I’m of the opinion that, on admission, art gallery attendants should inconspicuously hand over matchbox-sized flyers which say ‘don’t worry if you don’t like all (or indeed any) of it’.
For lots of people, the visual arts can be a way to make one feel as uncomfortable as a eunuch in a harem. Presented with a piece of art, many aren’t quite sure what to say, afraid by the authority of ‘art’ perpetuated by the likes of Brian Sewell, a man so ghoulishly pompous that karma may have him reincarnated as an Aldi bag-for-life. I’m not exempt from such jitters. In front of great paintings, I either fear I’ll fall onto them, wrecking a priceless Van Gogh by accidentally putting an elbow through the canvas, or that that sheer beauty of said art will have me popping it under my long coat and darting for the fire escape.
I visited a friend’s exhibition a couple of years ago. My friend’s art, both paintings and sculptures, were so wonderfully dark they made Francis Bacon’s work look like the cover of a Mills & Boon. My friend was baffled by the purchase of one of his, shall we say, more aggressive works which contained enough swearing smeared into the acrylic to make a navvy blush.
“How do you think he’ll live with that painting?” he wondered aloud. “Do you think he’ll hide it when his grandmother comes over?” I asked him how long the piece took to assemble, in admiration of the painful creative processes that take artists away from people and alcohol (as a languid writer myself).
“It took me an afternoon when stoned,” he replied. Half of art really is getting away with it.
This is at the back of mind when I set off from Manchester to Leeds. Tiredness envelops my body with the speed of gossip, and I miss the connecting train to Wakefield. The day isn’t getting off to a good start, and I realise why doing anything outside of the moderate comfort of your own home is now pointless since the invention of Photoshop.
Thirty minutes late, I pull up to the Longside Gallery at Yorkshire Sculpture Park, eyes transfixed on my surroundings. It’s the kind of Yorkshire greenery that provokes a laxity hard to find in the shotgun-greys of Salford. I sweep out of the cab, as if on a hostess trolley, and I’m greeted with smiles from curators and guides. The other writers, already scribbling into notepads, roll into motion awkward half-smiles and I start to wander round the gallery.
The first exhibition is Kaleidoscope: Colour and Sequence in the 1960s British Art and within is an explosion of unpredictable and bold colours. The abstract art of the 60s instantly makes me nostalgic for a time I missed by over 20 years, but then nostalgia isn’t what it was…or, at least, that’s what they used to say in the good old days.
This is an Arts Council collection, curated by Sam Cornish along with the collection’s senior curator Natalie Rudd. They have assembled paintings and sculptures by more than 20 artists including David Annesley, Anthony Caro, Barry Flanagan, Robyn Denny, Tess Jaray, Phillip King, Jeremy Moon, Mary Martin, Bridget Riley and William Turnbull, among other leading names from the period.
In the words of Jill Constantine (director of the Arts Council Collection): “Shown together in this exhibition, these works create a visual feast of colour and form and look as fresh and dynamic as they did some 50 years ago.” She’s right. This was a time when British art broke with the past, as art should always do – wreck what came before and glare at the present. Times change with politics of art, not the policies of politicians.
My friend G and I wander over to Quinquereme (1966) by Tim Scott. Comprising repeated simple units of colour, it rests majestically in front of Longside’s wall of windows; then we’re off to Bridget Riley’s seminal early painting, Movement in Squares (1961). You can practically feel Colonel Blimp types of the time, all claustrophobic in war-like beiges, fainting at the sight of these alluring Technicolor surfaces. The post-war hope of these pieces (and many of the others), the sheer ‘newness’, the rebellious of them still thrill. Ah, the 60s, what a time to have been an artist – you could do anything if you were prepared not to make a living, G approaches the curator.
“Did you choose all the colours yourself?”
“The oranges and the greens just go so well together.”
“Well”, the curator stumbles slightly. “They came like that. The 60s constructive and pop art were very bright.”
“Oh, I know,” G says. “But you’ve set them out so well.”
We all relocate to the visitor centre in Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Again, elegant surroundings and not a lit cigarette in sight – I’m not in Salford anymore. We walk upstairs and pass a window, outside of which sits six white bin bags, all tied up. It looks like ornate fly-tipping but a wall plaque confirms it’s an installation. G says:
“Is that art?”
“Yes (I gesture to the plaque). It’s an installation by Leo Fitzmaurice.”
“Oh, they should see the park near me if they think fly-tipping is art.”
Some of the writers look angry, which is surely the point of contemporary art.
We’re taken to the second exhibition on the itinerary, (Re)construct. It’s housed in a stunning 18th century chapel and questions what we know and understand about architecture. On stepping through the door, G (who has stuck to me like glamorous glue since lunch) and I instantly stumble into admiration for Alex Chinneck’s A hole in a bag of nerves (2017). What appears to be a solid red brick wall is made entirely of wax bricks and mortar with an organic mass of drips cascading down from a circular hole which has been melted into it. Playing with the idea of permanence, it resembles the beard of an industrial god weeping out of mankind’s labour. It’s visually impressive. G approaches and I ready the quill in my mind.
“It’s like the Pink Floyd song.”
“They had a song about bricks.”
The rest of the exhibition includes Neither from nor towards (1992) by Cornelia Parker – weathered bricks suspended on wire which puts on in mind of the work of Ai Weiwei. Other artists include Nina Saunders, Anya Gallaccio and Susan Collis (whose work, which includes raw plugs in a wall, blends with the surroundings to create a lovely perverse game of hide and seek).
(Re)construct is nice excursion away from the park but didn’t say nearly as much to me as Kaleidoscope, which was bubbling over with newness and rebellion. Contemporary art really doesn’t need to look far for something to rebel against.
Of course, the greatest thing about the 500-acre Yorkshire Sculpture Park is the fact that people can bathe in a gallery where they’re not judged by their own silence. Plus, it’s free. In an age where anything stamped as fun (alcohol, smoking, the cinema etc) is extortionately priced, we must appreciate the things a stone’s throw away that we can explore for nothing…well, not how I throw.
(Re)construct runs until June 25, 2017 and Kaleidoscope is on until June 18, 2017 at Yorkshire Sculpture Park