It’s that time of year again when the London artworld is happily dozing through the final few weeks of its summer recess and I feel a sudden migratory urge to visit the gray rainy Northern lands where I spent my happy formative student years carousing in bars, dodging lectures, forgetting to write essays and generally killing time by hiding in the library flicking through the pages of the many art books they held therein. I’m not sure if youngsters these days get the chance to enjoy the kind of sensible, all-round, auto-didactive educational experience that I managed to carve out the curriculum but I’m pretty sure it’s lessons learned during those soggy salad days that helped propel me to my current contented position where I tap out these diaristic diatribes and throw them to the winds of the cyberscopic troposphere confident in the knowledge that their seasoned sentiments will enlighten the days of all who choose to read them.
And so it is that my train pulls into Liverpool’s Lime Street station and I stroll past the surreal sculpture of a bronzed Ken Dodd brandishing a tickling stick in one hand and a bag full of Diddymen in the other. I’m not sure it’s a very accurate rendering of the physiognomy of the comedic genius but at least all his anatomical bits are attached and in position unlike the extremities of Raphael and Michaelangelo, those marmoreal monstrosities whose battered and bedraggled bodies lounge so awkwardly on the twin pedestals that signal the entrance to the Walker Art Gallery – which is the first stop on today’s tour. Time is short so I stride fairly quickly through the permanent collection which takes a sensibly traditional chronological route to go from Renaissance to Pre-Raphaelite eras in seven or eight well-hung rooms. Most of the work is fairly familiar and if I wasn’t in such a rush there’s certainly enough to detain for a more considered second look, although nothing actually makes me stop in my tracks until I come across the very curious portrait of Margaret Wilson (illustrated above).
At first glance this sultry siren looks like she’s been rendered in the gaudy graphic style of an old 1940s cinema poster designed to promote some trashy B-movie noir starring the likes of Bette Davis or Barbara Stanwyck. But, in fact, the painting is a late Victorian work by John Everett Millais and shows the so-called Martyr of Solway bound in chains and about to drown under the rising tides of the eponymous Firth, all by way of punishment for her naughty non-conformist beliefs. I can’t recall any other works by Millais presented with quite such an anachronistically loose and flashy style which, I suppose, just goes to confirm what an interesting artist he was and how stylistically varied he could be. By contrast, a somewhat more typical, more restrained work of his, The Good Resolve (shown above), hangs nearby and reconfirms what an elegant and virtuosic talent was the PRB who eventually became the PRA.
In some ways these two very stylish and carefully constructed paintings act as a terrible reproach to the main temporary exhibition that’s currently filling the Walker, for the sixty works that make up the successfully selected entries to this year’s annual John Moores Painting Prize seem to me to be a particularly disappointing ragbag mix of deliberately crude and simplistic figurative works alongside an equally weak bunch of half-hearted and wishy-washy abstracts. Shanti Panchal’s The Divide, Beyond Reasoning (shown above), is an exception to the general low standards but then he is a properly professional RA and I’m not sure what he’s doing entering an exhibition that’s really meant to offer opportunities for younger, less established artists to show their stuff and concomitantly reveal some insights into the latest contemporary stylistic trends with which they are experimenting. I’m not sure just how prevalent the fashion for ugly faux naif artworks really is outside the confines of this show but, in the interests of accurately recording impressions of my touristic visits I feel obliged to include this illustrative exemplar courtesy of Delphine Hogarth’s French Summer.
While the current show may be a bit of a duffer, in previous years the John Moores had a reasonably well-respected reputation as being an exhibition showcase that could potentially pick out rising stars and help them along their career paths. And by way of offering confirmation of its earlier, more impressive history, the Walker has put together a small display of works by previous prize winners among whose illustrious alumni are such glittering highlights from the artworld firmament as David Hockney, John Hoyland, Tim Head, Peter Doig and Rose Wylie.
