Painting The Mersey in 17 Canvases

The last time I wrote about an event organised by the Liverpool artist and poet, Maria Isakova Bennett, was in September 2019, in those pre-pandemic times that now seem touchingly innocent.  Maria has now emerged from those troubling years with a new collection of poems that combines both her joy of words and her artist’s eye.

Painting the Mersey in 17 Canvases is dedicated to her father, Joseph, who “introduced me to the Mersey”, when he took her as a baby “to listen to the sound of the river”.  She is still listening, as expressed in these lines from one of the poems, Coburg Wharf looking South and North:

listen to its slow churn
and wait for an accolade of water-stars

You can try to forget, but their pitch
will never leave you

Nick & Maria by Ron Davies

Nick Branton and Maria Isakova Bennett.
Photo: Ron Davies

The 17 poems in this collection are short, pared down to the essence of what prompted their creation; on the printed pages there is space to breathe.  At the launch of the book, she also inserted pauses, the reading of her work interspersed with extraordinary clarinet and saxophone improvisations by musician, Nick Branton.  It was as if he had inhaled her poems and used the instruments to push out the sound of their rhythm, his cheeks and lungs filled with their meaning.

Visual artist, Michael Wright, who was also part of this gathering together of people from other art forms, keenly feels this connection between poetry and music.  He regaled us with tales of his time as an art student in late 1970’s Liverpool, of the Mersey as a conduit, and casually passed around some of his evocative drawings from that time.  But it was later on his website that I came across his essay on the intimate correlation between poetry, music and drawing: “Poetry has a musicality in its meter and rhythm which connects to the body rhythms, the pulse, the rhythm of breathing, walking, etc. The sounds, whether heard or iterated in the mind, generate a pitch and tonality to the poem. There is equally a correspondence between the process of mark making and the rhythms and pulses of the body. In this sense also there is some truth in the proposition that all art forms aspire to the condition of music”.

The evening began with readings from poets connected to Coast to Coast to Coast, the project Maria began five years ago, in which she publishes selected poetry in journals with unique stitched covers she has made by hand. For Maria, this return of the project after the long pandemic hiatus, was a poignant moment: “After more than two years, the event was full of hope and inspiration for art and creativity”.

The first to read was Carole Bromley, a prize-winning poet based in York.  Her most recent collection, The Peregrine Falcons of York Minster includes the poem Bumping into John Lennon, the closest, she said, with a Liverpool connection.  It includes the following witty and incisive lines:

Once or twice he crept into the back
of Macca’s concerts but, to be honest,
couldn’t take the hair dye, the terrible lyrics.

The last time I saw him
he was up a ladder fixing a pane,
whistling Maxwell’s Silver Hammer.

Next up was Barbara Hickson, whose poems focus primarily on our relationship with nature and place, intensely evident in her recently published collection, A Kind of Silence.  This includes the poem Succinct, which emulates its title:

It’s easy to talk
yet say nothing.
In the woods behind Witherslack
we startled five deer.
They stood – fixed, staring –
then sprang away
clearing the fence effortlessly.
They told us everything
we didn’t want to know.

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Antony Gormley’s “Another Place”, Crosby Beach
Photo: Ron Davies

A regular presence at Maria’s events is Crosby-based photographer, Ron Davies. On this occasion, he not only took photos but also gave a presentation of some of his archival images.  He spoke of how Maria’s poetry had inspired him to re-look at his own work, some of which “hadn’t seen the light of day for many years”.

Painting the Mersey in 17 Canvases is published by Hazel Press.  Maria expressed her delight at being invited by a company with such strong eco credentials and especially that they had chosen the world-renowned illustrator, Jeff Fisher, to design the cover.  For their part, Hazel Press are proud to have her as one of their writers: “these poems ‘paint’, observe and illuminate the permanence and maybe of life on and beside a river full of flow and stillness, solace, surprise and permanence; they return, again and again, to redraw a sense of place and self that, like the river, is ever-changing”.

Maria reading by Ron Davies

Maria Isakova Bennett reading.
Photo: Ron Davies
Wall images by Etinosa Yvonne

The Open Eye Gallery was host to the launch evening, an appropriate setting given its proximity to the Mersey, and the title of its present exhibition - Follow the River, Follow the Thread – sent an echo from Africa about our vital connection to water.  The series of diptych images in the gallery where we were seated are by documentary photographer, Etinosa Yvonne, from Benin, Nigeria.  They show everyday routines of people sourcing clean water that at first seemed an incongruous backdrop to this event, but gradually their presence seemed to evoke an exchange of bearing witness to human endeavour and creativity.

