Open House Bangor

Peter McCaughan visits a gym, a pub and the promenade to take in some visual art exhibitions in unusual places

With a smorgasbord of live music concerts, readings and film screenings taking place across Bangor at the Open House Bangor 400 festival, it's safe to say that residents of the seaside town are spoiled for choice for things to do. But they – and you, dear reader, should you choose to attend them – should not forget the various visual art exhibitions also taking place up until September 1.

There is a jam-packed programme of stunning work by a diverse array of artists on show, and while some exhibitions – such as the Seacout Print Workshop's Making It show for August Craft Month – is housed in the Centre for Contemporary Printmaking, other exhibits – including an exhibition of works by ultra hip painter Terry Bradley in The Goat’s Toe pub and live music venue – utilise venues not normally associated with art exhibitions.

Bradley's is not the only exhibition taking place outside of the traditional white cube. Other, perhaps less well-known artists – like Jo Hatty, Clare Hamilton and students from the South Eastern Regional College – are also exhibiting in intriguing spaces far removed from the conventional gallery space. Attempting to plan a course of action to fit them all into a weekend is exciting in itself.

Open House committee member and visual artist Rachel Coulter believes that hosting visual arts exhibitions in pubs, restaurants and even gyms is the way forward for festival programmers keen to attract new audiences and the eyes of editors desperate for new angles.

'Using unusual spaces to exhibit local creativity seems to work as a pleasant surprise to passers-by,' she explains. 'It brings extra vibrancy and interest to the town and gives our talented local artists another platform to show their work in different ways suited to their artistic styles. It’s certainly a great way to reach out to members of the public who usually wouldn't visit galleries, for whatever reason.'

Coulter does, of course, see the value in the visual arts – and other art forms – as a means of bringing communities together, fostering creativity among young people, stimulating debate and, perhaps most importantly of all, giving the working masses something to enjoy during their evenings and weekends off.

'I think galleries are an important part of our creative culture,' Coulter adds, 'but you have to be in a particular mindset to approach some of these particular exhibits. When you place an exhibition in a bar or another public space, then people can see the art and start to embrace it before they even realise it.'

One such space is the Aurora Complex, the £38 million leisure facility, which is, until the end of August 2013 at least, not just home to Olympic standard swimming pools, spin classes and the Adventureworld soft play area, but also an exhibition of work by the Bangor Camera Club.

The pieces displayed there are as varied as one would expect from a collaborative exhibition of this type, and broken down into ‘foundation’ and ‘advanced’ work. Of course, such labels are entirely subjective and really just used for teaching purposes – there is a high level of talent on display in both camps.

‘Puff’, for example, by Trevor Robinson is a dynamic monochrome portrait showing an on-street clarinet player, while at the opposite end of the spectrum Trevor Craig’s ‘Elgol Storm’ brings the viewer down to sea level in a brightly coloured and otherworldly burst of spectacular weather.

Elsewhere Hugh Rooney’s ‘Val D’Orcia’ features an ethereal landscape that could have come straight out of a fantasy novel, and it is also a pleasure to see the local coast represented too, in the hazy-toned ‘Bangor Sunset’ by Alan Field, and Christine Pearson’s ‘Mussendun’.

Across town, the Rabbit Rooms is a real festival hub with a host of film, comedy and musical events taking place across its two floors throughout the month. However, eagle-eyed patrons will also notice the locally-produced art hanging from the walls. Indeed, there is little white space to be seen in ‘the Hutch’ – the appropriately named dancehall on the first floor – which is currently housing ‘Artistic Expressions’, a show curated by the aforementioned SERC students.

Here we have a diverse mix of textile art, sculpture and more traditional paintings. Expressionist interpretations of the seaside and Belfast docks sit alongside pieces like ‘Heart Strings’ by Nicole McAuley. Deliciously tangible, this textile work uses a variety of materials to reconstruct human hearts, ‘veins’ made of thread dangling from the muscular masses.

My favourite, however, is a duo of photo intaglio prints based on the nearby Abbey and Old Graveyard. Created by Glenn Mills, the blurb details how in his youth the locations near to his home always seemed spooky to Mills, but that they have since grown into somewhere he can draw inspiration from. Nonetheless his work, which combines intaglio with drypoint etching, bridges the worlds of the living and the dead to great effect.

Of course this is just the tip of the iceberg. Visitors to Bangor will draw great pleasure from ‘Wish You Were Here’ in Project 24, a temporary studio space on the seafront, where guests of all ages are invited to buy, customise or make a 6”x4” postcards of the seaside resort.

Undeniably, Open House Festival has done a great job of promoting and further diversifying an already rich visual arts scene in Bangor. Coulter says that the response from festival goers thus far as been 'superb', and hopes for greater footfall before Open House Bangor comes to an end on August 31.

'Who'd have thought you would have the Undertones and Midlake performing at the Windsor Hotel, or The Staves and Paul Brady at Bangor Abbey?' she enthuses. 'I can't speak for the whole festival board, but I hope that, all being well next year, it should happen again. It is definitely a success and something the people of Bangor will remember for a long time to come.'

View the full Open House Bangor 400 festival programme.