Art & Development, Travelogue

Liverpool

Albert Docks, Liverpool

Albert Docks, Liverpool

An all-day art trip to Liverpool today, guided by the indefatigable Breathe Residency co-ordinator, David Hancock. I’ve got a ridiculously high tolerance for gallery-going, but even I was starting to wane compared to David’s vim. Yesterday’s snow had melted and frozen again, leaving patches of slippy ice on the footpath (slippery ice on the sidewalk), but the rain stayed away, so we covered a lot of ground.

In America, it’s easy to be unaware that Liverpool was the 2008 European Capital of Culture, and now I can see how the city deserved the recognition. It’s a compact city compared to Manchester, and I found it quite scenic. Both cities are historic, but Manchester’s not especially picturesque, and while its recent development has lent a sense of energy, it’s sort of a tony, American, consumerist vibe. In contrast, my sense was that Liverpool culture was a little underground, more woven in with historic architecture, and that there’s quality arts and culture site here.

FACT (Foundation for Art and Creative Technology)
An institute for contemporary art dedicated to new/digital media.
I was intrigued by the website, and the actual place lived up to my expectations. It’s a cool building on a quiet little street lined with a few pubs and architecture/design studios. The galleries are nice, and the installations are meticulous. There were three shows on — one primarily found-sound installation, one essentially an art music video featuring beautiful video of industrial sites, and one kinetic/live data feed type of thing. All were high quality, impressive installations. I’m looking forward to going back to see more great shows, and maybe knocking back a cocktail before visiting their cinema.

Random observation: These UK ICAs sure know how to incorporate both cafes and cool lounge/bars into their buildings nicely. Maybe because the national museums are free, but it seems more common to find galleries to be cool, well-utilized hang-out spaces over here.

Open Eye Gallery
A non-profit gallery focusing on photography. A nice gallery of modest scale, featuring a great show by David Goldblatt. The exhibition pairs photographs shot in South Africa, contrasting framed, grainy, apartheid-era B/Ws with large, unframed, contemporary color prints. The premise could easily be problematic, but the quality of the work, and the way the show is organized, made a delicate, artful statement.

Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool

Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool. My American sensibilities find these century-and-a-half-old neo-classical buildings fantastically impressive; I wonder if they become run-of-the-mill for Britons?

Walker Art Gallery
Yet another free, civic-run general art gallery. The collection is fine, inclusive of decorative arts and old paintings.

A typical table setting before (left) and after (right) the start of the Industrial Revolution. Walker Art Gallery.

A typical table setting before (left) and after (right) the start of the Industrial Revolution. Walker Art Gallery.

I’m finding the Industrial Revolution-era glass and ceramics to be really interesting, since it speaks to Chinoserie and the rise of the middle class. You really get a sense of how quickly the Industrial Revolution changed things. Plus, so many famous factories were here — Wedgewood, producers of delftware, pressed glass, etc. I’m better appreciating the over-the-top sensibilities of commemorative bowls, teapots, mugs and trays.

A beautiful pair of tongs for sugar lumps.

A beautiful pair of tongs for sugar lumps.

One contemporary project took my breath away: Jyll Bradley‘s The Botanic Garden, a series of photographic lightboxes shot around the cities’ botanical sites, including labs, libraries, and greenhouses. I love the stunningly dissonant photograph of two night guards. In the background, foliage and the domed conservatory walls loom grandly, but the guards’ station, littered with oversized containers of Nescafe and milk, couldn’t be more mundane. The photos were amazing: densely detailed, rich colors, and printed or mounted on some sort of matte substrate whose tooth reminded me of quality paper.

The Bluecoat
This fantastic ICA wasn’t on my radar before, but it sure is now. It’s a really beautiful, contemporary venue set in an old brick school with a recently-expanded galleries, along with in-house studios for artists and creatives. Brilliant.

Next Up: Liverpool Art Now is a regional survey that comes to some predictable conclusions, like jokey work by young artists, naughty messages on nice hankies, moody paintings, and poppy wall-drawing, but there are some nice turns as well. Here’s what sparked my imagination:
Stephen Forge‘s routed melamine pieces tickle the divide between formal and mimetic.
David Jacques’ fictional, documentary-style video and embroidered and painted banners.
James Loftus’ Tesseract Panopticon Camera, a six-sided pinhole camera that made six-part, cross-like prints.
Imogen Stidworthy’s Topography of a Voice, intaglio prints of 3D audio renderings.
Alison Jones’ Portrait of the Artist by Proxy is an intriguing audio track of non-artists having a hard time describing a face. The more speakers stumbled over their words, the more it seemed to validate artists’ visual skills.

Liverpool Art Now" catalogue

Spread from the Next Up: Liverpool Art Now\

Tate Liverpool
Two exhibits. First, works by William Blake — a really nice treat. And, a DLA Piper series showcasing selections of 20th century figurative and abstract art from the collections. It sounded boooorrrrring, like a bunch of surrealist paintings, cubist paintings and AbEx at any old museum of modern art, but it wasn’t too bad. There were even a few surprises from Op Art and Arte Povera.

Julio Le Parc's Continuous Mobile, Continuous Painting

Julio Le Parc's Continuous Mobile, Continuous Painting

This Julio Le Parc was somehow resonant — it’s an obvious result from the era when artists did anything and everything to get off the wall, but I still like it.

Peter Halley’s The Place struck me in a way Christopher Wool‘s work first impressed me — as a painting that follows in a tradition, but slightly off, tongue-in-cheek. At first glance it looks like your basic grid abstraction, with some wonky, sort of tacky textures, but the neon colors suggest pop culture, and the form itself is a bit like a computer chip. This undermines the purism of abstraction, which doesn’t do much for me in theory, but is pretty entertaining in practice.

There were many strong contributions from contemporary women artists too:
Sarah LucasBeyond the Pleasure Principle junk installation on sex and death included raw light bulbs and a coffin of corrugated cardboard.
Mona Hatoum‘s Home is an installation where metal kitchen gadgets buzzed with a live current (or so the illusion suggested).
Melanie Smith’s Six Steps to Abstraction was a collection of Bridget-Riley-esque paintings stacked abjectedly against the wall, with hanging piles of colored string, and videos shot in Mexico, including one where a bossy customer tries to get a street vendor to re-upholster a cushion in modern art way. The concept seems like something you’d see in any art school grad show, but Smith pulled off a cool, museum-worthy iteration.

Liverpool John Moores University
Finally, I attended a lecture by Garry Charnock, who spearheaded a campaign to make Ashton Hayes, his hometown, the first carbon neutral village in England. Though the campaign is grassroots and has only been going for a few years, they’ve made remarkable process, reducing their energy consumption, attracting a lot of press and empowering the local community. Charnock’s got a background in engineering and journalism, so he tells a convincing story, but his success as a community organizer is the most inspiring.
Visit the project website or watch the video on YouTube.

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