Archived sentences...

More words? Well we dug out (From the recesses of my gmail inbox) this unpublished article about our 2007 exhibition 'Bite the Hand' at Lolapoloza in Oxford. Thanks to Ollie Brock for writing this!

'Bite the Hand'

Climbing the stairs to the stifling, hot attic gallery above Lolapoloza on Blue Boar Street, you are confronted with what feels like a wall of sound. Or is it paint. Perhaps graffiti? Your eyes adjust; you take off a few layers of clothing. There are in fact eight carefully selected collaborative paintings by Collective-Era – a group of three, sometimes four, sometimes five, young artists – set on a mounting of flattened cardboard boxes which covers the walls and floor. Peppered with messages and drawings, the mounting was done in one last creative frenzy in the run up the opening. Instantly, it erodes the barriers between the paintings and the viewer. Punters push the soft walls curiously. Layla Mohamed, one of the artists, encourages them to finger the paintings as well.

And soon – perhaps after a break looking at the ceiling, the only available white space – some structure does emerge. "It's a bit like listening to jazz", says Tom McNulty, another Collective-Era member. "Everyone's got their own signature style, and everyone's playing for himself. Sometimes those elements are really disparate, and sometimes they come together, and it's like nothing you ever heard".

With origins ranging from Manchester to Egypt, the group met studying art at Brookes Uni. Struggling for recognition in Oxford's art scene, the Collective-Era members were previously only able to do shows by joining a 'cause' – a show for refugees, for instance, or in support of mental health. Finally able to mount a show of their own, they are relieved to display their own work, for its own sake. "It has to be without an excuse", says Mohamed.

The 'Era' isn't an attempt to define our time – it’s about their time as artists, as a collective. Each of the artists is so individual, though – is there a collective ethos? "Its more like a conversation, where everything said gives rise to and influences everything else", says McNulty. "A visual language is what we all really believe in", adds Mohamed.

Language, jazz, collective consciousness; there are certainly a lot of ideas behind the work. But what about the paintings themselves? At the centre of McNulty's work are ghoulish monsters, who threaten and destroy. Ferocious consumers of light and life, they are daemons that turn everything into one dull, homogeneous mass. Layla's lithe, female figures are the lightness to this weight. They suggest exoticism and flighty escape in the face of the ugly, the lugubrious. Chris Menes's contributions are usually thick-lined, viscous shapes, reminiscent of oil, or paint itself, and add a playful, abstract lilt to the ensemble.

The elements are certainly different, but a coherence sometimes makes itself felt. There is a clear preoccupation, for instance, with the way we treat our world, ourselves and each other. In one painting, tiny characters inside raised pods watch minute TV screens, sealed off from life around them. Clearly painted by a different hand, a huge rabbit – of a translucent blue next to the stodgy colours of the figures – leaps past them into the darkness. Chris Menes, creator of the "Rabbit of Life", says, "The people in front of the TVs are watching rather than creating. Everything else in the picture is what's passing them by." And what is on the TV screens? Tiny reproductions of the paintings, taken from a cut-out of the exhibition flyer. Beware mass culture, it seems to say – beware obsession. Stay light, un-attached, cynical.

The paintings are not devoid of brightness or optimism however. Beneath an oppressive, urban skyline, Max Wade's colourful, sprouting forms defy the greyness around them. If frightened by the pale, expressionless figure along the bottom of the exhibition's central piece, a kindly, elvin woman, her head covered, watches over you. Following the labyrinthine lines from one figure to another is part of the fun of Collective Era's work, though, and there is always a surprise lurking around the corner: the woman is coming out of the mouth of another monster. She is nothing but a vision; a shape fleetingly caught in smoke or water.

These aren't one-sided visions of the future, but spontaneous releases of the "inner world". "It's to encourage imagination", says McNulty. "That's what we really lack these days." Ambiguity abounds, and your own interpretations are encouraged. Mahomed's thin figures can be the dark ones; and the monsters, here and there, are the squat, friendly-looking companions of a child's dream. The whole spectacle can be seen as the heaven and hell of a child's mind, in fact: his fear of unknown, shapeless figures, and the enchantresses who tempt him away. And without warning, one can change straight into the other.

Collective Era itself is in its infancy, growing and developing. In the New Year, an exhibition at the Customs House public gallery in South Shields will showcase all the group's work to date, shortly after the members have celebrated its first birthday. And while it matures, who knows what form it might take? Keep your ears to the ground, though – you may hear the name again soon.

By ollie Brock 2007