North West At The Edge

In pursuit of some culture comforts to push aside the dreariness of the weather and unemployment, I ventured to my neighbouring Preston to catch the ‘At The Edge: British Art 1950 – 2000’ exhibition. Currently on show at the Harris Museum and Art Gallery, ‘At The Edge’ illustrates how four northwest galleries took innovative steps in cultivating the modern art we know today. Taking controversial measures to gain more choice over the items in their collection, and to challenge the conservative opinions of art, galleries in Bolton, Oldham, Rochdale and Preston were at the forefront of bringing modern art to the mass. ‘At The Edge’ aspires to teach us a lot more than we think we know about the art being produced in the cultural age closest to us, the last half of the 20th century.

I found the exhibition insightful and though relatively small at just three rooms, it is overall a good, brief introduction to the disparate themes of the age. Despite its size the exhibition boasts paintings, ceramics, sculptures, photography and print works from many notable names including Terry Frost, Lucian Freud, Howard Hodgkin, Helen Chadwick and Cornelia Parker. The layout is structurally coherent and the panels read with clarity, providing snippets of a changing political, economic, social and cultural scene. However, one of my main problems when trying to get to grips with the exhibition was my all too-modern perspective. The exhibition recalls how the respective gallery curators were at times taking controversial steps in collecting this art, yet for the average viewer it can be difficult to see how these artistic devices were radical. Although the panels contain the right amount of information for the size of the exhibition, they are often found wanting when explaining the shock-factor of some pieces. The first painting on display is John Bratby’s ‘The Bicycle Interior’ (1958). The painting was aptly chosen to demonstrate the increasing fascination with the banality and debris of everyday life. In fact the panel explains how it was one of Bratby’s paintings that inspired the critic David Sylvester to coin the phrase ‘kitchen sink realism’, which became a key cultural movement in the 1950s. However, a composition of pushchair, newspapers and bicycles doesn’t quite have the same impact with an audience for whom the term ‘modern art’ is synonymous with a man’s head sculpted from human blood.

The exhibition’s look at the 1960s steers far from the mass appeal of Pop Art, instead towards Op Art. There is an increasing focus on the reinvention of technique and a shift towards geometric patterns and optical illusion in the work of artists such as Peter Sedgely, ‘Phase 2’ (1965) and Jeffrey Steele, ‘Scala’ (1965). In a rebellion against expressionism the energy of these pieces is exercised through the pushing of mathematical principles into the realm of art. It rather aptly sums up certain opinions I have about the imaginative radius of the 1960s, most of which are borne out in its stolid, geometrically precise architecture. However, the collection also demonstrates more expressionistic styles of painting, with the likes of Lucian Freud’s ‘Woman’s Head With Yellow Background’ (1963), which brings more of an emotional gravitas to figure painting. Frank Auerbach’s, ‘E.O.W On Her Blue Eiderdown’ (1963) also experiments with layering and moulding oil on canvas to create a physical presence that protrudes from the wall. Yet it was William Roberts’ ‘The Common Market’ (1963), which brought the two diametrically opposed styles together in a modern metaphor for the debate over EU membership. The painting fuses the expressive use of colour and vibrancy of multi-cultural London, with a controlled use of form to accentuate a community living and working together.

The way art was thought about during these five decades also changed, becoming increasingly subjective from the 1970s. Displaying some works from the rise in British figurative painting, also known as ‘The London School’ of art, the pieces on display demonstrate an increased experimentation with perspective. None more so than John Wonnacott’s ‘Crescent Road II’ (1963-76) where a seemingly normal suburban street is seen through a wide-angled view. The distorted foreground creates a real sense of everyday unease, which would become more prevalent in art of the later decades. In a similar exploration of perspective, Adrian Berg (whose painting ‘Gloucester Gate, Regents Park: Summer, Autumn, Winter, Spring’ (1977-79) hangs adjacent to Wonnacott’s) flexes his artistic dominance by painting the entire stretch of his perspective: ‘Naturally I can see an arc of 180 degrees […] I have joined up what I see on the extreme left to what I see on the extreme right’. Although ostensibly more of a figurative experimentation than Wonnacott’s literal one, there is the idea of the artist being able to subtly distort our perceptions of the truth. Ironically, most of these paintings depicting London life belonged to the Touchstones Rochdale gallery. It is surprising to see how these relatively unknown northern galleries were at the forefront of a shifting artistic landscape.

