Established in 1956, the year for which it was named, the 56 Group is one of the longest-running and most influential art collectives in Wales. Formed to rebel against convention, which at the time was considered dull and conservative, the 56 Group pioneered the post-war modern and Avant Garde movements in Wales.
According to Barrie Maskell, writing in 2012, the group “had no ideology, no official manifesto and no specific style; its purpose was to make a valued contribution to Welsh art and to facilitate exhibition space for each member to select works of their own choosing without intervention or prejudice.”
This still rings true today as the group continue to push the boundaries of art in Wales through the works of established members and newly admitted fellows.
To be a part of the group, you have to be living and working in Wales and many of the members are university lecturers and tutors, developing a new cohort of Welsh artists. In fact, many of the members were recruited to the group through their universities and the Group consciously builds upon this relationship to continue looking forward, constantly reinventing themselves with the admittance of each new fellow and simultaneously offering each fellow exhibition space in an increasingly competitive world
There are currently 20 members of the 56 Group and 2 fellows, 15 of whom are exhibiting at the Hearth Gallery this November. The exhibition is a fascinating and thought-provoking mixture of different styles and media from bronze sculptures, to stone tablets, to rust, to fine art that address a broad variety of subjects and themes from the centenary of the end of World War One, to the exploration of the self and the quest for immortality through art, to pressing current social issues such as loneliness and the effect of Brexit on the nation’s psyche.
The group prides themselves on reaching out into the community as much as they are able to and often exhibit in unusual and unique spaces alongside conventional art galleries (recent examples include a Second World War Coastal Command Radar Station in West Wales). Thus, the Hearth Gallery, an exhibition space in the heart of a major hospital and the only one of its kind in Wales seems the perfect space for them to display their work.
For the group, exhibiting at University Hospital Llandough is particularly poignant due to the UHB’s existing artistic relationship with one of its members and the fact that the hospital is home to “The Miner’s Mural”, a huge, 9-metre-long mural created by architect, artist, Bevin Boy, and one of the 56 Group’s founders, the late Michael Edmonds.
Robert Harding, co-chair of 56 Group Wales, said, “There are times, even in the lives of professional artists when it seems we visit hospitals far more often than art galleries or museums. Therefore, it is very heartening to exhibit here at the Hearth Gallery in a hospital where a number of us have been patients in the past. I, for instance, have had two operations CAVOC so will certainly be encouraging the physiotherapists to make the gallery the goal for their patients’ rehabilitation.
Kay Keogh, a member of the group since 2008, said, “To be a part of this group means that you’re acutely aware of its history of which you become a part. I feel privileged to be part of this group and realise the importance of it being supported and continuing in the spirit in which it was started.
“Having work of this calibre in a setting such as the Hearth Gallery is an opportunity to engage with a piece of Welsh art history; it is an escape route from the everyday life of those in hospital be they patients or staff.
“People have the capacity to emotionally connect with all sorts of artwork, not just paintings of landscapes and flowers. We hope that the work of the group presents more challenging themes that people can grapple with and contemplate, placing them in a setting in which as many people as possible will have the chance to access them.”
“One of the themes of my work that is exhibited here is surveillance and social or urban isolation. I feel as though this is a concept with which inpatients in this hospital will connect on a deeper level than many who would pay to see it in a convention gallery space.”
Pete Williams, former chair of the group and another member exhibiting his work at the Hearth Gallery, echoed Kay’s thoughts, saying, “One thing that we’re conscious of doing is tailoring the work we present to our prospective audiences in the spaces they’re likely to experience it. When I was a teenager, I was in hospital for about three months. A long stay such as that does affect your mental health and I remember spending much of my time as an inpatient staring out of the windows.
“A space like this is a true asset to the hospital’s patients, which should be cherished and celebrated; I feel incredibly privileged that my work will be seen by so many people who need the escape that it can offer.”