There's art on every street corner, but it's not neccessarily a famous public sculpture or even the grafitti daubed on walls you might pass on your way to work. It can be a hoodie leaning against the wall.

Art is embodied in the form of what society labels hoodies and chavs, according to Emma Tooth, whose latest solo exhibition opens on saturday at the Sandford Goudie Gallery in the Customs House, South Shields.

Cambridge-born Emma, now living in Derbyshire, elevates an often derided section of society, an ASBO generation, to almost classical status in these paintings.

She has previously explored ideas of costume and self-image in her work - and has exhibited all over the UK and abroad - and her intention this time was to paint 'hoodies', 'chavs' and 'scallies' in the style of renaissence paintings, with youths posed and lit like Caravaggio's models.

So we see a hooded teenager, with his face half in shadow, and Emma wants the image to question our perceptions; he's either looking menacingly or else has the thoughtful expression of a saint.

Similarly there's a tracksuited girl with a baby that is more Virgin and Child than an indictment of the state of our permissive society.

Emma found the models for her paintings through both social organisations and by just approaching  people on the street - as indeed Caravaggio did himself.

"Who can forget his images of angels and wise men with vividly dirty toenails?" says Emma of the Italian Baroque era artist.

She calls her exhibition Concilium Plebis, from the Latin expression meaning A Council of the Ordinary People, and her portraits can be seen as reflecting a contemporary renaissance.

Her intention in juxtaposing chavs and classical fine art was to find beauty in the threatening or lowbrow...

It's all interesting stuff, questioning preconceptions and first impressions, and Emma's work will no doubt provide plenty of food for thought for viewers. Certainly that's the idea of inviting Bad Taste Cru - B-Boys from Ireland who are now based at Dance City in Newcastle - to a preview tomorrow, when they will offer their own dance interpretation of the paintings in a 'Performance Intervention'...


Article appeared in The Journal newspaper Jan 2009. Reporter Barbara Hodgson