I was struck more than anything after this celebratory evening of the arts, of how deeply a place can take root if a person stays long enough.  Maria’s poems pour love back into the Mersey, the river that has inspired and nurtured her.  The last poem in this new collection exemplifies this:

Where the Mersey reaches the Sea

I was born close to you
and when I lose all sense of me
I hug your waterline

There is no distinction between us
I am and you are

Some people sit in silence
and wait for God

I listen to your roar
note sanderlings
their nervous      necessary      dance

 

 

A Liverpool Temple in the Present Perfect Progressive Tense

smartIt felt like being in the opening sequence of a Scandi-Noir TV series – driving in the dark into a badly lit, empty industrial street, closed up old buildings all around, my car tyres crunching over litter in the gutter … the scene heightened by a single red light bulb hanging over a set of new wooden steps, which lead to a black curtain over a doorway.  This, though, was definitely my destination – one of the 19th century warehouses across the road from the new, emerging Everton football stadium.  The parting of the black curtains perpetuates the surreal sense of theatricality but then once inside there is, unexpectedly, the familiar scene of an exhibition opening event, still so welcome after the dearth of the pandemic years.

The artists are aware of how it will all seem, pre-empting in their catalogue with self-deprecating humour what visitors may be feeling: “… you have made a pilgrimage to the north of the city centre, to a landscape possibly unknown to you, perhaps with understandable trepidation.  Fear not.  The environs of this warehouse are sacred ground, the sanctuary boundary is voiced in stone, brick and even by name.  The temple is a place of refuge”. The temple in question here is the re-imagining by artists, Adrian Jeans and John Elcock, of this historic Liverpool dockland warehouse as a Greek temple. It’s a stretch of the imagination but holding onto their artistic conceit acted as a guide, especially given that there are no curatorial explanatory wall notes – a bonus in my view, and Jeans and Elcock are only too eager to engage with viewers about their responses to the artworks.

smartThis connection with the viewer is what Elcock says he has been craving all through the long solitary months of lockdowns and restrictions; the ghost of Duchamp’s assertion hangs in the air as we talk – that it is the viewer who completes the artwork.  It reminds me too of something the sculptor Phyllida Barlow said in a recent radio interview: “There’s plenty of art that’s never seen.  And I’m intrigued by that, making work that does not have a destination, has a sadness and loneliness about it.  Many artists endure that for their entire lives and it’s heroic”.

For a minimalist exhibition in terms of actual pieces, there’s a lot to absorb here.  Even the title “Present Perfect Progressive Tense” stretches the brain back to school English grammar lessons. The artists have kindly provided a definition – it is a verb form indicating that something was happening and is still happening. Jeans and Elcock have chosen it because the same tense applies to them and their contemporary works, which directly reference the ancient world.

Elcock’s work was presented at the back of this cavernous space, in a kind of darkened inner sanctum.  The handful of John Elcock-Skull-2022-hiwhat resemble sacred objects are reverentially lit, exquisitely mounted, the plinths carefully spaced so there is room to move around them and to examine them closely.  They are all found objects, as diverse as a sheep’s head and a chunk of asphalt, their essence transformed and presented back to the viewer in such a way as to evoke precious fragments saved from oblivion. Elcock explains: “I am really into the symbolism of objects, the affects and meaning of materials … everything has meaning.  I am a hoarder”.  Later that evening after speaking to him, the following sentence leapt out of the book I was reading, John Banville’s “Snow”: “The dullest object could, for him, flare into sudden significance, could throb in the sudden awareness of itself”.

The one wall-mounted piece amongst Elcock’s objects is perhaps the clearest example of a link to Classical times. It is a tiny 4th century BC Greek bronze arrowhead purchased from an antique dealer, which he has completed with a slim brass tube for the arrow shaft, a crow’s feather for the fletching, tied on with a length of old string.  It is mounted on marble with an etched tribute to Achilles, a fighting hero from Greek mythology.  Standing guard outside Elcock’s sanctum is what looks like a section of an ancient Greek Corinthian pillar, but which turns out to be one of his found objects.  It is in fact a sizeable chunk of concrete from the demolished Churchill Way flyovers at the end of Liverpool’s Dale Street.  Half a century ago, the Concrete Society gave the flyovers their annual award, their highest accolade.  Until Elcock’s repurposing of this piece of it, that was about the pinnacle of the praise the Churchill Way ever received.

binary commentJeans’ work was sparingly placed around the front half of the artists’ Temple, this warehouse, which, to quote again from their catalogue “is in itself an expression of a persistence of form, a structure that has continued to adapt to the ebbs and flows of this port city”.  The first objects you see are Jeans’ casts of four sculpted heads, lolling dramatically at different angles on a low plinth, almost on the ground, spewing out different coloured latex.  A hand-painted poster, an artwork in its own right, provides an explanation for the heads.  They are a 3-D manifestation of the Platonic Humours, the classical theory that the body was made up of four main components.  These needed to remain balanced in order for people to remain healthy. The Four Humours were liquids within the body – blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile.