The half-concealed symbolism that pervades Wonnacott’s painting seems to point to the 1980s, which in part became a playground for the senses and the imagination. This is at least the case with artists like Maggi Hambling whose painting, ‘Sunrise, Orwell Estuary No.2’ (1985) looks supernatural. The great globe of red, yellow and orange light twists and rises from the dark blue and black of the sea beneath, like the conjuring up of some great power. In reality it is one woman’s expression of awe as dawn breaks across the Suffolk coast. Other artists, however, were battling themes as diverse as capitalism, race, women’s rights and alienated youth. John Keane’s ‘Controlling Interest’ (1987) is the collage that most struck a cord with me, as it shows the villain we have all become so accustomed to ridiculing in the last few years: through the melee of brush strokes, newspaper clippings and glossy magazine images, the archetypal successful businessman of the 80s reclines in his chair. Subtitled, ‘A latter day baron enjoys the freedom of the press’, we see how there was a new hierarchy for art to challenge and detest.

Whereas art between the 1950s and the 1980s is seen to introduce new methods of painting and new subject matter, the art of the 1990s becomes more interactive with the viewer. Painting is almost completely overridden by the use of mixed media in a bid for hyper-realism, and the strongest of these artworks prey on the fear and fascination of the unknown. If the art of the 70s saw a shift towards the autonomy of interpretation, the 90s seeks to confront those interpretations. So many of the artworks in the final room of the exhibition cause us to experience feelings of familiarity alongside discomfort that we are expected to do something with them. We ask ourselves why we are so repulsed yet in awe of a long plait of golden hair braided with a pig’s intestine (Helen Chadwick, ‘Loop My Loop’, 1991). Similarly, with Laura Ford’s ‘Elephant Boy’ (1998) we are introduced to a vulnerable child-like figure, clothed head to toe in a grey knitted schoolboy uniform. His hands in his pocket seem at once innocent and frightened, yet also confrontational. That the boy’s head is masked behind an elephant shaped hood, instinctively makes us question what is beneath. Art has entered a psychological realm, where our imagination becomes our own enemy. It is a striking piece to end the exhibition on; you leave feeling unsure about what is to come next, and if anything this is the principal point of the exhibition.

In questioning what the future of art will be like, ‘At The Edge’ also ponders the future of galleries. A glance at the accompanying leaflet, branded with a plethora of corporate logos, highlights to what extent regional galleries have become reliant on centralised funding bodies and local authorities in recent years. This exhibition runs for a year, visiting each of the galleries integral to the collections on display: Touchstones Rochdale, Gallery Oldham, Bolton Museum as well as the Harris. While this exhibition is unique in that the respective gallery curators have collaborated to build on their own collections, there are more and more exhibitions touring from national museums and assembled by outside bodies. Although they increase the profile and the accessibility of the touring exhibition, it does raise the question whether local galleries and their curators in particular are losing some of the autonomy they worked so hard to gain.

Overall, the real charm of  ‘At The Edge’ is viewing these works in their regional homes. We are far too familiar with seeing modern art paraded on the London scene that it is refreshing to see their northern origins. Unfortunately, perhaps because of its size, ‘At The Edge’ occasionally feels a bit too ambitious; I found it difficult to get a real sense of any prominent themes or movements in the art of this tumultuous period. Moreover, with the focal point of the exhibition being a northwest perspective, it is a little lacking in explaining how the collections in these galleries compared to those nationwide. Nevertheless, the exhibition is innovative in the way it approaches this era of art and it certainly made me think differently about the northwest’s cultural heritage. Moreover, it fills in a few gaps while bringing the viewer up to date with the modern art we know today.

At The Edge’ is definitely worth a visit, if you fancy a break from the shops, or if you just want an excuse to do something different. It is compact with minimal reading and the best part is that admission is free (thank god for local authority funding)! There is still time to catch the exhibition at the Harris, which is on until 13 March, but it will also be travelling to Gallery Oldham in mid April, and Bolton Museum at the end of July. So, if you fancy brushing up on your modern art history this is a good place to start.

At The Edge: British Art 1950 – 2000
Harris Museum & Art Gallery, Market Square, Preston PR1 2PP
16 January – 13 March 2010
Admission FREE

Check the website for more information on opening times

The exhibition can also be seen at:

Gallery Oldham
17 April – 17 July 2010
Bolton Museum, Aquarium & Archive
31 July – 30 October 2010

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