Tau Lewis. Hepworth Gallery. July 2019

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Lonely Figure. 2019

Seashell. 2018

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Even if you come to Jamaican-Canadian artist Tau Lewis’ work in the Hepworth this summer without any prior knowledge of what she is wanting to express some things will sing out to you straight away and lead you in the right direction. The soft textile sculptures are made from found, discarded or donated materials and they have been inspired by a painting of a coral reef that hung in the home where she grew up. Her work has personality, humour and soul. Look into its eyes and you will see that it has a past. It is both melancholy and celebratory. You can look into them and feel their joy and pain. They have energy, as she wants them to have, and they carry the weight of their past.

They have been made as a tribute to and a celebration of her ancestors lost at sea during the slave trade transports. Their souls have been joined with the sea and perhaps altered and cleansed by it. There is a victory here, snatched from suffering. As someone who spends a lot of time on a beach I was reminded of flotsam and jetsam but these works are not dead things that have been washed in by the tide. They may carry the burden of their past but they are still defiantly alive. The manta ray is leaping up joyfully- as they do in life- and the faces of Seashell and Lonely Figure look back at you calmly, speaking silently of what they have been through.

Really lovely work which has a clear, confident message but most of all it has soul.

Devil Ray 2019

 

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Wolfgang Laib. Without Space- Without Time- Without Body. Hepworth Gallery. July 2019.

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The first thing that strikes you when you walk into the gallery space containing this work is the clean, distinctive smell of rice filling the room. It is the smell of food, something which we are hard wired to respond to, from the careful piles of rice set out in rows. I don’t know if the artist counted the grains of rice in each pile but I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that he did, a counterpoint to those people who have to glean for a few grains left dropped on the floor in order to survive. There is no sense of waste here. These are little piles of potential- enough to feed many people or start a new crop if they are replanted to continue the cycle of life. Small stone forms provide evidence of the people in this carefully managed and ordered little landscape, people who will live out their own span on the Earth alongside their crops. Laib plays with the sense of scale as we see both the lifespan of the grain and the people set against each other. Both finite, both with their own repetitive rhythm, both needing calm, order and restraint to flourish. There is fragility here too, just as there is in our overstretched world, a breath of wind or a careless foot would sweep it all away. Human beings like to tell stories- we wonder why- and I found myself doing that as I looked at the rice. Someone had been here with their own intentions and ideas and left evidence, fragile as a thought, for those who followed them to wonder about.  Laib is a German artist but there is a kind of Japanese sensibility here too which I really liked. Nothing here was accidental. It was all set out as an act of contemplation- an act of participation with the materials as he likes to say.

John Ruskin. Art and Wonder. Sheffield Millennium gallery. July 2019.

“All literature, art and science are in vain, and worse, if they do not allow you to be glad.” John Ruskin.

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Study of a Peacock’s Breast Feather John Ruskin (1819-1900). Watercolour on paper, 1873 Collection of the Guild of St George, Museums Sheffield

“I have to draw a peacock’s breast feather, and paint as much of it (as) I can, without having heaven to dip my brush into.”

John Ruskin was not an easy man. When he took up his post as the first professor of fine art at the Slade in 1870 he informed his listeners- a group of affluent, athletic students who included Oscar Wilde- that anyone wishing to be a fine painter had come to the wrong place. Instead he lectured on ideas of reform, identity, economy and passion. He really believed that the act of making art could lead to someone becoming not just a better artist but a better and happier person and that anyone looking at the work afterwards would have these benefits passed on to them. Young people should “set themselves to grow in a carrotty or turnippy manner, and lay up secret store, not caring to exhibit it until the time comes for fruitful display.” He educated himself through active observation and questioning rather than getting involved in the fierce debate popular at the time. The truth was out there if he looked hard enough. This ability to look was something that he wanted everybody- however disadvantaged they were- to have and he established a museum, a single room on one of the Sheffield hills, so that workers could be raised up out of their dreadful living conditions for just a short while- all the time they had- and be shown how to look at beauty. The city was full of craftsmen and revolutionaries so the site was well chosen. He saw that by understanding and respecting the environment they could find a sense of contentment and peace through a moment of stillness and calm.