A nearby alcove has been stuffed with dozens of hands cast in different coloured plaster, all severed just below the elbow.smart  Up close it’s clear that there is a variety of different gestures and Jeans explains that he has culled these not only from antiquity but also based them on hands from contemporary artworks, newspapers, magazines and gesticulating people he sees in the street.  What I hadn’t noticed is that they are all of a left hand, the reason for this being that Jeans has modelled them all from posing his own hand, using his dominant right hand to make the sculptures.  He has mounted one of these hands on a rotating plinth – the gesture is a V sign, which changes its message from Friend to Foe as it slowly turns.  Jeans explains how this on-going investigation of gesture is important to his art practice: “A sculpted head is a static portrait whereas hands are more expressive and talk.  They’re a different way of focussing on the portrait sculpture tradition, and of exploring the perceptions of ourselves and of others”.

Jeans echoes Elcock’s earlier comment about the importance of the viewer’s response to an artwork.  For Jeans it is akin to the triumvirate of ancient Rome –“there is the relationship between the model and the artist, which is then interpreted by the viewer”.  On a nearby wall, Jeans has mounted four identical sculpted heads.  Each is adorned with a different headdress to represent the Four Faces of Religion – Atheism, Monotheism, Polytheism and Animism, all known in ancient times.  The face is a sculpture that links Jeans back to his own past when his art practice took him to Ghana, straight after graduating from Glasgow School of Art.  It is a sculpted portrait of R.T. Ackam, Associate Professor at the art college in Kumasi, the capital city of the Ashanti Region, in southern Ghana.  The Four Faces of Religion was Jeans’ proposal for Liverpool’s binary commentPrinces Avenue empty plinth.  This would have the four heads joined together to face the four different places of worship that surround the site – a Greek Orthodox church, a Mosque, an Anglican Church and a Synagogue.  On the opposite wall are delicate paper cutouts of the different religious headdresses.  Jeans is rather casual about the skill involved in making these, saying they are just like the snowflake cutouts he used to make as a child with his mother and grandmother.  They are also act as an art historical link to the once popular practice of silhouette cutouts.

I was intrigued to know about the choice of a red light at the entrance to the show.  Their different responses reflect the quiet humour at the heart of this show.  Jeans’ explanation: “We installed the red light outside so as to visually differentiate our ‘temple’ building from the more prosaically used properties around it and, in addition to the black curtain, add a little theatricality to the experience of visiting the exhibition. It also works as an acknowledgement of the less salubrious reputation of the dockland area”.  And Elcock: “The red light refers to our ambition to imagine the space as the sanctuary within a wider temple precinct. The light guiding pilgrims, as in the classical era, for those who have made the journey up into the north docks”.

These two artists certainly proved that this 19th century Liverpool warehouse is, as they claim, a building capable of housing contemporary art with the same élan as piles of old tyres or a cask of molasses.

Arguing About Art

My friend has gone off to get her train.  I still have over an hour before mine back to Liverpool.  I don’t know Manchester very well, having only been to the city a couple of times, and decide to follow the tram tracks to see where they take me.  I come upon a majestic building, which I recognise from a previous visit as the Manchester Art Gallery.  In I go.  Start at the bottom and work up is the plan.  A children’s art activity is causing a hubbub in the first gallery, where there’s an unusual mix of artworks on the walls – contemporary and old, hung close enough to become acquainted.

Bartolozzi 1966.686-21 copyA small image of a mother breastfeeding her child pulls me in for a closer look.  About A4 size, it’s a scene of heart-breakingly tender intimacy, created with just a few delicate lines and light brown ink.  The naked baby is lying on what looks like a folded up blanket, nuzzled up to the mother’s breast, one of its feet just touching her thigh.  She is lying on one side, propped up by her left arm, not looking at the baby but with a gentle smile, reaching down as if to bring up the sheet to cover herself and the child.  The wall note tells me it’s an engraving, c.1790, title unknown, by Francesco Bartolozzi.  I’ve never heard of him so take a picture to look him up later.

