Call me contrary if you like, but when I receive an email about an exhibition from a gallery that isn’t really a gallery, doesn’t have a website, and refuses to bombard me with screeds of marketing materials and media releases, it rather piques my interest. Zembla is what I am referring to here, but what is Zembla and who is behind the ‘project’?
Lesley Robertson, I am told, is a school teacher with expertise in dyslexia and special educational needs, and her partner, Brian Robertson, is a former professor of neuroscience who “ran away to art college in middle age to do an MFA, built a house, and donated a kidney altruistically.” Sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it? Well, think again. As a gallery space Zembla only takes enough commission on sales to cover costs, which means 20% rather than the customary 40 or 50%, and it seems to be a business model that works.
As Brian Robertson explains, “White Cube we certainly ain't. Zembla is a small occasional gallery space for contemporary art, being part of a new-build Modernist-influenced 'eco house' in Hawick, in the Scottish Borders. Now in its fourth year of operation, its fourteenth show (Zembla has only three or four exhibitions a year) is a group exhibition called entitled 'HEAT', comprising minimal paintings, sculptures and short films by the internationally renowned artists Roger Ackling, David Blackaller, Nick Collins, Carol Robertson, Trevor Sutton and Cecilia Vissers.
"We wanted to do something interesting and rewarding with what ended up as a spare space in our new home,” says Robertson. “Several artist friends suggested a simple, occasional gallery. Because we aren't commercial we can choose the kind of art that appeals to us. It also gives us an opportunity to bring such art and artists to Hawick – art that wouldn't normally be seen outside city centres. We have a strong desire to encourage schoolchildren along to see such work; primary school kids love it and end up mounting their own exhibitions of their own 'contemporary art’.” Thus far the local P5 children have had two sculpture shows, inspired by the work of the noted Scots sculptors Jake Harvey and Doug Cocker.
Another major driver is to get work out of storage in studios and into people's homes, as simply and easily as possible. “Artists put so much thought, energy, passion and skill into making works. It's not right that these languish in bubble wrap in their studios. These should be out there, in the world, enriching and enhancing the lives of their new owners. That, ultimately, is what art is for, and that’s what Zembla is about.”
From what started as a very simple operation, Zembla has grown exponentially, it seems. In May this year they are now planning to stage an exhibition of sculpture and wall mounted works by Martin Boyce from Glasgow and Gerold Miller from Berlin – both exhibit internationally and are widely esteemed. “Because we have so few shows, we are planning a couple of years ahead now. We want to show a wide range of artists from early-career to major figures, and always the best we can get to come and exhibit,” Robertson adds.
“We’ve also built a simple wooden space – a pavilion in the garden – designed to show single artworks, and that space was inspired the thinking of Mark Rothko; something he said about it being a good idea if little places could be set up all over the country, like chapels where the traveler or wanderer could come for an hour to meditate on a single painting hung in a small room, and by itself. Artists seem to like the opportunity to have a solitary piece looked at carefully, in the quiet, without competition.”
After increasingly busy opening receptions, subsequent access is by appointment only as Zembla is a private space thrown open to the public as and when the time and mood fits (this is their home, after all): “We think showing art in a simple domestic environment helps, as folks can relax with a cup of tea and cake, and think what the work might be like in their own homes. Our philosophy is Simple, Simple, Simple.”
Simple? It would seem so. So simple, in fact, that if you are wanting to find Zembla online, well… forget looking for the website (as said, there isn’t one) and forget clicking through to the most common social media platforms. There’s a bit of information about Zembla’s new-build set-up and its background online, but that’s about it. They definitely don’t do Facebook, so go there and you’ll find zip. If you want to find Zembla online, they have just the one presence, and that’s on Instagram. To say that Zembla is a rather under-the-radar outfit compared to most is possibly an understatement!
HEAT | @Zembla
Continues until 14 April
ROGER ACKLING, DAVID BLACKALLER, NICK COLLINS, CAROL ROBERTSON, TREVOR SUTTON & CECILIA VISSERS
By Appointment Only
Call: 07843 625 232 for further details.
Disability access/wheelchair friendly throughout.
Zembla Online: @zemblagallery