Tom Hicks launches Black Country Type – in conversation with Dean Kelland at Ikon Gallery

Words by Megan Treacy / Pics by Connor Pope

This evening, the abstract paintings of artist Mali Morris share Ikon’s First Floor gallery space with many copies of Black Country Type, the new book and first major photography retrospective of artist Tom Hicks, the focus of tonight’s sold out launch event.

The book features work ranging from 2017 up to 2023 — a mixture of shots posted on Hicks’ @blackcountrytype Instagram account, as well as pictures unseen until meeting the printed page, published by The Modernist in an eye-catching turquoise volume offset with striking red type.

The context behind the book’s design is just one question raised by tonight’s host, artist, and early witness to Hicks’ photography, Dean Kelland, sitting a floor below his own exhibition on show at Ikon until 22 December, ‘Imposter Syndrome’, the result of a four year artist’s residency at HMP Grendon.

Before delving into fresh pages, the pair begin the conversation with an acknowledgement of their long established friendship of 15 years, marked by mutual artistic admiration, love of music, and an interest in “films featuring Cliff Richard and burgers” (a comment necessitating an Internet search, which led to a surreal musical number about a ‘Brumburger’… exactly what the name suggests).

From his early ventures as an artist, Hicks has been fascinated with the landscape of the Black Country; starting out by photographing doorways around Wolverhampton, inspired by a postcard of the doorways of Dublin, and posting his shots on Facebook where “some people got it and other people didn’t”.

Since then, Hicks’ work has migrated to Instagram where he has amassed a strong following of people who do get it, and his digital presence has bled into the physical realm of exhibitions and photo walks.

No matter what the viewing platform, Hicks’ photography displays a consistent observation of certain imagery; in particular, he documents letters and signage — an interest which informs the ‘Black Country Type’ pseudonym.

Nodding to this, Kelland proposes a phrase he has written down in relation to Hicks’ work – “industrial language” – and from the photos that dart across the slideshow between them, it does seem Hicks finds this particularly prominent in the places in the Black Country where literal language and lettering label the surroundings.

Hicks explains he finds himself most drawn to signage in which its in-house design and manufacture is apparent, a satisfyingly circular process which Kelland notes is reflected in Hicks’ involvement in all aspects of the design of the book.

Accompanied by visual examples, Hicks elucidates the aesthetic root of the book’s cover: trade catalogues from factories found in the region’s archives, which often displayed no details of their contents save the name of the company.

Kelland prompts further on the point of the book’s design, questioning how the images within the book inform its composition. For Hicks, “the content had to relate to the form of the book as an object” from the typeface, mirrored in signs across the region, to the square outline on the cover, which overlays the images within.

On the square format of his photos Hicks is eager to dispel a rumour regarding its “Instagrammable” quality, stating that in fact the square frame has been a conscious decision since before his success on the app, admitting early attempts to edit using MS Paint.

In this format he pays tribute to the familiar shape of the record cover, again referencing his love of music, and delights at the challenge of composing an image within identical limits each time.

Another challenge highly specific to Hicks’ practice has been his interactions with building security, which he elaborates upon with an anecdote detailing the context of a pleasurably symmetrical shot of a Mecca bingo building, in which the bulb of a lamppost appears to rest delicately upon a corrugated cream roof.

Hicks recalls being apprehended mid-shot, perched on the handlebars of his bike, body waving precariously to capture the intended angle. An image so perfect could not escape without a price, and Hicks left the site as a new owner of a bingo membership card granting free reign of his lens over the building.

Other images bring forward stronger memories from viewers than from Hicks himself. A photo of a snooker club chosen by Hicks for its coloured brick stripes (chromatically referencing the order of balls potted in the game), elicits recognition in the front row, “is that Lye?”.

At this, Hicks responds that upon posting the photo online, he was met with many comments from locals who had spent time in the club with parents or friends, evoking nostalgia for a “local landmark” now erased with black paint.

Though often unwittingly, Hicks reflects that his photos frequently turn into documentation, as the urban landscape is changed and built over. As Kelland phrases it, Hicks finds himself “recording places as they disappear”, a sentiment echoed when the room opens to questions and an audience member remarks on the recently finalised fate of the Smallbrook Queensway in Birmingham.

And as increasing decisions are made to demolish the old and build the new, across the region, the work of Black Country Type is ever-significant.

Tom Hicks launches Black Country Type, Ikon Gallery – Thursday 29 September / Connor Pope


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