The viewer walking into ‘Hold Tight’, a collaborative installation by Mark Joshua Epstein and Stina Puotinen, is greeted by colourful, stacked furniture and walls painted with geometric patterns and swirls. The space appears smaller than it actually is; a claustrophobically busy atmosphere of foreboding is created as the pastel coloured chairs, tables and oddly shaped beanbags teeter unsteadily on one another. The sense of apprehension is accentuated by the delicate plastic and clay ‘floral arrangement’ sculptures perched precariously on the furniture in a way that puts one on edge as to whether or not the pieces will come crashing to the floor at any second. This unease is furthered by a row of six prints that repeat the image of a cute kitten clinging on to a rope. Reminiscent of the kind of poster seen in offices around the world, instead of the usually cheerful bon mot, beneath each kitten is emblazoned a single word such as ‘FEAR’, ‘PANIC’, ‘FAILURE’.

The pastel blues, yellows and pinks of the installation along with the kitten prints would usually be expected to have a calming effect on a viewer but, in fact, the opposite is true. It is the skilful combination of the pieces within the space that drives the sense of dread. The contorted shapes of the beanbags, the towers of furniture and the writhing paint on the walls, and even the title of the show, ‘Hold Tight’, suggest that the viewer has walked in on a scene of recent violent, frenetic activity that could erupt again at any moment.

There is certainly an atmosphere of unease that leaves the viewer waiting for something to happen, even though the nature of what we are waiting for is unclear. This disquiet seems apt in a time of international political turmoil. With the policies of the new presidency in the USA already proving highly contentious internationally and here the social schisms made apparent by the Brexit vote threatening to tear the country apart, the reflections of these two American artists seem particularly pertinent. It becomes even more poignant as we consider how the arts are under attack in the USA at the moment.

Walking through ‘Hold Tight’ into the larger space where ‘Just below the bang bang’, an exhibition of Epstein’s paintings is installed, the viewer moves into a very different environment. Here we return to the more familiar format of the white wall gallery that rather than creating an atmosphere of tension, generates a one of play, entertainment and indulgence.

As with ‘Hold Tight’, these paintings explore movement, pattern, colour and form, but here in terms of the paint itself – its application ranging from loose, gestural marks to intricate, detailed, hard-edged structures. The paintings have a strong element of pareidolia or the illusion wherein the mind perceives a familiar image of something where none exists. In Requirements of a Future Tense #1 for example, the multiple, collage-like foreground layers form a vibrant, swirling apparition that appears to float above the chequered black and pale yellow background to give a three-dimensional feel to the work almost like an optical illusion. The many varying flows and structures of paint evoke a vast range of images and half-forgotten memories within the viewer.

Thus, both exhibitions work together to take the viewer on a journey through an array of emotions. Through the current political upheavals of both the UK and USA these shows provoke the viewer to consider what it means to feel marginalised in your own country as well as producing a sigh of relief that even in difficult and worrying times, artists are still making playful yet challenging works that help to keep the creative spirit alive.

Michaela Hall is a painter and writer and at the time of writing is studying for a BA Hons Fine Art degree at Newcastle University.