flayed quality, an attempt to scratch below surface appearances to reveal hidden narratives and to propose new.

Tony Charles Accumulative Shift (2019) 30 x 180cm, work in 9 panels, 30 x 20cm gloss paint and resin on aluminium

Similarly, the nine smaller aluminium panels of Accumulative Shift are of a standard industry size. Again, through addition and subtraction, each painted panel has a diagonal strip of unpainted aluminium running downwards from left to right or perhaps upwards from right to left. Their formal similarity to Fettled Layers emphasises their shared relationship with repeated industrial signage around a site. Their unpainted shapes appear to be forced increasingly lower/higher by an accumulation of painted material above/below as the sequence progresses. Viewpoint is all important. The works have a sense of movement, of shifting, but the title also carries ideas of team shift patterns that regulated family life on Teesside for many years.

Tony Charles Still Life Unpainted (2022) dim. var. steel and aluminium

Grouped on a high window ledge, the six elements of Still Life Unpainted cast shadows on the floor below which somehow do not resemble them. The ‘process-based painterly objects’ have subtle, shimmering surfaces created by grinder ‘painting’, that make them seem both mundane and precious. These fire extinguishers with their factory-assigned surface identity removed, succinctly demonstrate Charles’ contention that for him everything is a painting ‘so long as it has a surface’. His Still Life Unpainted assemblies of individually shaped bottle-necked forms, also engage in a non-heroic, personal dialogue with Middlesbrough’s iron and steel metanarrative and question its relevance to current global deindustrialisation. The series can be seen to mirror Giorgio Morandi’s repeated investigation of still life painting through small domestic objects, which was itself an expression of Bologna’s particular architecture, colour, and spirit.

Tony Charles Still Life Unpainted (detail of the series) © the artist


To view work by appointment:

Annie O’Donnell



[1] 95% of all decommissioned vessels globally are currently scrapped by ‘beaching’ in Southeast Asia, where unsafe working practices and the improper handling of hazardous materials are common.

[2] A 24,000 tonne jack up rig sited between Shetland and Norway (388 nautical miles away from Seaton) a place not unfamiliar to men working as roughnecks, drillers and engineers as part of the Teesside Diaspora.

[3] 97% of the topside material (largely ferrous or stainless steel) was recycled or reused. Non-recyclable materials went to the nearby ironically named Seaton Meadows Landfill site. For full details of the close-out see: Shell Ltd (2019) Brent Delta Topside Decommissioning Close-out Report rent_Delta_Topside_Close_Out_Report.pdf

[4] Teesside is after all the area where Anish Kapoor and Cecil Balmond’s Tees Valley Giant Temenos (2010) is sited (built from excess steel stock from international oil and gas pipelines), and where Claes Oldenburg’ and Coosje van Bruggen’s Bottle of Notes (1993) references both maritime history and steel production.

[5] Perhaps a wounded Martian tripod from H. G. Well’s 1898 ‘War of the Worlds’, squatting on the land

[6] The unpaintings are the most recent in a long line of works using the industrial materials, tools, and processes for which he has become known, including the knotting of steel wool for large outdoor installations and the manufacturing of rust to produce patterned ‘rugs’ on floorboards from demolished houses. Their ambiguous titles can also be read as directly referencing industrial activities.

Installation shot of Constructing Exchange © the artists

Despite situating their practices within defined disciplines, Tony Charles and Jamie MacDonald’s ‘diverse visual languages’ intersect in Constructing Exchange to produce abstracted visions of man-made forms and activity in ‘landshapes’ which are never static. Charles welds together his remembered and current skills to form a new vocabulary of unpainting which exposes an engagement with change, dissolution and layers of reality. Meanwhile, MacDonald’s photographs act as witnesses to a disappearing structure and life, metaphorically re-joining the mysterious maritime world which remains largely invisible to those on land. Charles and MacDonald’s construction from deconstruction is in essence how memory works; to remember we must initially forget. Remembering collectively, by sharing cultural and visual connections and influences, especially in here in a new geographical setting, allows them to share rich new dialogues and make visible a lived, embodied sense of self and place through abstraction.