tue 28/06/2022

British Art Show 7, Nottingham Galleries | reviews, news & interviews

British Art Show 7, Nottingham Galleries

British Art Show 7, Nottingham Galleries

Huge show confirms Nottingham as a national hub of visual art

Nottingham always had an eye for beauty. When I was growing up near there, the boast was that its women were the most beautiful in England. Today, it could and should be boasting about Caruso St John’s magnificent concrete landmark adorned with green and gold, the Nottingham Contemporary Gallery and the seventh British Art Show. The Contemporary is linked (magically for London Tube riders) by trams to the two other venues, the film-based New Art Exchange and Nottingham Castle's Museum and Art Gallery where the legendary Sheriff’s Long Hall is now a series of glass-ceilinged galleries, and walls once hung with tapestries are adorned with canvases.

BAS7 is also a landmark, a cultural dot on the art calendar but unusually appearing every five years. The remit of curators Lise le Feuvre and Tom Morton was broad and loose and, refreshingly, their 39 selected artists are spread across the age range from twenties to seventies. The show’s subtitle, "In the Days of the Comet", borrowed from H G Wells’s 1906 novel, was planned to inspire new works that would match his comment that comets "bring about profound and lasting transformations in attitudes and perspectives”.

The_Clock_Christian_Marclay_British_Art_Show_7_credit_Alexander_Newton2_CustomMorton explains that “each [exhibit] is a report from a particular time, something very different from a passive cultural artefact or historical deposit”. Two projects in the collection stand out as focusing literally on time: Christian Marclay’s mesmerising film The Clock (pictured right), also showing at White Cube, London, and Wolfgang Tillmans' new edition of his Truth Study Centre table-top installation.

Marclay’s massively labour-intensive film was constructed by linking brief clips from thousands of movies (silents to current bestsellers), every frame featuring some kind of time-piece and all synched to local, real time - wherever you are. It’s magic. The full 24-hour cycle is showing on dedicated nights in Nottingham and London. Tillmans’ now familiar work is in a state of continuous change to keep up with real time as it tours the world. Magazine and newspaper cuttings and headlines, ads, stamps, photographs and often mundane personal memorabilia are all pressed under glass like specimens and the contents resemble a time-capsule preserving the political and social state of the world - and the artist’s changing life - at that moment.

An amusing item in his scrapbook-like collection is a flyer from Dublin’s IMMA gallery, asking “What is Installation Art?” It’s a question undoubtedly being asked about many BAS exhibits and certainly by the passing shoppers transfixed by a display of tastefully designed objects seen through the huge windows. And that’s the idea: Matthew Darbyshire’s perfectly familiar shop interior installation, An Exhibition for Modern Living, comments on the status today which puts art on a par with shopping.

Duncan_Campbell_BernadetteThe close relationship between film and photography is a topical presence in the collection. Simon Martin mingles both in his three-part series, Untitled, which swings between historical time scales to make links between time and decay through images of a fresh lemon, a loaned 1200-900 BC Mexican stone statue, and video stills of a fading Sol de Witt sculpture. For Duncan Campbell's documentary film Bernadette, about the Irish MP, activist and heroine Bernadette Devlin (pictured above), he allows the presence of stilled images to add to the drama. We are taken, chronologically, through Devlin's story and are reminded of her fearlessness, passion and power. Campbell shifts between archival colour and monochrome film and black-and-white stills to carry revealing conversations between the UK’s youngest MP (at 21) and ministers who in the 1970s controlled the British presence in Northern Ireland. By the final section, it becomes introspective and Campbell employs fragmented imagery and electronic sound as director and subject explore Devlin's identity, image and self. A convincing reminder that her brief presence on the political landscape was truly comet-like.

