Monday, 28 November 2011

Northern Art Prize, Leeds Art Gallery 21 November 2011

Sarah Brown welcomes us
Once again and after a bit of a mad dash for the train, I found myself attending a blogger's preview event in the company of social media specialists all organised by The Culture Vulture. This time we gathered in the glorious tiled hall at Leeds Art Gallery before being introduced to our host for the evening, Curator of Exhibitions, Sarah Brown. As one of the selectors for the Northern Art Prize she was perfectly placed to walk us round the work of the four shortlisted artists on display in the groundfloor galleries.

As an applied artist I usually find myself a little intimidated by the cutting edge of contemporary art but helped by Sarah's lucid explanations of each artist's motivation and working methods I really enjoyed our look round. The show wasn't due to open for several days so we saw some of the work in the process of being readied for display so this review is of necessity a little incomplete.

Richard Rigg 'Some Rest on Six Occasions' Detail
We started with Richard Rigg and his two telegraph poles whose tarry aroma filled the main entrance hall and which disappeared into the gloom of the upper floors. I always have a problem with artists who take unmodified, found objects and present them as art. Even Duchamp's urinal had a fake signature after all. Rigg's oddly titled work "I forgot what was said [etc]" served to make us crane our necks upwards and marvel at its height and wonder at the effort needed to install it but I think we needed to see it lit from above to fully appreciate its function of making us appreciate the architectural spaces of the gallery. It was a slightly disappointing start but the work we saw in the next gallery space more than made up for it. Here we saw four wildly different pieces all distinguished by the artist's remarkable mastery of the skill needed to make them. I am a huge fan of Rachel Whiteread and Rigg's hollow cast of a Victorian coat hook reminded me of her House with its evocative cast of empty spaces. As curator Sarah explained, it was as if the white box of the gallery space was hooked up and hung from the outside causing me to have a brief but rather dizzying vision of an alternate dimension beyond the walls of the gallery where we were all part of the exhibition! This surreal state of mind continued as we began to really look at the two pieces of furniture in the room. Both were exquisitely crafted but have no practical function. They made me smile with pleasure at the joke, carried out with such deadpan skill that you had to look twice before you saw the six joined chairs were impossible to sit on and the two mahogany writing tables one on top of the other could not be separated. A quick glance at a dark and rather mysterious cyanotype of a complex rope knot left me wanting to know more - always a good sign.

Leo Fitzmaurice 'Horizon' detail
In the next space we were confronted by the remarkable sight of about 20 landscape paintings from the gallery's own collection jammed one against the other in a choppy line from one end of the room to the other. This was the creation of Leo Fitzmaurice and it wasn't until Sarah pointed it out that I saw that he had lined up the horizon line of each painting all along the wall and that the subject matter progressed from early morning to night time. It was a truly clever and very playful way of getting you to really look again at these rather run-of-the-mill 18th and 19th century landscapes with their dramatic clouds, immobile cattle and languid peasants. By placing them so close to each other one's eye is naturally drawn right out to the edge of each work, parts that are normally unexamined and the flow of horizon and time gave an extraordinary sense of expansiveness as well as pointing up the shared cliches of these works. Fitzmaurice's companion piece, a slide show of modern urban landscapes showing inside a shipping container-like room wasn't working but I can imagine the juxtaposition will add real impact.

James Hugonin 'Binary Rhythm 2' detail
James Hugonin's complex and mind-bendingly detailed geometric paintings were our next stop. Sarah spent some time talking about the labour involved in the precise placing of each of around 55,000 coloured marks by the artist who will spend up to a year on each large piece. Fragments of the artist's working drawings showed the complex mathematics behind each piece with their tiny pencilled numbers and finely drawn grid lines. Stepping back, the paintings shimmer and seem to be revealing patterns which fade away the harder you look and I think I should have spent longer simply exploring this effect. Curator Sarah used the word 'hedonistic' at one point but after hearing about the artist's practice I saw neither joy nor pleasure, only obsession. I was strongly reminded of the slightly sick feeling I had when I saw the thousand upon thousand of tiny human figures hand-cut from red tissue paper by Chinese artist Lu Shengzhong in his 2007 installation 'Little Red Figure'. It's a feeling I find quite hard to analyse - I want to be impressed by the hours and hours of concentrated effort but I am also horrified at the sheer madness of the desire of the artist who undertakes such a herculean task. I also wonder who carries out all the domestic duties needed to support this sort of intensity of purpose. I think in the end I would have been better not knowing about how the pictures were made, thus giving me the chance to simply enjoy them on a more emotional level.

I had no such conflicting feelings over the work of the final artist Liadin Cooke . Her work is an absolute riot of colour and above all texture. Her work could not be called attractive but it packs an emotional punch even though sadly one can't heft the weight or feel the complex surfaces (or even take photos). With my background in traditional textile skills I was particularly drawn to her piece 'Miserable Object' inspired by an unusual embroidered sampler in the V&A. The latter records the sad life of its maker and her eventual redemption. Cooke's work is a series of wobbly parallel lines 'drawn' horizontally across a white background using red wax. The lines are like the readout from a heart monitor - almost flatlining but with just the tiniest flutter as the artist's hand wavers across the canvas. I saw in the piece all those endless lines of embroidery stitched by all those faceless Victorian women whose fate was to be as forgotten as Middlemarch's heroine.

Having called Cooke's work unattractive I should make an exception for the work hanging next to 'Miserable Object' whose title I failed to note. It consisted of a dark, smoky rectangle of crushed nettle leaves with a single pearl set into it slightly off centre. Simple, beautiful and intensly mysterious. Her unfinished piece 'Some Particular Place' lay nearby and couldn't have been more different. A really large lump of unfired clay, pummeled and shaped into a mass of chaotic spikes, whorls and crevices then sprayed with car paint in a rather nasty shade of metallic purple, it sat and brooded behind a protective screen like a malevolent sea creature. It will be fascinating to see how it changes over time as it slowly dries, maybe it even moved a bit while my back was turned, I wouldn't be surprised.

I am really looking forward to a return visit to the show now it is fully open. I am sure I will begin to see lots that I missed during this first brief look. The winner of the Northern Art Prize will be announced on 19 January 2012. We all disagreed about who we thought should win. My choice on the night was Richard Rigg, but having written this blog I'm not quite so sure anymore....!

Social media types engaging with art!
Thanks again to The Culture Vulture for the invite and to Sarah Brown and Leeds Art Gallery for hosting us. The Northern Art Prize exhibition continues until 19 February 2012. Visit the Leeds Art Gallery website for opening times.

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