Terry Grimley reviews the second instalment in a series of biennial exhibitions of West Midlands art.
Following on from Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery’s first open exhibition, held in the Gas Hall early last year, a partnership with Wolverhampton Art Gallery has now seen it established as a biennial event.
This means Birmingham and Wolverhampton will each stage a survey of contemporary art from the West Midlands, selected from open submission, every four years.
Wolverhampton’s first exhibition has just opened and will continue until the beginning of September.
Having been one of the judges for the Birmingham show, I need to declare an interest. But that has nothing to do with my feeling that, though it initially looks good in Wolverhampton’s potentially tricky exhibition gallery, the show ultimately falls well short of its predecessor. In particular there is a disappointing lack of really convincing or surprising painting.
Whereas there was a strong element of “usual suspects” in the Birmingham show, this time most of the artists are unfamiliar to me. One of Rob Perry’s Black Country nocturnes and a photorealist portrait by Custard Factory-based Stephen Earl Rogers, which juxtaposes a real lollipop man and a toy lollipop lady painted at the same scale, are two exceptions which prove the rule, as is one of Barbara Walker’s large drawings on a blown-up stop-and-search form issued to her son by West Midlands Police.
Perhaps there was a large proportion of young artists in the 750-odd submissions from which 70 exhibits have been selected. For comparison, the Birmingham show, in the much larger Gas Hall, consisted of 250 works selected from 1,500 entries, so despite the smaller scale of this show the ratio has become more selective, up from one in six to fewer than one in 10.
Unusually for me, I came away having most enjoyed two of the video exhibits. I liked Saranjit Birdi’s Interrogation, in which unseen hands play a rhythmic tattoo with drumsticks on a classical plaster head which gradually disintegrates under the impact.
You could attribute various metaphorical interpretations to this – I liked the idea of it sending up the pretentious use of the term “interrogation” in writing about art, though I expect the artist had no such idea in mind – but its cheerfully absurd violence is enough. I thought it would make a refreshingly iconoclastic guest exhibit at the Barber Institute.
But my favourite exhibit was Elizabeth Lee’s Common or Garden, which is basically a video of a snail singing Jerusalem.
The animated snail is seen from beneath as though it had crawled on to the camera lens and you can see its mouth, diligently lip-synched to Blake’s stirring words.
In the background we see a series of montaged images of English landscapes in garish colours with dubious contemporary elements, like a Poundstretcher in a bluebell wood and a MacDonalds with a backdrop of implausibly Alpine mountains.
It’s completely hilarious, and I watched it perhaps half a dozen times. Having subsequently made the connection that this was the same artist who contributed the equally irresistible Stanley, Dog of War to the Birmingham show, I’ve now marked down Lee as a star of the West Midlands art scene.
Common or Garden is a potential YouTube classic, though it is not currently posted there. However, you can see it, together with Stanley, Dog of War and other examples of her work, on the artist’s website, elizabethjlee.co.uk.
Being a bit of a pushover for models of any kind, I liked Luke Harkus-Jeffries MDF, a large doll’s house with three telescopes built into each side through which interiors can be glimpsed, losing any reference to scale so that you could be looking at full-scale Edwardian rooms.
Other exhibits which caught my eye included Alexander Maczkowski’s Untitled (Socks Triptych), which evokes an early 20th century painted advertisment complete with scuff-marks, and Amber Tomlinson’s eerily super-real inkjet prints of Rhyl’s funfair townscape.
* Open 08 is at Wolverhampton Art Gallery until September 5 (Mon-Sat 10am-5pm; admission free).