The gallery, somewhat like a city, is a transitory arena: both, too, have the potential to become agents for unwieldily dreaming in the hands of the architect, artist or urban developers. Stripped back to its bare components, the gallery is divided into two 'pre-fab' domains – or rather, allotments – in graduate resident Harley Kuyck-Cohen's inaugural solo exhibition. But what comes to mind with the title Allotment – bustling stacks of squash in a makeshift Eden – is exchanged for two domestic scenes, paved with chipboard and newspaper pages. These allotments are platforms for the rustic assemblages which Kuyck-Cohen has nurtured throughout his residency at AirSpace Gallery.
Stepping up and into Allotment #1, a prim, ready-made awning casts out from the wall, supporting a gritty-looking stray animal. Fox, a composite of insulation foam, filler and toothpicks for teeth, watches over the viewer as they encroach upon the exhibition. Blotchy and blue – and red, yellow and orange too – Fox is crude and fable-like: we ask, is it part of the neighbourhood watch, a voyeur or an embodiment of the artist himself? We're fearful but intrigued by its distorted, acute appearance. Beneath the awning, rows of Kellog's Cornflakes boxes form part of the brickwork for Allotment #1 – is it a wall, a barrier, or a suggestion of what society is made of? They're consumerist relics but also one of the blandest foods around – in our conversation, Kuyck-Cohen points out that they were invented by a psychologist for his patients as an easy food to digest.
Across the way, Facade, a model-house maquette, has the perfect measurements. It's a miniature of a would-be dream-home which Kuyck-Cohen has covered with splatters of paint. An ominous slug-like form floats over the house – perhaps a 'think-tank' or a nod to a subconscious conscience. Duck down and around and you'll find Untitled – a gaunt figure with elongated limbs and a colourful exterior. Made of jesmonite, filler and insulation foam, the man sinks into a bed of fluorescent fuzziness and psychedelic dreaming, only just maintaining a sense of conventional reality with the clutching and crumbling of his discoloured hands.
Allotment #2 occupies the latter part of the gallery: it too depicts part-interior, part-exterior – this time, a kitchen and a 'dog-house' (in this case, a rat-house.) Poised on the would-be tabletop is an unrefined sculpture which also carries the show's namesake. Allotment stands tall on wooden slats and a miniature plywood roof, but its concrete composition looks set to crumble. It's fragile facade is, albeit, misleading: much like one of Jean Dubuffet's early sculptures, it is sturdy in its role, cupping bowls of weighty sand in its extending limbs. It's Dali-esque, too, with a resemblance to a nose and nervous-system which exist in a state of contented turmoil.
We're brought back from this Surrealist bubble by a time-stamp added by sheets of The Sentinel newspaper. Pasted around the edge of the tabletop are two copies of the local paper printed on 1st February 2019 – the day that Allotment opened. It quietly dates the timeless space, adding an external dialogue to Kuyck-Cohen's privately-made sculptures. The convergence of these two – the exterior and the interior, the public and the private – is key to the artist's thinking. His individual sculptures, made so attentively and organically, contrast with his installation environment – a quickly assembled and unfinished set. Screws and seams protrude from the unpainted chipboard: we're unsure whether these structures are at the start or end of their lives. We could ask, are they part of a building-process or boarding something up?
A series of odd-ball photographs hint at past experiences: these are documents of the artist's time in Stoke-on-Trent. Sunsets, allotments, fake spiders and smiling carrots are dotted, at random, around Allotment #1 and #2. A picture of Bibendum – the Michelin man – framing an empty heart is both endearing and melancholic. It's another part of Stoke-on-Trent that has thrived and then been dismantled. In the corner, Rat Box – a black, spray-painted doll house with angry-looking bird spikes protruding from its roof – creeps into consciousness. Here, empty bowls and silver dishes are asking to be filled.
As we withdraw from Rat Box's positioning on the floor, we stand and notice a shadow on the gallery's rear wall – a medium-sized painting on a board in which glimmers of a cyanotype peer through smatterings of paint. Kuyck-Cohen says it's been with him since his degree show and throughout his residency: in the exhibition, it assumes the role of a quiet witness – forgotten about yet accountable for the artist's numerous mark-making processes. In many ways, this “black-hole” as the artist calls it, teaches us to become more assertive to the subtleties of touch dotted throughout the show. Imprinted in the rashly applied Polyfilla are his individual marks: similar to the newspaper, his fingerprints and mark-making are a testament to the moment which the work was created – something which fuels an ongoing dialogue between time and timelessness.
The Kellog's Cornflakes boxes, too, contribute to this conversation: like the newspapers, they are stamped with a time, a “Best Before” date. But, then again, they're also timeless: they're familiar, consumer-orientated and, as the packaging states, have been around since 1906. This visual limbo between time and timelessness leads us to the artist's question: “What tense is the city living in?” Stoke-on-Trent is a civic in limbo, existing between a nostalgia for the Pottery industry and a longing for an indefinable future. There's also a decisive sense of “de-growth” in Allotment – the aesthetic of making do; of Bricolage; of something unfinished with space for change.
Kuyck-Cohen quotes Donna Haraway, “I am a compost-ist not a posthuman-ist,” a sentiment which contains a lot more earthiness than autocracy. Rather than being a clean-cut, ready-made show-room for 'pre-fabs,' Allotment is more of a show-room for the vernacular – for what's actually happening beneath the corporate veneer. The works' haphazard fabrication, though coarse, opens up an invitation to the public to help navigate what happens next – one which the artist hopes feels “generous.” Afterall, the word Allotment refers to an allocation or a share of something.