This Class Works

An exploration and celebration of the working class by Pete McKee



 Sheffield, UK

 7 / 10

If you’re not from South Yorkshire, you probably haven’t heard of Pete McKee. But up here, he’s kind of a local hero. This exhibition was something a bit different, and really surpassed my expectations for a commercial exhibition. McKee is a born and bred Yorkshireman, and so the exhibition ‘This Class Works’ naturally explores what it means to be working class. Other artists exhibited alongside McKee in the forms of poetry, writing, sculpture and photography, and each respond to the idea of being working class in different and intriguing ways.

Before you enter the exhibition, there is a 4 minute video which shows different people talking about what it means to them to be working class. As a viewer it sets you up nicely for what you’re about to see. The northern working class is embodied by quiet pride, but as said by a gentleman in the video, it is “pride worn under your shirt, not as a top hat”. People have different ideas about the working class. It’s about being a genuine, hardworking and essentially nice person, at the same time as defying the classic ‘salt of the earth, trustworthy’ Yorkshireman.

The video touches upon how the working class have been perceived, and questions whether this is a negative or a positive. The video sets the scene of an idyllic, romanticised working class and this is challenged throughout the exhibition.

After the video, you are lead through a black curtain into the main exhibition. Overall twelve artists contributed their work to the exhibition, and this makes for a varied but united depiction of the working class experience. The exhibition space is modern and clean, with most of the works mounted on plain white walls, which are about two meters high. The space is inside an old warehouse, which makes a great contrast to the clean lines of the exhibition. The juxtaposition between old and new makes for an interesting parallel to the “dated” stereotype of the northern working class, to the clean and modern art gallery environment. It works in a perfect harmony.

“McKee seems to have used this as an icon of working class life, which in recent years has modernised and changed”

The first wall shows McKee’s cartoon-like style. Initially the works look like prints because of the bold style comprised of clean spaces, flat colours and black outlines, but they are all original paintings. Two works really stood out to me: ‘Rise High’ is a painting of Park Hill. This is a well known council estate in Sheffield which, many years ago, was not known as a great place to live. However, the Grade II listed building was redeveloped in 2013 to become one of the most desirable spots in the city. The painting shows the imposing effect of the building, and how it overlooks the city and people below. McKee seems to have used this as an icon of working class life, which in recent years has modernised and changed. The artist embraces the parallels.

Another painting on this wall is ‘5:15’. It shows a cartoon style man waiting for an oncoming bus at 5:15 in the morning. The colours, the light, and the deserted street capture everything about a midweek winter morning. It initially appears gloomy and sombre, but the yellow lights of the bus bring hope and warmth. I think this work hits home on the working class theme. It reflects the daily life of people with jobs in factories and steel works which would have required very early starts.

“It was refreshing that the photographs had not been dressed up or fancified by paint and colour”

The exhibition space is flowing and dynamic. However, the position of the entrance and the layout of the artworks seems to create a bit of a queue, but it was a busy exhibition and sometimes this is inevitable! The use of white walls works well in contrast to the warehouse background, although the black on white text can be a bit hard to read. The artworks have an overriding graphic, cartoon style, and the influences, from Warhol to Vermeer, are toyed with in bold colours throughout.

A nice contrast to McKee’s paintings is the addition of Natasha Bright’s photography. They are honest, un-idealised and real. The photographs show the working classes of today, in working men’s clubs (which the artist notes are a baffling phenomenon to everyone who has never been exposed to them), pubs and humble homes. The photos almost appear stark in contrast to the bright and bold paintings around them, but it was refreshing that they had not been dressed up or fancified by paint and colour. They show stripped back, honest working class life.

“Delve deeper into the exhibition… and you will see that this is in fact deeply emotional and personally connected to each of the artists”

‘This Class Works’ has an interactive element, which is also incredibly personal and emotional. A McKee painting of dying man in a hospital bed, surrounded by his family, hangs in a dark curtained room in the middle of the exhibition. Viewers are invited to write the name of a passed loved one on a lollipop stick, and place it in the sand in front of the painting. It is a shrinelike installation, and drew tears from many visitors.

For me, this was where I started to feel a little bit isolated; I do not share the artist’s background and I couldn’t engage with the emotion in the same way as other viewers. It is a very emotive exhibition which held a lot of meaning for people who relate to the ideas and memories of the northern working class. It’s clear that with this exhibition McKee is channeling the family-orientated aspect of the working class, which has created a touching and personal experience. I suppose this is the overall reason why this felt isolating to me; the artist has successfully appealed to the emotions of the working class Yorkshire family, and has successfully made an impact on his intended audience.

At first glance, ‘This Class Works’ seems to be a tongue in cheek, almost superficial visualisation of working class life. However, delve deeper into the exhibition and each of the artworks, and you will see that this is in fact deeply emotional and personally connected to each of the artists. The exhibition is not hugely varied, but the addition of works by other artists adds valuable insight into the experiences of others.

‘This Class Works’ is a well curated exhibition, which strikes an elegant balance between the somehow conflicting areas of working class life, and contemporary art.

Thanks for reading!

The Art Wanderer

Skip to content