On the train home I share the image with an artist friend.  He’s equally taken by the beauty of the lines; so few of them to have conjured such an affecting scene.  But then a WhatsApp argument begins.  He insists it’s a pen and ink wash.  No, I say, the gallery definitely describes it as an engraving.  Nope, he replies.  Absolutely not.

Next morning I’m still a bit irritated that the artist friend thinks he’s right, as always.  I decide to email the gallery asking if they could settle this minor disagreement.  Convinced they would have better things to do, I’m not really expecting a reply.  But later that evening – way beyond call of duty working hours – a reply does come.  A charming response and best of all one that proves my artist mate is wrong and I am right.

With her email, the curator, Hannah Williamson, attaches a much better photo of the engraving than the one taken with my phone … “Have a look at the attached image”, she writes, “is this the one? If so, then have a really close look and you’ll find that you’re right, it is a print, and all the ‘wash’ is engraved lines. Also, in this image you can see the plate mark, which perhaps isn’t visible when the work is mounted. That settles your argument, I hope?! Best wishes, Hannah”.

The next time I see my artist friend, I show him the email, making a huge effort not to be too triumphant.  He’s magnanimous in defeat, which is deflating, but at least means we focus more on the artwork itself and the artist.

Later, when looking into Bartolozzi’s life, I’m astounded to learn all that he achieved and yet, like so many artists, he died poor, selling his archive and possessions to pay off debts, buried in a “common” grave in Lisbon, a long way from his natal Florence. Is there some kind of universal law that says – well, at least in the past – that even successful artists must end up poverty stricken?  Mind you, for the 18th/19th century he lived to quite an age – nearly 88, and 40 of those years were in London as engraver to King George III.

His speciality was reproductive engraving, making prints of Old Masters in the royal collection and also of works by his contemporaries – among them Angelica Kauffman and Benjamin West, along with whom he was a founder member of the Royal Academy.  The RA was originally a bit snooty about admitting printmakers and engravers but with Bartolozzi they made an exception, allowing him to be elected as an RA in 1768, but as a “painter”.  Clearly they did not want to sully themselves by associating with an inky.

I haven’t been able to find out on whose work this engraving is based – or maybe it’s an original work by Bartolozzi?  If anyone knows the answer please let me know via the Contact page.

 

A Day Trip to Leeds

I took myself off to Leeds recently, my first time there and part of a post-lockdown plan to visit new places.  The atrocious traffic on the way and ferocious wind when I arrived nearly combined to make it a dismal day out.  But once I found my way to the Henry Moore Institute and the Leeds Art Gallery, which is right next-door, all was well again.  

The Portable Sculpture exhibition at the Institute was the main focus of the trip, my interest having been piqued by my own fold-up and boxed installations. But whereas my impetus is aesthetic and to some extent anti-monumentality, in this show the work reflects the personal circumstances of the artists, some of it linked to the tragedy of fleeing from war and extremism, or of having been prevented from returning home because of it. 

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Mohamad Hafez, A Refugee Nation

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Marcel Duchamp, Boite-en-Valise

Mohamad Hafez, for example, has created miniature worlds in battered suitcases, which detail the decimation of his native Syria.  And Hannelore Baron’s box constructions are a response to her traumatic childhood when she fled Nazi Germany – as are those by Louise Bourgeois, her Personages representing the people she left behind.  Marcel Duchamp also began making miniature museums of his work when it became apparent that he too would have to leave occupied France.  It was intriguing to have a close look at one of these Boites en Valises, which I’d never seen before, only images of them.  Here, it was the Green Box with one of his typically enigmatic titles, The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even.  It included a miniature version of his infamous urinal.

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Charles Hewlings, Valley Suitcase

But as this show demonstrates there are many reasons for an artist to make portable work.  Alexander Calder designed his mobiles as flat packs way before the now ubiquitous Ikea ones for practical reasons, i.e. the air they occupy would have necessitated an inordinately large crate.  I particularly enjoyed Charles Hewlings’ Valley Suitcase, which had echoes for me of a 3-D Mondrian.  And of course there is digital work, which has become the ultimate transportable artwork.  Barry Flanagan was ahead of the game with his films of Hole in the Sea from 1969 and the Pythonesque Bollards Project a year later.  This still makes me laugh.  How did he get from such innovative work to hares?

