Recording Britain at Sheffield Millennium Gallery, on tour from the V&A.

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Jeremy Deller and Alan Kane, Protest house, Cardiff, 2001, Copyright Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

‘There will be little point in saving England from the Nazis if we then deliver it to the jerry-builders and ‘development corporations’ Herbert Read.

Recording Britain was an art project which began in 1939. At a time of great change, when everything was under threat from both war and internal social changes, a group of artists were commissioned to paint “places and buildings of characteristic national interest”. 1500 watercolours were produced and the collection, now held by the V&A forms a highly selective and often quite romantic record of what the artists saw. There is something very moving about the way that it was the individual vision of a group of artists which was chosen as a means of documentation using the gentle and traditional medium of watercolour. It was both a small gesture of defiance and a message of hope for the future, a wistful celebration of what the country might be about to lose and a way of saying to the future this is who we were.

Sheffield’s Millennium gallery is currently hosting a touring exhibition from the V&A of some of the work which was produced. There is a lot of simple beauty to enjoy. A wonderful John Piper of a tithe barn at Great Coxwell in Berkshire bursts with drama and presence. Edward Walter’s pencil drawing of Fish Street in Shrewsbury has a magical sense of light and distance as the cathedral glows in sunlight behind the shadowed half timbered buildings. A watercolour of Stoke Bruerne in Northamptonshire by Stanley Bodmin shows the sweeping movement of the water as a narrow boat glides down the Grand Union Canal, the curve of a bridge echoing the current of the water. Sometimes the threat to this beauty is made explicit, as in a watercolour of the the potteries in Stoke on Trent by Alan Ian Ronald where the havoc being wreaked on this pastoral idyll is clearly visible, as smoking chimneys provide a vision of hell.

While I enjoyed the beauty of the early images, what really made this exhibition fascinating for me was the way that more recent work had been added alongside them. This moved the focus forward and allowed the exhibition to look beyond a freeze framed period in time and explore different ways of recording the zeitgeist of a country. Human feeling and human activity is at the forefront. Ingrid Pollard’s portrait of a black woman alone and isolated in hill country, a bizarre image by Tony Ray of a well to do couple having a fancy picnic in a field at Glyndebourne in 1947, surrounded by cows and sheep, and a very elegant work by Richard Long recording a six hour run from Dartmoor to Exmoor in 1957 as a simple, understated traced line from an ordnance survey map.

The most powerful of the modern images, for me, was Jeremy Deller and Alan Kane’s large imposing photograph, Protest House. It is a house with the whole of its frontage transformed into a shout of pain, a protest about a life which has gone very badly wrong. I spent a long time looking at it, there is a lot to digest. Words leap out at you, words like neglect, abuse, exclusion, apathy, humiliation, injustice,torment. The whole sad story has been laid bare in forensic detail over every available surface so that the world will finally be forced to listen to someone who feels that they have been “left to rot”. It is one of the most powerful pieces of outsider art that I have ever seen, a cry straight from the heart.

This is a very cleverly chosen and thought provoking selection of images and I enjoyed both the contrasts and the sheer beauty of the work on show very much.

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Richard Long. Delabole Slate. 1980. Part of the exhibition Contested Ground. Leeds Art Gallery.

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Richard Long is my favourite land artist. His work is terse, gritty and often very beautiful, describing physical experience and interaction with the landscape, a walk or an action, which can take days of sustained effort. This is distilled into a photograph, framed text, or carefully chosen objects which he brings back and places in a gallery. He takes the essence of a place or an experience and lays it out for us to wonder over. What he brings back or remembers is transformed into something new and surprising, carrying its own history into the gallery space with it as well as retaining the memory and experience of the artist. It is no nonsense art, tough and self confident, and as you look at it you can see the man who made it striding out, looking and searching.

IMG_0020IMG_0026His large stone circle Delabole Slate, made in 1980, is a record of such a journey. Delabole village is in Cornwall and it is also the site of a large slate quarry. Seeing the rough hewn hunks of rock in the pristine gallery environment, arranged into a circle full of texture, muted earth colours and strength, is a strange experience. The rocks shouldn’t really be in a gallery, they belong out on an open hillside, and yet they are also completely at home. You are brought up close to something quite ordinary, none of the rocks forming the circle would catch your eye on their own, and shown it in a context which makes you look carefully and see properly what might go unnoticed. These rocks are the heart of the beauty of the Cornish landscape, the hard skeleton from which it is made, and they have an uncompromising presence and strength. In contrast they have been chosen with care and positioned with great delicacy. The stone circle has ancient religious resonances too, which feed into the work and remind us of their age and powerful associations. They have a powerful history as metamorphic rocks formed by fire 450- 650 million years ago and nothing else around them has that kind of ancient pedigree. In a way these particular rocks represent their whole kind and thinking of them in that way gives them great dignity. They have been chosen, brought here, and placed as an offering to us all after their long wait in the ground.

While I was looking at the circle a weathered man in dirty walking boots was showing it to his son. That made a very satisfying conjunction that I think Richard Long might have enjoyed.

Innocence and Experience. Tate Liverpool. Curated by Marianne Faithfull.