Sean Scully was also a winner of the John Moores Prize back in 1972 and it’s the more youthful, more rigorously geometrical works by the world-renowned abstractionist that are now featured in another smallish special temporary display here at the Walker. These large paintings from the 1970s (accompanied in a side room by an interesting display of notes, designs and preparatory sketches culled from the artist’s notebooks) are quite a contrast to the more relaxed and fuzzier forms which Scully subsequently developed, and while I prefer the more recent palette of softer, muted shades, shapes and tones, there’s no doubting the dynamism and power of their punchy electric predecessors.
After which it’s time to take to the road again and trundle on down towards the dockland area and check out what’s happening at Tate Liverpool. And the whole of the ground floor gallery here has been given over to a combined muralistic wallpaper and grand sculptural installation by Haegue Yang and Mike Carney. It’s one of those sorts of all-encompassing works, full of various kinds of stimulating visual imagery that stretch from great fronds of plastic foliage to multi-coloured streamers, and from Indian bells to artificial straw. I suppose it’s all a bit temporarily titillating but ultimately otiose and so perhaps not the greatest introduction to the Liverpool Biennial, of which it forms a central part. Somewhat to my surprise, I discover that this is the tenth incarnation of the mini-jamboree of contemporary culture, although I’m not sure it’s ever really taken off, either by receiving a critical thumb’s-up acknowledgment from those of the professional cognoscenti class or gaining much popular support amongst the general populace of salt-of-the-earth scousers. And any hope that it might have helped to establish the city as another essential staging post on the great international trading routes of the artworld superhighway seem to me to have been shown to be sadly misplaced.
When it comes to other Biennial bits in the Tate, there’s an odd sort of a survey of Canadian contemporania which includes some archly naïve drawings by Annie Pootoogook (the one above being titled Man Abusing His Partner); Brian Jungen’s Cheyenne-style headdresses carved from the soles of Nike trainers; and Duane Linklater’s fox fur pelts that are suspended from garment racks by wire hangers that have been neatly threaded through the eye sockets of the skinned animals that are being displayed. Frankly, I’m a bit surprised that freedom fighters from the animal liberation mobs haven’t been out attacking the show on grounds that it risks normalising casual cruelty as well as infringing the rights of dead critters and committing various other unthinking acts of moral misbehavior and malfeasance. But since they’re not then I may as well have a go on grounds that it just seems a bit boring to me.
Aside from these shows, the main temporary exhibition here at Tate Liverpool pairs together series of works by the great Austrian draftsman and painter Egon Schiele and the minor American photographer Francesca Woodman. It seems to me to be a rather odd coupling and, other than the fact that both artists favoured the nude (often reflections of their own naked bodies) as their favourite subject matter, it’s by no means clear that there is any other great sympathetic resonance to be found in their works, or that showing them in close proximity yields any particular new insights. Indeed, the cynical observer might suspect that the imbalance in relative reputations means that while Schiele has little to gain from having his work shown aside that of Woodman, her status is bound to be hugely elevated by the association. Or rather, since she committed suicide at a relatively early age, and definitely prior to having achieved any great position in the artworld, those in charge of her estate are to be congratulated in their selfless promotion of her own posthumous celebrity. I’m not sure I need to say much about Schiele’s sketches – his line is so assured and so economical and his eye so unwavering in his depiction of a kind of brutal unflinching erotica that audiences bifurcate between those who find his work grubby and egregious and those (myself included) who consider him the greatest draftsman of the 20th century. Woodman’s work, on the other hand, is undoubtedly interesting and her youthful explorations of matters concerning identity and self-representation were certainly ahead of their times and were to become much more widely investigated subsequent to her untimely demise. But while she unquestionably showed an early promise, to the give her equal billing with the great Schiele is just plain daft.
By now I’m definitely running out of space and time and so while Biennial exhibits are apparently dotted through dozens of city locations, among the treats I realise I’ll have to forgo are visits to the Open Eye Gallery (photographs of Nigerian Kings and film about Pakistani libraries) and RIBA (an architectural structure grown from mushrooms that have been fed on agro-waste). But I do quickly call into the Bluecoat to see some ok-ish minimal wire sculptures by Sukj Seokyeong Kang and boring wooden ones by Ryan Gander working with a bunch of school kids; and FACT where Agnes Varda presents an intriguing deconstructionist documentary video about an old photo of a nude Frenchman and a dead goat. Zut alors!