One of the largest works is a customised caravan, Andrea Zittel’s A-Z Escape Vehicle.  Another is Claire Ashley’s huge inflatable Clown (Laughing Stock).  Neither of these stayed in my mind as long as the simplicity of Veronica Ryan’s hanging pillow cases, imbued with her own family history of sewing and containing a few hidden mango seeds that may germinate and emerge through the fabric.

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John Skeaping, Woman & Bird

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Brian Griffiths, Some Flowers

Next door in the Leeds Art Gallery there is a terrific variety of sculpture on display, though they comprise just a fraction of the 800 objects in the Gallery’s collection.  It was a treat to see a John Skeaping alabaster figure almost as soon as one enters the magnificent building – his Woman and Bird, c.1928.  I also enjoyed Brian Griffiths’ Some Flowers, made out of everyday discarded materials, and John Davies’ Three Heads made of wood, metal and plaster, which are so small they could easily be part of the portable exhibition.  Meanwhile, the mass display on one wall of portrait paintings contained works by some of my favourite artists, among them Keith Vaughan and Leon Kossoff.

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Portrait Wall, Leeds Art Gallery

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John Davies, Three Heads

A revelation to me was the Art Library, which I wandered into via the Gallery.  It was a few minutes before I realised that this was no ordinary public library but one dedicated entirely to art.  It boasts around 15,000 books available to loan, covering all aspects of art and design, fashion and graphic arts. There is also a large reference section that includes rare books as well as magazines, exhibition catalogues and sales guides.  By the time I stumbled across it, I wasn’t able to stay long enough to enjoy it to the full.  But it is inspirational and I will definitely plan to return during the dark days of autumn/winter, of which there is already a whiff in the air.

 

Of Barnacles and Statues

In all the time I have spent walking Crosby Beach in the company of Antony Gormley’s iron men, I hadn’t noticed that a few of the 100 figures were missing; no, not stolen, but keeled over and sunk deep into the black, quicksand mud, their concrete plinths having decayed.  Powerful metal detectors had to be used to find them, as they were no longer in the same location of their original GPS coordinates. When they were pulled from the mud, they looked more like the images of preserved bog men from centuries ago.  But these iron men have only been in place for 16 years, though Gormley hopes they will still be around for at least a thousand years, gradually eroding to resemble Giacometti’s skeletal sculptures.

smartThey were recovered during recent maintenance work, in which 50 of the figures at the Port end of the beach were removed so that new plinths could be made.

When the figures are in situ, especially those far out to sea, they can give one a heart-stopping moment as waves crash over their heads.  We are hard-wired to immediately think someone is in trouble. Even being familiar with the presence of the iron men, it can sometimes take a few seconds for the scene to be understood.  smartA similar human response to the figures came on seeing so many of them laid out flat on their backs.

This time the emotional disturbance was because they resembled bodies lined up in a makeshift morgue; laying them flat had dissipated their power – something iconoclasts have always known and a current example of which is the Edward Colston statue, toppled last year during Bristol’s BLM protest.  It now lies supine in the M Shed Museum in Bristol while its future is decided.

Gormley himself has been in Crosby overseeing the restoration of the figures and whilst not wanting to disturb him for too long when he was busy doing something very important with a theodolite, I did manage to ask him a couple of questions – whether it was just the plinths being replaced and whether all the entropic effects on the steel were to be retained? “Oh yes”, he confirmed, “every barnacle is precious. Only the plinths are being replaced”.  In the The Guardian interview he contradicted this but not to worry, barnacles are tenacious creatures so they’ll soon be back if they were cleaned off.smart

Whilst all the work was going on, pillars were placed to mark where each figure smarthad stood and it was interesting how these temporary objects seemed to retain some of the presence of Gormley’s men, like sentinels guarding their positions.  This also has an echo in the story of the Colston statue in that the empty plinth resonates with its history – recent and past.  People come to see it, recognising its emptiness as a symbol of an historic moment, in the same way as thousands queued to see the empty space where the Mona Lisa had hung after it was stolen from the Louvre in 1911.
Meanwhile, back on Crosby Beach, all 100 of the iron men from Another Place are now back in place, all facing West, all at the same horizon plane, all waiting for time and tide.

 

 

 

Italy in London

In between the lockdowns and the tiers I managed a day trip to London a few months ago, meeting up with a couple of friends to go to one of my favourite galleries, the Estorick, whose collection is made up entirely of modern Italian art. It was in fact the last actual exhibition I saw and the memory of it to has helped me through these art-starved months of Lockdown 3.  Even the claustrophobia-inducing masks and the social distancing couldn’t dampen our pleasure as we made our way round the exhibition, Italian Threads: MITA Textile Design 1926-76.