The exhibition John Ruskin, Art and Wonder at Sheffield’s Millennium gallery is part of the Ruskin bicentenary celebrations. It is a beautiful show showcasing his delicate and fastidiously observed work alongside others who were also looking and recording. Images were not freely available at the touch of a keypad back then. If you wanted to find out about an object or creature you had to use your eyes and make them for yourself. That applied to a single thorn branch preserved in graphite and watercolour by George Allen in 1859, or Ruskin’s study of dead oak leaves from 1879, just as much as it did to Audubon’s huge fold out images from Birds of America. These are birds as rock stars, big, bold and showy. They are set into relief- and perhaps put in their place- by a group of fragile, delicate Ruskin bird images close by. The Audubon birds are spectacular but they represent a species, what Ruskin gives us is a single bird- the one in front of him when it was painted all those years ago. There are a lot of beautiful images to wonder at but it is Ruskin who gives his subjects heart alongside a forensic attention to detail.

Study of a Spray of Dead Oak Leaves by John Ruskin, 1879. Watercolour and bodycolour on paper. Size: 295 x 418 mm; support: 144 x 188mm. Collection of the Guild of St George, Museums Sheffield,

Ruskin was a strange man in some ways, especially for his time, and what seem like self evident principles now were not universally accepted by those around him. People are more comfortable with those who accept being put in a box and run with the pack. He was a polymath, interested in everything and didn’t accept the boundaries and conventions which others lived by. He disliked much of what he saw in the capitalist society around him and gave his opinions fearlessly. None of those characteristics make you popular with your contemporaries, although his influence in the long run has been enormous. He might have done better on that score now. In the thick of the industrial revolution he foresaw what the modern world would do to our psyche and how very much we would all continue to need moments of stillness, observation and calm. I think I would have liked him and he would certainly have plenty of people today eager to tell him how right he was.

Stepping Out. Stephen Joseph Theatre. Summer 2019.

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Production photograph by Tony Bartholomew.

I remember the success of Richard Harris’ Stepping Out, written thirty five years ago, back in 1984 but I never got to see it so I knew straight away it would be a good choice as the centrepiece of the Stephen Joseph’s summer season. I know the usual Thursday matinee audience there quite well- quite a few of them have become familiar faces- but many of the crowd who arrived buzzing and ready to have fun at Stepping Out were new to me. They were mostly women, with a few rather gloomy looking men tagging along. They were waving cheerfully to each other, singing along to Girls Just Wanna Have Fun and words like prosecco, The Full Monty and Mamma Mia were being bandied about. It was all a bit girly but they were certainly up for a good time and we got one.

Stepping Out is the story of a group of women- and one brave man- of varying characters and abilities who come along to a weekly tap dancing class and end up performing a routine in a local show. All of them have lives which are unsatisfactory in one way or another and we get to know them and root for them as they rehearse. No spoilers- I won’t tell you whether they succeed or not- but you can probably guess. Although it has become a period piece, written well before reality TV and celebrity dancing contests the hook is the same. Everybody loves stories like this where we can watch ordinary people- people like us- trying hard and supporting each other as they learn a skill that they never knew they had. It’s not real life but who cares- we see enough of that. People don’t change. I overheard someone behind me asking her companion, “which one do you think I am?” and that is at the heart of its appeal.

I think the character that took me back to the early eighties most powerfully was Fenella Norman as the rehearsal pianist Mrs Frazer. While everybody else would be immediately recognisable to young people today she is a type that I don’t think you would find in quite the same way now. Religious, judgemental and probably not as much of an old bat as she would like to think. Those women were throwbacks even in my childhood. There were flamboyant characters given plenty of easy comic hits joyfully taken- especially by Claire Eden as Sylvia and Suzanne Proctor as Maxine- but the two performances I enjoyed watching most at close quarters were David McKechnie as gentle, well meaning Geoffery and Alix Dunmore as clever, anxious and repressed Andy. Those two performances were subtle and perfectly thought through and when you are only a few feet away that shines out. Joanne Heywood held the whole thing together beautifully as Mavis, the dance instructor who has a heart of gold and really wants her little group of nobodies to find their feet and their self esteem and it was good to see her given her own moment in the spotlight as well as her pupils.

This is such a clever play, popular theatre which knows what people will respond to and gives them it in spades. The director Paul Robinson had made the most of its strengths and this revival was thoroughly deserved. It worked really well in the round, a space which is always at its best when it can be up close and personal, and I was very glad to see it after all this time! After all I had waited almost half a lifetime!

The Life of Pi. Sheffield Crucible. 20-07-19

Production photograph by Johan Persson

The Life of Pi is a fine novel and that is usually a sign that it is best left alone. When it is a fine novel in which a tiger and a young boy are adrift in a small boat for most of its length that might be an even bigger sign that it should be left well alone. If you are going to put it on stage there is only one way to do it and that is to get it exactly right. Sheffield Crucible’s production this summer does exactly that. I’m not exaggerating- there was an immediate standing ovation at the end from a full house at the performance I saw. That’s close on a thousand people and they were right.

