Lads Not on Tour at Barnsley Civic is going nowhere. That is to say, it is stationary, static, inward-looking – train tickets out are rolled up and tossed into a pile, mobile phones are smashed into oblivion and the re-creation of an inviting sitting room pulls me in, tells me to sit awhile. The Barnsley-born artists – or lads as they call themselves in the title – Sam Batley, Sean O’Connell, Harley Roberts and Sam Horton – talk to me of “the call of home”, “the invisible wall” and the insular nature of a town that is built on mining and the business of literally burrowing into the ground.
The group show opens in a confession booth with a toilet for a pew and a balaclava-clad mannequin for a priest. On an intense night out the toilet cubicle, with its unassuming facade, was the only space the lads felt able to be vulnerable with one another, throwing up confessions over the cubicle walls. Overhead, the voices of Batley and O’Connell read out the prayer used in the 12-step recovery programme: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change / The courage to change the things I can / and the wisdom to know the difference.”
Purged of my sins, I enter the first gallery space. Deep green walls center around a reconstructed electric pylon and a mound of earth. Photographs by Batley and O’Connell and paintings by Roberts and Horton depicting the rural idyll of Barnsley. Though there are lush greens and children rushing through fields, there is a sinister undercurrent. Birds are dead, ropes droop from branches, rubbish folds into the undergrowth. A painting by Roberts of a pylon in a field of soft grass is framed by a story of a man being electrocuted. “No last words” reads text scrawled in red.
By the time we reach the second gallery, the creeping darkness is a barrelling tidal wave of carnage. It is photographs of unemployment, fist fights, blow jobs on the street and piles of coke spread out across the table. It is rows of mold-encrusted vests, the remnants of a double mattress and Barnsley Chronicle headlines that read of murder and pollution. The culmination of the destruction is a pile of “bodies” – stuffed adidas tracksuits, jeans and T-shirts – stacked on top of each other. Faceless and lifeless, the dummies are the battered bodies slung out at the end of a destructive lifestyle. Roberts’ painting of two dangling legs nearby infers an even deadlier outcome.
Much of the work in the exhibition has been made either collaboratively or in extremely close proximity. The artists are friends, they appear in each other’s photographs, their paintings are produced after meandering Boxing day walks, their memories and in-jokes resonate. In two large collages – one constructed directly on the wall and the other made in O’Connell’s garden – this collective spirit is fully realised. It is a cacophony of content; Photos, painting, creative writing and sketches rub shoulders with rehab jottings, covers of the Beano and dental notes.
The result is chaotic, like trying to grasp on to the threads of a life lived at 100 miles per hour. But there is something else, too: hope. Because there is power and bravery in being so vulnerable, in pinning every crevice of your life up on a gallery wall. In exorcising their lives so publicly, the artists unashamedly accept where they’ve come from in order to take control of what comes next.
Despair never wins either – even in that pile of bodies there is a togetherness. And there is a deep gratitude and love for friends and family that burns in the photographs O’Connell includes of his grandma, and the portraits Roberts paints of his dad and grandfather. The voices of their loved ones intermingle with their own in the soundtrack produced with Leeds-based sound artists Novymir.
Both Batley and O’Connell are in recovery and that desire to dispose of the old and explore the new drives the show. In the collage, there is an upside-down photo of Billy Casper from Kes (set in Barnsley). “We wanted to hang Billy Casper,” says O’Connell “but the gallery wouldn’t let us.” Understandable, but the sentiment of doing away with an old stereotype remains. Lads Not on Tour is the shedding of a skin, of an identity that did not fit – lads on tour, lads on drugs, lads in mines, lads with pet kestrels. The exhibition ends with the speech of acceptance from the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous and a photograph of Batley’s hand stretching up into a clear, blue sky.