Prints made using road dust and etched car parts, a film of roadside shrines, and a new essay by nature writer Richard Mabey are just some of the highlights of a new exhibition and accompanying publication launching at the Bluecoat.

Soft Estate, the title of which derives from the Highways Agency term used to describe the natural habitats that have evolved along motorways and trunk roads, looks at how these borders offer a refuge for wildlife and a modern form of wilderness in the midst of intense urbanisation and agro-chemical farming.

Artist and academic Edward Chell investigates these contemporary motorway landscapes, linking them to 18th century ideas of the Picturesque and exploring the interface between history, ecology, roads and travel through a series of new works.

Launched in conjunction with the exhibition, Soft Estate the publication will feature a number of the photographs and paintings shown in the exhibition, as well as the aforementioned essay by writer and broadcaster Richard Mabey.

Other artists who interrogate themes of ‘edgelands’ – those familiar yet ignored spaces that are neither city nor countryside – have been invited to exhibit alongside and in conversation with Chell. Their works present juxtapositions commonly experienced in edgelands, such as beauty and pollution, wilderness and human agency.

Highlights of the exhibition include:

  • Chell’s presentation of 60 silhouette paintings of motorway plant life and a selection of beautiful prints made using road dust;
  • The inclusion of lithographic prints by George Shaw;
  • New photographic works by John Darwell taken whilst dog-walking along a river marking the boundary between arable land and town in Carlisle;
  • Abstract paintings by Day Bowman on disused industrial urban areas;
  • New drawings, prints and audio work by Simon Woolham, based on stories and memories associated with the Bluecoat, highlighting the hidden narratives, in-between and overlooked spaces of the building, through the people who work there;
  • Large installation of paintings by Robert Soden spanning a 30-year period.

Chell said: “While 18th Century tourists travelled to areas such as the Lake District to capture images of wild places, in today’s countryside, uncontrolled wilderness only springs up in the margins of our transport networks and the semi-derelict grid plans of industrialised corridors. These soft estates invite a new kind of tourist, new ways of looking and new forms of visual representation.”

The Bluecoat’s Exhibitions Curator Sara-Jayne Parsons said: “When Edward approached us with the idea for a show of his works we were really excited because we had already been doing quite a bit of research in the area of ‘edgelands’. We saw the opportunity to make a bigger exhibition to encompass his solo project but also to include the work of a selection of artists working in similar territory and who we were keen to feature at the Bluecoat. In this way Edward’s work acts as a critical centre for a wider discussion about space, place, memory and identity in our contemporary landscape.”