Hiran Abesekera was great as Pi and there were strong performances surrounding him. It was a heartfelt performance, funny and agile and we were right with him every step of the way. Having said that I’m certain that he wouldn’t be offended when I say that it was the production itself which was the star. The real joy was seeing Richard Parker- the tiger- brought to life. He moved and thought like a real tiger and the sense of danger around him was all too real. This came from a synthesis of great design from Nick Barnes and great direction from Finn Caldwell, brought to life by Kate Colebrook and Fred Davis who lived him for every moment that he was on stage.

Tim Hatley’s design was the one thing that made it all possible, allowing the play to zip along and move back and forth from the interview room where Pi was being questioned about his ordeal and the small boat out at sea. It was beautifully simple, one bed, one file trolley, a low raised boat outline which could be brought up and down surrounding the bed, revolves and a moving sea projected onto the floor which took my breath away the first time I saw it. I was lucky to be high up in the crucible so I got the full effect. There were two fast traps so that when Pi went into the water, or bobbed up he really was in the sea. It was extraordinary and so simple that my description won’t come close to explaining how magical it was.

Lolita Chakrabarti’s script served the book and the production perfectly. There was not a word wasted, not a word out of place. At the end, just as with the book, we were left thinking about the nature of reality and story and wondering which was more real.

This was the best thing I have seen for years. I queued for a return at the last minute and the man- another veteran theatregoer- who was there because his son had seen it, gone straight round to book again and wouldn’t stop talking about it, was as delighted as I was when we ended up together in one of the Juliet boxes for £15. When theatre is as good as this it reminds me why I keep going.

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Production photograph by Johan Persson.

What’s past is prologue.

The past takes our hand,
guiding us forwards,
giving comfort,
providing excuses,
telling us tales.

The past walks beside us,
shadowing our path,
making judgements,
fighting old battles,
taking names.

The past is a liar
dogging our steps,
bending our ear,
feeding our hopes,
setting us traps.

A snatched contentment
easing our days-
a fantasy playground
where innocence plays.

Stretch out your hand.
Take what you can.
The road can be weary
and it’s a long way home.

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Suffering Arcadia. Scarborough Art Gallery. Summer 2019.

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There are only three pieces in Annabel McCourt’s exhibition, Suffering Arcadia at Scarborough Art gallery. Two of them are placed together in one of the gallery spaces, Happy Hour in the Harmful Factory and Electric Fence. Happy Hour in the Harmful Factory is described as a “feminist response to the futile optimism of milk as cure all” which probably explains as well as anything I could write why it didn’t really work for me and Electric Fence is a powerful and hard hitting work that deserves a more resonant space ( as it had in Beverley Minster) so I will concentrate on the third, MAGA Grabber, which has found the best home it could possibly have in Scarborough. I absolutely loved it.

Scarborough has a cheerfully kitsch seafront along the South Bay which has been shamelessly taking money from visitors in return for short blasts of fun for decades. The most popular machines, and the ones which do this particularly successfully, are the grabbers. You stand in front of a glazed box, pay your money and try to manipulate a grabber in order to pick up one of the tempting prizes- usually a cheap soft toy- and dump it in the chute. If you do that you win the toy. Let’s just say it is harder than it looks.

The MAGA Grabber is Annabel McCourt’s version of one of these. A response to the personality and tactics of Donald Trump it is loud and red, flaunting itself, seductively beckoning you in under the “Suffering Arcadia” title neon. It is a shallow sound bite, a sop to those who don’t want to think too deeply, populist in a way that Scarborough understands well with a hint of menace behind it. His well known speech about pussy grabbing is painted on the side. It is Donald Trump made mechanical and it suits his style perfectly, while managing to sum up how the entire modern political world operates shrewdly and concisely. A play on it costs nothing and it cheerfully admits- several times over- that you “the loser” will lose every time if you play it. You can’t say that you don’t know what you are getting into. In spite of this I still found myself using the grabber, which worked more easily than the seafront ones, to move the MAGA hats into the chute and the first time I did it I looked at the chute hopefully and then stood there wondering why I hadn’t won. More fool me. LOSER!

There are not many Art exhibitions where I have been stopped on my way into the gallery by a stranger- an older man- who was still excited and bemused by what he had seen and wanted to talk about it and the young woman on the reception desk inside was being buttonholed by people- including me- who wanted to process what they had just seen. Accessible Art that makes you think. We need a lot more of that.