Still at my temporary base camp in Brighton and it continues to be uncomfortably hot and sunny. In fact, it’s the hottest and sunniest day of the year and I’m tempted once again to forget the art and make a dash for the beach, strip down to my racy, reproduction Olympic-style swimwear, plunge into the sparkling sea and carve a path through the water, doing a few laps of my free-style, crawling, doggie-paddle-breast-stroke combo. Continuing my reverie, I can happily imagine myself emerging from the waves like Daniel Craig in Casino Royale, pausing briefly so that the camera can marvel at my six-pack physique, and then…well, then there’s all that tricky shingle to navigate; the hordes of other people with their less well sculpted flesh bulging out of inappropriate apparel; the irritating chatter and squeals of over-excited minors; the sickly sweet barbeque smells; the coats of sticky suntan lotion to apply; the sand in the toes…and the lack of shade that means overheating and return trips to the water to cool off, thus starting a Sisyphean cycle that finally ends with all the awkwardness of trying to grip a towel in one hand to change from trunks to chinos with the other.
On balance, I decide to forfeit the traditional aquatic joys of the seaside and seek cultural refreshment instead and so, having taken the right turn yesterday to get to Chichester, today I take a train in the opposite, oriental direction, disembarking at Istanbul. No, sorry, it must be the heat starting to affect me…now that I think of it, I remember going through Lewes and then, an hour or so later, succumbing to a siren call urging me to disembark at Hastings station. Well, not exactly. In fact, what prompted me to make the journey east and get out here was a leaflet picked up somewhere along my travels announcing the Coastal Culture Trail: 3 award winning galleries connected by 25 miles of coastline in East Sussex. I suppose that some eager local politician or council officer has decided it’s worth trying to refashion the typical image of the coastal resort, broadening its appeal to attract a wider range of visitors than the usual mix of families with young kids who are happy to splash about in the sea and make sandcastles; teenagers with kiss-me-quick hats who want to show off their driving skills on the dodgem cars in the penny arcades; and the oldies who’s only desire is to lie back in a deckchairs baking away their melanomas. Presumably the idea is to target a different sector of the population – those who consider themselves to be cultured, metropolitan sophisticates – and try to encourage them, or should I say us, to take a day trip to the seaside. And since I’m now in Hastings, at the start of the trail, I think it’s fair to say that they’ve succeeded, at least as far as getting this particular horse to the water and paused to drink in the wells of culture. So, mission accomplished? Well, unfortunately, only in a George Bush kind of a way, for the problem starts on entering the first stop on the trail at the Jerwood Gallery and having to pay a £4 admission charge (and that’s with my Art Fund discount, the full price is, I think, a rather unreasonable £9). In London that would get me into the Courtauld with its world class displays of Impressionist and other Modern masterworks but here the displays are considerably less impressive.
Currently the main temporary exhibition is a collection of recent paintings and sculptures by Marcus Harvey, the naughtiest member of Damian Hirst’s original gang of gunslinger artists. Harvey first gained fame, or rather infamy, by exhibiting a massive portrait of Myra Hindley in Sensation, the Royal Academy’s key survey show devoted to the promotion of the so-called Young British Artists. The fact that nothing he’s made since has come anywhere near to creating as much interest as that deliberately provocative piece of juvenilia is confirmation, I suppose, of just what a clever marketing man was his erstwhile colleague Hirst. He, after all, managed to parlay his own, slightly more nuanced ability to shock, so much more successfully, becoming both a household name and a multimillionaire. I’ve no idea of Harvey’s actual financial status but I think it’s probably fair to say that he is now classed among the less well known members of the ageing YBA fraternity, a position unlikely to remain changed by this current exhibition.
I suppose the most striking work in the show is a portrait of a reclining Mrs Thatcher adorned with a pair of comedy breasts and a large pig’s head. The work looks as crude and distasteful as it sounds but I’m not sure anyone would actually bother anymore to try to work up the energy to be outraged. An awful lot has happened in the intervening twenty years since Sensation in general, and Harvey in particular, went all out to epater the bourgeoisie. Such has been the impact of media phenomena such as Big Brother, along with a ton of other appalling reality TV shows, the ubiquity of internet porn, the invention of sexting, trolling and dogging, that for an artist to try to use tactics of shock and bad taste to gain attention is surely quite redundant. I think Harvey himself probably recognises the situation but is unable to think of an alternative approach to making art other than to jam together assorted iconic characters and artefacts and announce that they somehow represent a snapshot of jolly old England. So, amongst the subjects of Harvey’s current cavalcade and (echoing the approach of the artist) in no particular order, the attentive viewer will discern: Tony Blair in a policeman’s helmet; Lord Nelson; the white cliffs of Dover; Mr Punch; a vulture; a parrot and the big foot from the opening credits to the Monty Python show. The exhibition as a whole strikes me as all a bit of an incoherent hodge-podge with the problem being that, while Harvey is actually quite skillful when it comes to handling his painterly technique, he seems to be another of those very many artists desperately unsure of an appropriate subject matter with which to apply it. Maybe it’s time for him to stop trying to be a sort of angry-ish young man or a stroppy YBA and instead grow up, settle down and have a go at producing a few pretty still lifes.
As for the other two temporary displays at the Jerwood Gallery, both are quite interesting but also both are somewhat on the small size. In one room is a selection of ceramics, photography and prints from the famous Penrose family collection that centres on their old friend Picasso; in the other is a selection of self-portraits including examples from Maggie Hambling, Roger Hilton and Keith Vaughan. Finally there is another small selection of paintings from the Jerwood’s permanent collection of work by British artists including items from Lowery, Sickert and William Roberts.
Leaving aside members of the Marcus Harvey fan club, I think I’d have difficulty in recommending that anyone else bothers to depart from an exploration of the manifold artistic diversions of the capital to make a special trip down to Hastings. But what about the second stop on the tripartite Coastal Culture Trail? Well, Bexhill, a quarter hour train ride away, is home to the De La Warr Pavillion, that very famous landmark of British Modernist architecture. This recently renovated structure, with its clear lines, absence of ornament and no-nonsense utilitarian design, is definitely a rather stylish and attractive building but it’s still way too hot to stand around outside admiring the sweep of the concrete and glass façade so in I go in for a quick nosey around. I guess that maybe today I’m just an unlucky tourist for, once again, the pair of temporary shows are both a little disappointing (although, at least, there’s no admission charge to get in here). The large ground floor space has been given over to an extensive display of works exemplifying the typographical design style of Willem Sandberg. Now, for all I know, the man may be a highly venerated wizard of the art of lettering and composition but, as far as I’m concerned, row after row of posters advertising long past exhibitions at Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum, where he worked for most of his career, especially when the style is so consistently unchanging and includes so little use of any pictorial elements, results in a show of stultifying dullness. Sadly the display in the small gallery upstairs is even more of a let down, coming as it does from one of the grand old men of British Pop Art, Peter Blake. Evidently the curators must have suggested he specifically try to relate his exhibition to that of Sandberg’s profession since, aside from one wall of proper collages of popstars, pinups and other pop paraphernalia, the rest of the Blake work here is a dreary selection of prints composed solely of letters in a range of different fonts and sizes.
And so, finally, to the conclusion of the Coastal Culture Trail at Eastbourne’s Towner Art Gallery where they are offering a show of works by David Bomberg…except that by now I just feel so hot and drained that I fall asleep on the train, missing my stop as I dream of Rio where I confidently climb the podium to collect my gold medal for services to art and which, regrettably, I never quite get due to the train coming to a halt and waking me up back at the Brighton terminus.