Estorick - Italian threadsWe learnt that MITA was a celebrated Italian textile firm, which collaborated with the country’s most talented artists.  This collaboration encompassed the avant-garde movements of the day from Futurism to Abstract Expressionism, with work by artists such as Arturo Martini, Amaldo Pomodoro and Gio Ponti.  Many of the artists were unknown to me and yet it was interesting how familiar were the designs and colours.  I thought this was perhaps largely due to the on-going appeal of retro furnishings, particularly from the inter-war years.

The firm had a remarkable output and the Gallery has managed to convey a sense of this diversity without the rooms being over-crowded.  The exhibition features original works, designs, swatch books, rugs, carpets, printed fabrics as well as other work by the artists involved.  One of the intriguing destinations for the firm’s fabrics was the luxury liner market, which one artist described as “floating art galleries”.

 

smartOne of the pleasures of being in the Estorick, is that the exhibition programme is always complemented in other rooms by works from their permanent collection.  It is a wax and plaster sculpture that always lifts my heart.  It was made in 1893 by Medardo Rosso, entitled Impressions of the Boulevard, Woman with a Veil.  One can find detailed biographies of all the Estorick artists on their website and the one for Rosso tells us that in his work he attempted to “capture fleeting expressions” and “to establish a new relationship between the figure and its environment, endowing ‘empty’ space with tangible form”.  To my mind this is all dramatically achieved in the Woman with a Veil.  I particularly love how from the back you can see the hollowness and the negative form of the plaster cast.

smartAn artist whose work I hadn’t seen before was Emilio Greco, whose dynamic ink drawings I found really appealing.  There was also a large sculpture by him, which at first glance looked as if there was the head of another person behind her.
But it turned out to be a large ‘bun’ of her hair.  smartThe hands are also sculpturally unusual in that
they are quite flat, as if they are pressed into her flesh.

A totally unexpected treat was a display of small etchings by Giorgio Morandi, all showing his exquisite attention to the detail in humble objects.  I hadn’t known that printmaking was such an important part of his practice and in my ignorance had only thought of him as the master of still life painting.

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Days after my visit, the Gallery had to close again but when it re-opens (hopefully in May), the Italian Textiles exhibition will still be on as it has been extended until 20 June 2021.  More information can be found here The Gallery has a beautiful garden and a good café, plus a small bookshop.

 

 

Cherry Picker Sheltering from the Rain

It looks here as if I haven’t written anything for months, so I thought I’d add this link to a piece I wrote for Art in Liverpool, which tells something of my time spent during lockdown. It focuses on my daily walks to Crosby Beach in the company of Antony Gormley’s iron men – Lockdown Walking to Another Place.

Meanwhile, much more exciting, at least to me, is that the outside of the house where I live is being painted. Today, rain stopped play, as they say, and the large “cherry picker” brought in to reach the gutters and the top windows, was temporarily grounded.  smartThe decorators used all their dust sheets to cover it, seemingly to hide it in case a passing somebody might decide to take it for a joy ride.  

The result of the disguise is, I think, visually brilliant – straight out of art history’s draped sculpture tradition.  I love that it looks as if there’s a whole crowd of people sheltering under there, or anyway, definitely not practising social distancing.  Often in ancient draped 1st century Roman alabaster draped female torsosculptures of the human form it was only the tips of the feet that were visible, and here, as if to emulate that, you can just glimpse one of the machine’s wheels.  

A few years ago a 1st century Roman alabaster draped female figure, part of The Geddes Collection (left), was sold at Bonham’s London Auction House for £27,000.  I don’t think my cherry picker will quite reach that amount! The tradition of draped figures continues with modern sculptors such as Henry Moore and Ralph Brown – whilst the artist, Alison Watt, has produced exquisite huge paintings of the drapery itself, sometimes enlarging a small detail of folds from a work by an Old Master.  I was fortunate to see one of these frequently when I lived in Edinburgh – it is called “Still” and is on permanent display at Old St Paul’s Church, just near Waverley Station.  

The church itself was built as a memorial to all the young men from the Parish who died during WW1. Richard Holloway, former Bishop of Edinburgh, describes the painting thus: “There is a sense of latency and loss in the painting; but it also establishes a feeling of hope, a sense that, against all hope, hope yet remains”. And in these strange and unsettling times of the Covid 19 pandemic, hope is definitely something to hold onto.

