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The Artist In Residence

Monday 28 June 2010

“Take a look at this while I go and get you another drink”, says Gillian Westgate as she leaves me to contemplate one of her paintings. We’re in the gallery of the Artist Residence hotel in Regency Square (the UK’s only urban art hotel, I’m told), where Gillian has been the artist-in-residence for the last two months and has produced a series of works inspired by the local area.

The pleasant frivolity of the Brighton seafront would not seem to be a natural focus for an artist who’s previous work concentrated on the gritty setting of London’s East End. And indeed, some of the work on display does seem postcard perfect. But look closer at any of these pieces for just a moment and you will see how richly layered and finely textured they are.

What attracted Gillian to Brighton was the fact that it is an urban town, but at the same time has such a distinct ecological agenda – after all, we did just elect the UK’s first Green member of parliament. And what she loves to do is create work full of contrast and extraordinary juxtaposition. In her London-based work, Gillian was inspired by highly mythologised, Western-style archetypes, and used them to great effect – choosing to incorporate lonely cowboy figures into her scenes of cityscapes.

During her residency, Gillian began to use images of bees and beekeepers in her work. After reading newspaper articles about people that were keeping bees in apiaries on city rooftops, her thoughts turned to environmental concerns about the decline of the bee – insects that we barely give a second thought to, but that are essential to our ecosystem. Combined with the image of the West Pier’s abandoned ticket offices – its last remains – which, she says, resembled apiaries, she was inspired to incorporate this invisible but important aspect into her work.

So, colourful canvases of the West Pier, Regency Square and the seafront fairground contain foreground images of beekeepers – out of place, or perfectly in situ, depending on how you look at it. They lead you to question whether they are real and deliberate or if they are ghostly and theoretical. Gillian’s working practices mean she is always adding layers to her work, thereby adding to the enigmatic sensation you may be experiencing.

But dominating the gallery is a massive pen and ink drawing of the newly restored seafront bandstand. Chatting with others present in the gallery, we are amazed at how detailed it is, comment how painstaking it must have been, and agree it must have taken Gillian a long time. “About a day, actually”, she tells me. Apparently pen and ink on paper is a much simpler process than the canvases – they are constantly evolving, so she can be working on up to ten at any given time.

What’s next for Gillian, she doesn’t even know. There is talk of L.A, and more exhibitions, but for now she seems happy to revel in the culmination of eight weeks hard work. To make this point she tops up my drink again, and, as the cocktails start to take effect, I decide it’s time to lay my notepad aside and join the fun.

Photography: Lily Brown