Midland art graduates are exhibiting their works in galleries across Birmingham. Terry Grimley reviews the material.
Given the long-established dominance of the London art scene, it is not particularly surprising that Birmingham has always struggled to establish a distinctive contemporary art culture of its own.
Over the years there have been various attempts to do something about it, ranging from artists’ groups and studio collectives to open exhibitions.
The latest of these initiatives is New Art West Midlands, a survey of work by recent graduates of degree courses in the region selected by independent curators and staged at the city’s two art museums and a studio complex in Digbeth.
It is notable as the first time that the Museum & Art Gallery and Barber Institute have collaborated on a contemporary project. In fact, the Barber was originally prevented by the terms of its foundation from showing any work created later than 1899. Here, it has even gone so far as to show pieces from the exhibition alongside its old masters.
A further partner in the project is Turning Point West Midlands, which sounds like a drugs charity but was actually set up in 2010 to nurture young artists in the region.
My overall impression was that the scope of the enterprise is more impressive than the actual work it has assembled, but having the regional art establishment getting behind new talent is certainly something to applaud.
So what kind of art are recent graduates from Birmingham, Coventry, Wolverhampton and Worcester producing?
The very small part of the exhibition shown at Grand Union in Digbeth has already closed, but that is no great loss as it made almost no impression. At the other two venues there is photography, film and installation, but almost no painting.
The exception is the £1,000 main prizewinner, Rafal Zar, whose cheerfully slapdash paintings form part of extravagant installations along with table tops covered with various gaudy objects. Zar was the unanimous favourite of the judges, but his Technicolor assemblages of scatalogical kitsch are not really my cup of tea.
I much preferred Hannah Elmes’s large image of a dilapidated structure which looks at first like a tough piece of painting but actually incorporates such alarming materials as sand and polyfiller. It would look good in my imaginary museum of contemporary art (a concept I use to help separate the wheat from the chaff) but it could well pose challenging issues for its conservation department.
At another extreme are the photographers Herdi Ali and Dean O’Brien, who bring a conventional documentary approach to Kurdistan and Ukraine respectively.
I was impressed by O’Brien’s cleverly composed images, which highlight the contrast between new consumerism and the apparently dismal reality of life in Kiev.
However, a Muscovite visitor to the Barber has left an indignant comment challenging the accuracy of the captions: I’ve no idea who’s right.
The numerous exhibits featuring video projection range from Gareth Weston’s colourful abstract animations to Chloe Hodge’s radical editing of her family’s home movies (she is one of a number of artists here taking inspiration from family history).
Corey Hayman presents a doctored version of Walter Lantz’s notorious 1941 cartoon Scrub Me Mama with a Boogie Beat. I wasn’t quite sure what this achieved, beyond drawing attention to the film’s racism. But then, this has hardly gone unnoticed since it was banned on its initial release.
Grace Williams is on to something intriguing with her researches into Canada’s T G Hamilton archive of spiritualist hocus-pocus, creating a fictional persona and filming herself vomiting ectoplasm.
A number of participants work in various ways with found materials, from Jane Howie’s vaguely environmentally-concerned Flotsam, a pile of random junk neatly stacked in the gallery and filmed on the seashore, to Matthew Evans’ punning etched modifications of rulers and dice. Chris Clinton has uncoiled and re-coiled three novelty paper dartboards, obliterating the original advertising images and transforming them into attractively folksy pieces of abstract art.
Presumably the partners in New Art West Midlands intend it to become a regular event. However, I would like to propose something more radical and permanent.
The gloomy Victorian-style display in the Museum & Art Gallery’s round room - a 1980s revivalist fashion - has surely more than had its day. Why not invest in a few cans of white paint and create a bright space dedicated to changing displays of young artists from the region?
It would give the public something new and fresh to see at the start of each visit and make a powerful statement about fostering creativity in the city.
* New Art West Midlands continues until May 19 at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery (Mon-Thur, Sat 10am-5pm, Fri 10.30am-5pm, Sun 12.30pm-5pm) and the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Birmingham University (Mon-Fri 10am-5pm, Sat, Sun 11am-5pm), admission free.