Sand, Sisyphus and Sculpture

Sisyphean TractorOn Crosby Beach there is a tractor driver whose job it is to scoop up the sand that has encroached on the coastal paths and deposit it back on the beach.  Each day the wind and tide move it inland again.  Every time I see him at work, it puts me in mind of the Greek mythological legend of Sisyphus, which is, of course, a metaphor for the futility of so many things in life.  He was condemned to repeat into eternity the task of pushing an immense boulder up a hill, only for it to roll down again when it nears the top.  The parallel of trying to hold back the sand on the beach is obvious; and yet, as with a lot of daily chores and tasks that have an endless cycle of repetition, without them being carried out chaos could easily ensue.  And I suppose that at least this one has the benefit of being carried out in a beautiful location.

Manchester Sculpture GeneralAway from such philosophical musings, I recently had the pleasure of going to Manchester’s City Gallery for the first time.  It is another of the majestic buildings, in which the North West of England is so rich.  I went to see a sculpture exhibition, Out of the Crate, which turned out to be a real gem. 

The aim of it is to provide the viewer with an opportunity to investigate sculpture through access to stored collections andCrated Sculpture archival material.  It has been set out over three rooms so that it is part exhibition, part storage room and part research space.  There are works in a wide range of materials, including marble, bronze, wood, glass, ceramic and paper, in a variety of sizes and shapes and different techniques of making.

Alfred StevensSeated Youth 1980.265, Alfred Stevens.1200x1200

Seated Youth by Alfred Stevens

Like most galleries and museums, the City Gallery has a large collection of works that have rarely been seen this century.  Less than 3 percent have been on display but with this exhibition there is a chance to see a quarter of the 500 sculptures in the collection.  It is like being given privileged access to the storeroom.  Objects are displayed on industrial racks, in glass-fronted cupboards, on pallets and in open crates. They are grouped according to size and/or material and weight.  This is in contrast to the conventional gallery display when the curators are more usually guided by themes or chronology.  

Nude Henri Gaudier-Brzeska 1946.160.1200x1200

Nude by Henri Gaudier-Brezska

One of the first sculptures one comes upon is Rodin’s Portrait of Victor Hugo.  It is almost more powerful to see it contained in a crate, heavily strapped in, as if it were the only way to control its immense energy.  All the big names are here, ranging from antiquity to the present day.  There are also works by several sculptors I hadn’t heard of before, among them Alan Lydiat Durst, Elizabeth Andrews and Maria Petrie.  The latter’s Portrait Study was one of my favourites, but if I’d had to choose one to take home with me it would have been Henri Gaudier-Brzeska’s Nude, a beautiful small study in white marble.  

There are several excellent examples of work by Alfred Stevens, the British sculptor born into the 19th century but who lived through modernist era to 1970. Barbara Hepworth’s Doves are touching in their simplicity and tenderness and reminded me of the pair of collar doves that frequent my garden. One of the most affecting scenes was to see one of them put its wing around the other as if in a loving embrace.

The research room has been set up like a detective’s cold case crime scene, with sculptures about which little is known under investigation.  The public’s help is sought here in helping the gallery find out not only the provenance of the pieces but in some cases the artist and/or the sitter. In opening up this research process more publicly, the aim is also to consider how a public gallery and its users can care for and use collections. 

I spent so long in this exhibition, thrilled to find such an eclectic collection of sculptures on display, that I only had time for a quick look at the rest of the gallery.  Ho hum.  I’ll just have to go back, which I can definitely say will be no great hardship.

 

Transit of Venus

Amongst the many historic Liverpool “firsts” listed on the towering wall in the city’s Central Library are the words “Transit of Venus”.  I wasn’t entirely sure what lay behind these three words but discovered that they point to the story of a young man from early 17th century Toxteth who shook the astronomy theory of his time with his accurate prediction of when the planet Venus would move across the Sun.  His observations led to him being known as the founder of modern astronomy on a global scale. The young man’s name was Jeremiah Horrocks and nearly 400 years since his prediction, a crowd funding campaign has begun to erect a life-size statue in Liverpool that will celebrate his achievements.

The impetus for the statue has come from a Liverpool sculptor and artist, Philip Garrett, whose art practice focuses Jeremiah Horrocks Maquette copyon neglected, important figures from the city’s history.  No known image of Horrocks exists but Garrett has already made a maquette that represents him as a young man, dressed in the clothes of the time and holding a cross staff, the instrument he used to help make his calculations.  Garrett says Horrocks is worth celebrating now because he would be inspirational for young people of today: “He was only 22 when he died, yet in his brief life he changed the course of Science.  A statue in the public domain would inspire future generations and be a reminder that someone from a humble background achieved greatness and influenced the rest of the world”.

