Reality: Modern and Contemporary British Painting

'Consulting the Oracle' (2013), Caroline Walker (Detail). © Caroline WalkerWalker Art Gallery, Liverpool
10th July to 29th November 2015
Free entry

Reviewed by Ashley McGovern

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 living conditions.

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 works.

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.

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