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The West Midlands Open Exhibition at Gas Hall is showcasing new artistic talent

Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery’s latest open exhibition is likely to make people ask the question: What is art?

There is a ghostly theme running through this year’s biennial West Midlands Open exhibition, a mixture of student and professional work now showing in the Gas Hall.

Take the winning entry, an eery slide projection called Escamotage, 2014.

The longer you look at it, the more you will see.

Artist Grace A Williams, a PhD student at Birmingham City University’s Centre for Fine Art Research, says: “This work takes its name from an 1800s magical vanishing trick in which the female body was spectacularly disappeared under a heavily patterned covering.

“Escamotage uses the Persian rug as a motif for female disappearance.

“It mixes the violence of a magical disappearance with Victorian ‘hidden mother’ photographs, where mothers concealed themselves under carpets in order to hold their children still for portraits.

“In all these instances, the Persian rug is ever-present to reveal and conceal the female form.”

Grace A Williams - Escamotage 2014 - on show in the West Midlands Open 2014 exhibition in the Gas Hall, at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.

And then there’s David Symons’s Blue Ghost (2012), one of the artist’s scarecrow series presented as a digital print on crystal archive paper.

Equally spooky is Anne Guest’s I’ll Wait For You (Firebird) 2013, created by using smoke to darken paper in the shape of a bird to echo her regular theme of “merging fact and false belief”.

The 81-strong collection of paintings, installations and sculptures also has something for everyone.

And an exhibition wouldn’t be an exhibition if it wasn’t seen to be courting controversy.

The entries were judged by an expert panel including Faye Claridge, Cheryl Jones and Neus Miro.

They awarded the £500 second prize to Tracy Hickinbottom’s Structure with Blue Ripstop (2014) – which in everyday terms, could be described as a piece of cloth draped over a wooden frame.

Tracy Hickinbottom - Structure with Blue Ripstop, 2014, on show in the West Midlands Open 2014 exhibition in the Gas Hall, at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.

One wag commented in the visitors’ book: “Re 2nd prize, I will go home with new respect for my clothes horse”.

The simplicity of Hickinbottom’s work is perhaps reminiscent of Equivalent VIII by Carl Andre, bought by the Tate in 1972 and featured in special displays in 1974 and 1975 without attracting much publicity.

But after it was featured in The Sunday Times in February 1976 the arrangement of 120 firebricks in a rectangular formation provoked uproar far beyond its own Minimalist design.

Tracy’s own design is of wood, metal hardware, ripstop fabric.

Her description says: “Ripstop is a strong lightweight fabric widely used in sports clothing.

“Its aim is to suggest the feeling of a pre or past performance moment.

“Man-made materials are used to create a sense of a body.

“The smear of mud on a used netball bib is a communicated with pastel blue spray paint on crisp nylon.”

The art works were selected for the exhibition by a panel of judges including Turner Prize nominee Roger Hiorns, artists’ projects curator Zoe Lippett from the New Art Gallery Walsall, and Birmingham-based artist Barbara Walker.

Also featured are Sarah Taylor Silverwood’s reinterpretation of the University of Birmingham’s Muirhead Tower and Oliver Jones’ extraordinary photorealistic sketch of a baby being prepared for beauty-enhancing plastic surgery. Local places are well represented, too.

They include Lisa Zdravkovic’s Beauty of Lichfield Cathedral, 2013 – a cyanotype photograph printed by hand on watercolour paper (£85), Angela K Dooley’s watercolour View from the Cube, 2013 (£625) and the mixed media collage interpretation of Corporation Street in former teacher Wendy Brown’s Birmingham Today, 2013 (£300).

For fun, there’s no entry better than a framed rejection letter from exhibitions officer Tom Grosvenor saying: “I am sorry to inform you...”

Dan Auluk screwed up the letter before framing it with the comment that it is now “the remainder of a brief physical and deliberate performance in response to rejection. Through the rejection letter’s submission and acceptance into West Midlands Open 2014 it has been transformed into an artwork. Not for sale.”

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