Astronomical Historian, Dr. Allan Chapman, of Oxford’s Wadham College, is also enthusiastic in his support of the initiative: “Jeremiah Horrocks was one of the founders of British science, a true pioneer of astronomy as an accurate, instrument-based science.  His observation of the 1639 Transit of Venus, with his Salford astronomer friend, William Crabtree, would serve as a model for precise telescopic observation, and interpretation. All his brilliant, original work was being done between the ages of 15 and 22 – ages which today, would be spent gaining GCSE’s and doing an undergraduate degree. Horrocks was the Einstein of the early 17th century”.

It is well documented that sculpture has the power to transform the site where it is located and can act as a catalyst for social interaction, that people connect better to a place when it contains a work of art.  A statue of Jeremiah Horrocks would do this and also inspire those who see it to believe that great things are possible whatever one’s background.

The launch of the fund raising campaign is to be held in the Hornby Room of the city’s Central Library on 30 November 2019 at 14.45.  Guest speakers include Dr. Chapman and the Author & Film Director, Frank Cottrell Boyce.

Updates and more information can be found on the Campaign’s Facebook Page

 

Yorkshire Sculpture International

The approach by road to the Hepworth Wakefield goes through an unpromising industrial area. But once there and you start up the walkway to this 2017 Museum of the Year, it becomes obvious why the location was chosen.  The contemporary concrete and glass design by David Chipperfield Architects sits on the city’s historic waterfront overlooking the River Calder.  The positioning of the building stunningly exploits the vista from both outside and in.

Until the end of September 2019, the Museum is one of four venues making up the Yorkshire Sculpture International, the others being the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, the Henry Moore Institute, and Leeds City Art Gallery.

So far I’ve only been to the Wakefield and the work that appealed to me the most was by Iranian-born, Nairy Baghramian,Hepworth Wakefield - Nairy Baghramian 2 who lives and works in Berlin.  Here, she combines four material elements: large, rough sheets of raw aluminium casts, pastel-coloured wax forms and lacquer painted industrial clamps with cork.

Hepworth Wakefield - Nairy Baghramian 1The way she uses the braces to lean two contrasting slabs towards each other evokes a figurative, human tenderness. I spent ages in this gallery, enjoying how she uses space and light in the forms, as well as the contrast and juxtaposition of the edges – the softness of the wax nearly touching the ragged edges of the aluminium casts.  The apparent permanence of the wax form is an illusion because, of course, if the polishing were repeated ad infinitum, the form, despite its size, would eventually disappear.

Repetition is a key element in Wolfgang Laib’s installations; he regards it (repetition) as “the most beautiful thing that exists.” This idea is connected to the Buddhist and Hindu philosophy that there is no beginning and no end, that there is an eternal recurrence of the same.  Laib sees his work as a process of participation with his materials, which are usually organic, living substances – beeswax, milk, pollen, and rice. As sculpture, he says, they make a “field of energy”, concerned, as is all his work, not with creation but “the search for an entrance or a passage to another world.”

In Laib’s new installation at the Wakefield, Without Space – Without Time – Without Body, rice is the key element that Laib wants to act as the conduit to this other realm.  Hepworth Wakefield - W. LaibThere are hundreds of little mounds of it laid out in a grid that fills the gallery, interrupted by a few pieces of roughly hewn, ash-covered granite, that have echoes of ancient tombs.

I was looking forward to seeing this installation, being drawn to some aspects of Buddhist philosophy and also to minimalism in visual art.  However, I realised once I stood before it that I am ambivalent about food being used in art.  Perhaps because of this I couldn’t quite believe that this work lived up to Laib’s creed that art is a form of “transcendent spiritual healing and sustenance”.  That said, it has set me off on a path of examining the history of food and art, of exploring the morality of it and of attempting to understand the artists’ motives.

This Museum is named after the sculptor Barbara Hepworth, who was born and brought up in Wakefield.  It is a magnificent space for her work, with even the largest of her pieces having room to boast its monumentality.  There are also dedicated galleries exploring Hepworth’s art and working process.  Plus, the Museum is home to Wakefield’s impressive collection of works by other modern British artists, among them Ben Nicholson, Patrick Heron and Henry Moore. In addition, it has works by significant contemporary artists such as Frank Auerbach, Maggi Hambling, and Eva Rothschild, all of which are frequently on show, some permanently.

It is a joy to spend time in this Museum at any time but especially so for the next few months with this rare opportunity to see such a wide range of sculpture, some of it specially commissioned for this Festival.