Marianne Faithfull has curated a small two room exhibition at Tate Liverpool, Innocence and Experience, and it is an absolute delight. It is full of things which are both interesting or beautiful in their own right and which also shed light on her life and times, in particular the 1960’s when she was right at the heart of the celebrity and music culture of the time, young, free and beautiful. Her own personality becomes clear by stealth as you walk around what she has chosen and find works which are often unsettling and thoughtful as well as lovely to look at. She is there in the exhibition herself, via the famous 1976 portrait by Robert Mapplethorpe, but there is no sense of an over inflated ego here, the choices have been far too honestly and precisely made.

I have picked out a few of the pieces which moved and interested me most. Please click on the link in each title if you would like to see the image from the Tate collection.

Greer and Robert on the bed. Nan Goldin. 1982.

Nan Goldin is a wonderful photographer with a compassionate and truthful eye. This is a very painterly image which has an unearthly almost pre-raphaelite beauty while remaining gritty and rooted in urban New York. The light is soft and forgiving and the composition very telling of the relationship which is being recorded.

 Francis Bacon. Study for Portrait II (after the life mask of William Blake). 1955.

This is the first Francis Bacon that I have seen that I think I might actually be able to live with. It has a resigned, restful quality with the eyes closed and downcast. You watch and wait for them to open and they never will. It is a study in stasis, calm and emotionless, just a few pale colours on a black background. When people talk about resting in peace this is what they mean.

William Blake. Pity. C1795.

A beautiful nightmarish image of a rider and two ghostly horses moving forward at speed, charged with energy. A tiny figure, perhaps a child whose mother is the dead body lying at the bottom of the painting, pleading for them to stop and pay attention to the tragedy. The rider’s face looks down without emotion, seeing without feeling. It is not clear whether the child is being caught up in the arms of the rider and rescued or begging for help in vain. The breakneck speed of the horses makes me fear the worst. There is a wonderful contrast between the movement and energy of the horses and the still centre of the image where pity is being shown. It captures the fleeting, chance nature of pity. We pity those who we do not know well, those whose plight comes to our attention by chance, not those we know well and are in a position to help. Then pity becomes compassion, a more stable and sustaining emotion.

Richard Dadd. The Fairy Feller’s Master Stroke. 1855-1864.

A small, obsessively worked and intricate image. The master stroke referred to in the title is the creation of Queen Mabs chariot by the chopping in two of a chestnut shell. We are shown the instant in which this happens in front of an audience of fairy folk. It is a fine piece of storytelling which you need to really get up close to before you see the unsettling beauty of it. Dadd was a troubled man who probably suffered from paranoid schizophrenia and spent many years in Bethlem hospital where he was allowed to paint. You can feel the tension of a disturbed mind in this highly charged image but also enjoy the beauty which he was still able to create.

Pietro Manzoni. Artist’s Breath. 1960.

When I blow up a balloon, I am breathing my soul into an object which becomes eternal.”

Manzoni was one of the pioneers of conceptual art. The withered scrap of perished red balloon which still remains stuck to the plinth was once new and full of his breath. That scrap of rubber is a poignant reminder of mortality, especially as he died at the early age of 30 three years after making it. He and his breath are now gone, yet in a way he is still there in what is left of his gesture as the work has been transformed into something new by time. He is still able to make us think and wonder.

Two Plants. Lucian Freud. 1977-1980.

This is a large virtuoso piece of painting making two plants which are nothing special, in fact they are very ordinary, into something to marvel at by recording their subtle shades of green, depth and texture to perfection. It is about seeing beauty in the ordinary everyday life around us, noticing the small things and celebrating them.

Richard Long. England 1968.

A simple cross in a grassy field full of daisies has been made by Long himself, walking backwards and forwards over the grass, and then photographed. It is a wonderful image of fragility and impermanence. Nothing is for ever. The world is vulnerable and we should tread lightly on it, remembering to be humble as vulnerable beings ourselves. A principle of hippy culture which needs to be remembered more than ever today.

The works chosen by Marianne Faithfull explore ideas of unsettling beauty, fragility and impermanence, and they are given a soundtrack by David Tremlett’s The Spring Recordings from 1972, long lost birdsong and memories of a spring which was taped back then and now exists only as a poignant memory. It is an exhibition about living on the edge and in the moment, realising that everything in life is just for now, and questioning what you see around you. I loved it very much.

This is sculpture. Tate Liverpool.15th May 2009.

This exhibition is a bit of a sculptures greatest hits, and as such it is rather predictable. You very much see what you expect to see and tick off famous pieces as you walk round. Usually the pieces on show were the predictable choices, or the iconic ones, depending on your point of view. It would have been a good way to introduce someone to sculpture who had no knowledge of it, although the labelling and information was poor.
There were some gems among the exhibits. A wonderful mirrored box made in 2007 by Yayoi Kusama kept me and a number of others enthralled as we looked into its holes and saw ourselves reflected amongst the kaleidoscopic lines, circles and colours in the interior. If I had seen nothing else but this I would have been happy. I was glad that my personal favourites Cornelia Parker and Richard Long were represented and it was fun to see elderly carousel projectors whirring away- a reminder of a time when they were cutting edge technology. A pale grainy Gilbert and George were also there as living sculptures on an elderly television, slowly getting sozzled on Gordons Gin. There was also a huge, delicate and beautiful Barbara Hepworth work, the largest she ever made as it was the only time she got hold of a tropical hardwood tree trunk big enough. A beautiful Modigliani head too. Lots to enjoy then, and a few things to turn your nose up at.
I had a good time downstairs taking photographs of Jacob and the Angel, an epic monolithic masterpiece by Epstein which I love.