Reality: Modern and Contemporary British Painting
10th July to 29th November 2015
On the pristine banks of Sowley Marsh, near New Forest, South Hampshire,
artist Philip Harris has painted a sleeping middle-aged woman, dreaming
away the afternoon while two stray young girls look on bemused. She resembles
a bedraggled, down-and-out Ceres and her collapse among the weeds is worrying.
Perhaps the dates give us a clue as to what’s going on. Figures
at Ebb Tide (1999-2000) is an avowedly turn-of-the-millennium painting
and after realising the context, New Labour allegories begin to creep
across the work like a coastal breeze.
Treating this like a departmental green paper, one might argue that the
gleaming shores represent Labour’s promises of Eco-towns and reforms
to social housing, whereas the exhausted slump of the mother registers
the ongoing inertia of Britain’s underclass. Figures is the first
painting to greet us at the Walker Art Gallery’s new exhibition
‘Reality’, curated by artist Chris Stevens, and hints that
the show will contain more socially informed artwork.
What follows is a tour round Britain’s grotty urban sprawl conducted
by a selection of recent masters of painting. Harris’ millennium
picture starts a journey down our social history and demands a certain
council estate connoisseurship. Council estates have always been a concrete
meeting house for art and politics.
Architectural styles range from Italianate hillside homes (Bishopsfield
Harlow, Essex) to the municipal style of Red Vienna (Ossultston Estate,
Somerstown) and the plain sci-fi moon-ladder look of Trellick Tower in
London, to name just a few notable commissions. However, behind these
grey walls lies a miserable history of chronic supply shortage and dire
David Hepher’s Tree (2010-11) is so meticulous in its depiction
of beton brut, the Brutalist use of raw concrete, that it should be Grade
II listed. Hepher has conducted his career like a grand tour through London’s
high-rises, stopping reverently at the ugly ducklings because, in his
eyes, the exterior is a record of the lives within.
This particular ‘housescape’, each half-curtained window
painted with signature painstaking detail, entices us to climb the tree
in the centre and peek through. You don’t need the eye of a housing
association inspector to notice the isolation and of the people living
here; look out for the Jewish Menorah, the yawning female nude in the
lower-right corner, the wilting houseplants and rash of limpet-like TV
satellites pinned to the façade.
Other paintings favour fog and industrial spew, like Katarzyna Coleman’s
angular roads leading up to power stations, or unexplained violence, like
Carel Weight’s old man beating a fleeing kid in a dreary city park.
Classier places are on show too. Two imposing paintings by Ken Currie,
on a similar scale to an Old Master’s royal commission, and painted
in a suitably retrograde musty palette, differ in tone to the preceding
From Hepher’s high-rise we saunter into high court with one large
canvas showing a candle-lit king drying his pale body after a bath; the
other intruding on a meeting of ruddy-nosed posh blokes at a hunting lodge.
Some of Currie’s symbols are too showy and blatant, like the deer’s
skull or the half-burnt candle placed all-too-seriously on the mantelpiece,
but the style still has a force to it.
Representations of modern Britain are not limited to the country and
the city but also include the flying circus. Alan Macdonald’s Pop-Surrealist
landscapes are witty; their calm poise overrides the dislocation of the
people and places dragged unwittingly together. For example, in the centre
of Spam Dragon (2013) a beautiful woman stands upright and unfazed, a
helix of pearls twisting round her dress. The landscape could almost be
by Gainsborough but the illusion is destroyed by the littered base of
odd props that include a chained komodo dragon, a tin of spam, and a wounded
knight in shining armour.
The contrast turns her from Elle model to L.H.O.O. Q. Duchamp’s
moustachioed Mona Lisa undermined classical notions of beauty with a flick
of pen on a postcard and it seems Macdonald is following this tradition.
Later on, in The Candy Man (2013), Titian’s Man with a Quilted Sleeve
is wrenched from his balcony and made to sit on a Vespa, cheekily blowing
a pink gum bubble at us. Macdonald has said that his collaged paintings
are supposed to be a funny retort to the eternal question “What
the hell am I doing here?” Their humour stems from the tyranny of
a post-modern portraitist who treats art history like an am-dram costume
or play sword that can be added to the scene.
The exhibition also contains many other interesting works that revel in
different ways of looking at reality. To list a few: Francis Bacon’s
hunchbacked owls, more fang than feather; Alison Watt’s sexy abstract
‘fabric portraits’; Tony Bevan’s portrait of an ageing
punk, Tender Possessions (1986), slumped like a drowsy tigress in an orange
coat and sooty face paint; the fat-bottomed young girl of Paula Rego’s
Snare (1987), mounting her dog in a sinister playroom romp; Caroline Walker’s
strange interiors; and finally, Jock MacFayden’s Tate Moss (2010),
an abandoned warehouse as richly stocked in moss and mould as the real
Tate is in masterworks.
British grit and wit are present in good measure, and the memorable images
of distant social decay stand out against present day political dreams
of ‘smart cities’ and retrofitted urban architecture. All
senses of reality need reminiscence. They need the kind of social memory
that is pieced together in this thought-provoking and often funny exhibition.