Exploring Spaces

Group show at the Roe Valley Arts Centre inspires new perspectives

Limavady is in festive mood. All along Newtown Square – which isn't a square at all, but a pedestrianised through road linking the A371 with Main Street, for the urban cartographers among us – window displays feature Christmas jumpers, hampers and all sorts of glittery nicknacks. Butchers, shoe sellers, mobile phone dealers and craftspeople are visibly happy to be busy.

If the atmosphere among consumers is not so convivial – a metamorphosed Scrooge might cry out, 'Why the long faces?' – that might have something to do with the mid-December weather here on the North Coast. Santa Claus has a hood for a reason, you know, as Mrs Claus is want to remind him.

The aesthetically traditional Corner Bar at the end of the street, painted red and replete with stained-glass windows, is bedecked with strips of white lights, and as the winter rain falls in sheets, the temptation is to venutre inside, pint up and get warm. But there is work to be done. Across Main Street, the Roe Valley Arts Centre beckons.

The centre opened in 2010, and is, as its website claims, a 'superb facility' including gallery spaces and a state-of-the-art theatre, the 221-seater Danny Boy Auditorium. Its external design reflects the playful, creative nature of the events that occur within, its west wing supported by a corridor of colourful columns. This is, indeed, a space to be explored.

Its current exhibition, fittingly titled Exploring Spaces, is spread across two floors, and, like Newtown Square, offers a varied range of visual treats for the weary traveller to flit between and appreciate. Thank Saint Nick I didn't come all this way for an exhibition made up solely of two-dimensional oil paintings. Wouldn't that have been boring?

Instead, the curators of Exploring Spaces have compiled a selection box of works that take the viewer from one medium to another – video to steelwork, plastic installation to photography – never allowing things to get stale as they go.

The theme, of course, is in the title. From wooden storage cases – their compartments filled with odd implements and glass jars, as in Jill McKeown's 'All That and Those', 'WEFA' and 'A Dark Twig' – to Julie Merriman's carbon on canvas line drawings that resemble blueprints of multi-story buildings soaring up into the sky, these works were created to make us think about the world around us by artists in tune with their environments.

As the designer of the Roe Valley Arts Centre conceived a structure that could not to be ignored – as so many drab civic buildings across Northern Ireland are – so this exhibition asks us to consider if stairwells, for example, are merely functional spaces, or if is there more to them than meets the eye? Products of the human mind, of architectural ingenuity, shouldn't we give them more credit, use them for other purposes?

While the answer to that question is subjective, it takes visionary artists to pose such questions in the first place. And wouldn't the world be a much duller place without them and their unconventional viewpoints?

Then a corridor really would be a corridor – a metal ruler a metal ruler, a construction site crane a construction site crane – and not spaces and objects that can contain hidden meaning and a sort of simple beauty, as these 12 artists have clearly shown, if we only allow ourselves to see it. 

This exhibition is not all scaffolding and light, of course. Adrian O'Connell's 'Line of Enquiry' video work, for instance, reminds us that hazards lurk around every corner in the space that we call home, as a crew of investigators search through foliage for things we would rather not envisage – but again, isn't art supposed to challenge us occasionally, take us out of our comfort zones, not simply present us with pretty things without consequence?

Picking through twee Christmas nicknacks can fast loose its appeal; exhibitions like Exploring Spaces, on the other hand, encourage new perspectives on everyday things, places and spaces. I exit the Roe Valley Arts Centre determined to learn from its example, and never before has a rain-soaked street held more hidden charms.

Visit the Arts Council of Northern Ireland website and support the #13pForTheArts campaign.