Self-analysis or analysis of an artist's subject is central to portraiture, of course, but the current trend to fade subjects sometimes almost to invisibility creates a contradictory elusiveness. Maaike Schoorel takes the process to extremes, mostly painting onto an off-white gesso-coated canvas then applying the slightest dabs of colour to raise herself (and other subjects) out of mist, a dream or another world. For the poorly sighted, such images would be normal rather than as excitingly poetic as these.


At the other end of the scale, Scotland’s treasured writer and painter Alasdair Gray offers “visual biographies” of family and friends which often work between two time scales - transforming detailed old drawings into paintings several years later. Andrew Gray Aged 7 and Inge’s Patchwork Quilt, 2009 (pictured above) represents that line of work, but Gray's transformation of the 1972 drawing of his son through paint reduces it to a subdued Pop Art study.

Milena_Dragicevic_Supplicant_77No such fear of faded colour or drama in portraits by the Serbian painter Milena Dragicevic. Her Supplicants series is loaded with symbolic detail, and flat planes of painted colour create the base for her heads and faces. Then the transmogrification begins, using light, often transparent brushstrokes and three-dimensional, collage-like effects. The cupped hands of Supplicant 13 suggest both religious supplication and victimised pleading, but the over-painted face is distorted to abstraction. In contrast, Supplicant 77 (pictured right) is mysteriously beautiful, in spite of – because of? - the mouth being covered by a violently red letterbox-shaped stick-on suggesting control of communication and a possible link to her work as a UNESCO intercultural mediator. Even the painter admits that “they are unknowable even to me".

Sarah Lucas’s new sculptures, NUDS, dominate one of Nottingham Castle’s galleries. Constructed from pale tights stuffed to bulging, tied and twisted to create seemingly live organic forms, they are typical Lucas representations of the human body, its sexual habits, functions - and ridiculousness. Bloated, limb-like biomorphs hug, squeeze and violently embrace, their ghastly raw-chicken skin intimately touching. NUDS is less raw and crude than the raunchy earlier works like Bunny gets Snookered which brought her YBA acclaim. But it remains amusing, moving - and, of course, provocative. Watching the scrum-like hugging, feeling and touching brought on an absurd feeling of rejection.

In a group show like this, taxonomies blur and dissolve, and categorising NUDS as sculpture seems odd amongst the diversity of installations. For Spartacus Chetwynd, the multitalented painter-cum-installation artist and environmental activist, the works are usually performance-related and match her layered child-like (and irritating) folksy dramas which conceal a serious theoretical base. Here, Folding House (pictured below) is a tree-house made from recycled wood and windows. Beautifully constructed, it is a functioning cube of a house installed in the gallery and photographed in situ up a tree, and it seems to point to a new role as an imaginative environmental architect.

The_Folding_House_Spartacus_Chetwynd_British_Art_Show_7_credit_Alexander_Newton15Similarly large and dominating is Charles Avery’s installation enacted inside a huge, glass vitrine. It brings to life the latest episode in his fictional series and is titled Untitled (Miss Miss finally gives in by the tree where Aeaen sought to bamboozle the One-Armed Snake by attaching himself to the tree to make himself larger). The convoluted tale of a (black) explorer stranded on a desert island and rescued by Miss Miss who, at last, in this scene, embraces him is packed with symbolic references and objects, all carefully explained in accompanying text. Such complex, private mythologising makes an important contribution to the diversity in BAS7.

Surprisingly low on the list of genres is photography, currently the most popular art medium. Becky Beasley has harnessed it to painting in her large, tranquil works which all feature a small, black-and-white box-like object floating against a pale sulphur-yellow painted backdrop. It is a tiny nugget of fool’s gold, blown up many times and living up to its name and reputation as a con for gold-diggers. But its simple beauty can be appreciated at surface level as well as the layers of historical, scientific and esoteric meaning. And the same can be said for many works in this fun and earnest show of British art.

The BAS7 will move around the UK like a circus, leaving Nottingham for the Hayward Gallery in London, thence to Glasgow and Plymouth. It will surely generate the same comet-like effect as is being felt in Nottingham.

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