Art Exhibition by Andy Smith
3rd – 12th November 2017
The Arts Hub, 47 Lark Lane, Liverpool L17 8UW
THE SUMS OF LIGHT – Who cares? WE DO!
A review written by Minnie Stacey
Last Friday saw the launch of Andy Smith’s excellent exhibition at the Arts Hub on Liverpool’s Lark Lane. Artworks adorned the walls of two small upstairs rooms packed with people for his exhibition entitled ‘People Are People’. We were all peering at paintings inspired by the artist’s memories of the community he grew up around and socialised with, in inner-city London. This is working class culture, stark with faces staring back at us or looking to the side, including rows of families – representations of genuine cultural icons living in the headlights of capitalism, in the brightness and inferno of its gloom.
The man himself was busy greeting people with friendly warmth. He took me and my fellah over to the snacks table, offered us food, poured us a drink, then answered my questions about the first painting I stood in front of. Possibly the brightest painting in the room, it was a light grey-washed chequered design with pink and blue. Andy explained that it showed a block of flats and the pick-and-mix of people who live in them. He’d sprayed colours over net curtain to effect a murkiness, then went on with acrylic paint. In the squares there were lips, bum cheeks, a football, someone in the stairwell, a swastika, the letters NF, bits of glass – one with an eye in, musical notes and cage bars (or were they the columns of the fall of Rome?). An overall impression it gave me was the thick glug of a shiny surface, with life, and some of its ugliness, inside.
Across on the other wall there were character portraits with a surrealist edge. There was a black, red and white one of a man with curly vinyl records for hair. He’s conducting sounds coming from his record player as a garish-faced, musical-box type ballerina – stiff as a solid cloud of smoke – is caught in a twirl above it. What looked like a wooden stick for a white baton is stuck onto the painting. In another, a DJ looms large over a city skyline in a pastel wash with an over-sized, sketchy hand set gracefully in the act of spinning discs in the foreground.
Parts of the exhibition reminded me of Tate Gallery’s recent showing of Otto Dix paintings. Andy too had captured some seediness: a brothel ghost lurking near despondent female faces, with a big fat reefer below about to set fire to miniature Van Goch sunflowers. Further portraits featured prostitutes, pimps, and madness levelled to PTSD in a system of financial war. The Publicity picture is called ‘Dark Chamber – peeping through the window of psychosis’. Blue eyeshadow and red lipstick on a strained and lined facial expression caught in a clamour of purple haze, is choked with darkness. The piece has a bumpy coal-like surface – it’s intense, and scratched words are etched onto its black cloud: ‘isolated’, ‘medication’. There’s glass covering this artwork with a pot-shot hole cracked like a spider’s web, making us wonder whether this is paranoia or trauma with real, underlying, societal causes?
Andy Smith’s works make you think as well as look. A big grey pyramid with its top cut out of the frame and steps leading to it, could symbolise unreached needs at the top of Maslow’s hierarchy – access isn’t on offer because that’s for the privileged only and pyramids are constructed by slaves. In the picture, an empty wheelchair lies behind cut prison-camp mesh and an escaped couple dance sweetly on a stage in a gloomy, greyed atmosphere. Odd audience members sit to the side and seats lie empty in the auditorium ahead. It made me think of the stage-play and film ‘They Shoot Horses Don’t They?’, which was virtually a 1930s depression era Hunger Games.
In ‘Subway’ a couple stretched out on the brightly-lit coloured stripes of deck chairs could be reclining on their dreams, as the white lines of a main road with its main-lining, fossil-fuelled traffic drives over them above and light is scarce below. Another piece was thickly painted with a seagull literally built out from what seems to be a landfill scape, and throwaway white plastic people littered below who could be morphed from hardened toothpaste.
Paintings have buttons, ciggies, hairclips, pretty fabric and pictures stuck onto them. Some eyes are popping out at us. ‘The Maverick’ is a female face with built-up eyes and includes a plastic comb. There’s a man with tower blocks coming out of his head, like sick, breeze-blocked steroids. ‘Strong Women’ is a collage against another tower block with a ripe, eggy-orange sun shaped like a plum, perhaps suggesting fertility – the birth they’ve given. In another work two older women friends are all-knowing, inky lines, almost Apache-like in their weather-beaten appearance. Emotive lines are written above some of the artworks: ‘There’s beauty in decay/or so it’s said’, and forgotten towns are ‘tattooed on the landscape in Indian ink’.
The standout piece is Andy’s tribute to the Grenfell Tower community. It depicts multi-cultural rows of families on a tower block with cut-out paper flames coming up from the top. The artist was telling gallery viewers about the work and pointing out the mix of families on the surface. There are words for Grenfell too: ‘People Are People’ in a building ‘with casualties high enough to match its structure’. ‘Gut-wrenching’ was someone’s reaction, and I could hear two guys in the room with London accents speaking of their experience in actually watching the towers horribly ablaze on that dreadful night. What struck me most about this piece was the tiny detail of a woman’s lips painted with red glitter and parted as if she was full of glowing charcoal, a powerful evocation of people on fire, cruelly burned on the back of craven greed.
Andy’s work is powerful stuff, it’s about human nature. The pieces have stories to be gleaned. This is intense art where people often simmer in the sticky gloaming of urbanity – gluey characters dead and alive, creative in a blocked, concrete system. I could hear Andy talking about his paintings to people in the room – he pointed at one face on one of his tower block pieces: ‘She liked to know what was going on,’ he smiled.
Politics, sadness, family bonds, buried human potential – it’s all here. But so too is a celebration of life and the subtext of the change in direction that must come. Andy’s tower blocks are big batteries bursting with people-power. This is an exhibition about and for people, and the paintings are affordable. Like the note on the wall in the room says: ‘Prices don’t reflect the work that’s gone into them.’ Smith’s art is socially real, iconic with characters from the community. It’s gritty, also sometimes glowing with burnish and flickering with gold. The artworks are incendiary, detailed, dulled and brilliant. Don’t miss them!