Category: Art

True to form: Exploring Somewhat Abstract at Nottingham Contemporary

Bridget Riley's Movement in Squares (1961).

Bridget Riley’s Movement in Squares.

Characterised by a departure from straightforward representations of reality and with an emphasis on formal attributes such as shapes, colour and dimensions, abstraction has arguably been the most dominant force in the art world for more than a century.

But of course there are varying degrees of abstraction and this idea is examined in Somewhat Abstract, an exhibition which opened at Nottingham Contemporary earlier this month. Drawn from the Art Council’s extensive collection, and spanning a period of 70 years, it showcases works by both modern masters such as Bridget Riley, Yoko Ono, Francis Bacon, Frank Auerbach and Gilbert and George, along with less well-known artists.

Chilldren's Games, Heygate Estate.

Chilldren’s Games, Heygate Estate.

For me, the highlight of this exhibition was a series of artworks displayed in Gallery 1. Walk into the room and you are soon greeted by Bridget Riley’s 1962 painting, Movement in Squares in which she creates an optical illusion of movement using her trademark black and white geometric shapes. But there is the suggestion of something more sinister; the painting is followed by a number of pieces which examine post-War housing, including Mark Lewis’ 2002 film, Children’s Games, Heygate [a now demolished 1970s housing estate in the Elephant and Castle area of London]. In this piece, a camera glides almost hypnotically along the walkways and we see children playing against the backdrop of this concrete ghetto. The juxtaposition shows how the ideals of modernist art and functionalism, where architects designed ‘walkways in the skies’ to connect inhabitants living together harmoniously in perfectly planned communities, were never realised. Instead, the walkways, coupled with a lack of aesthetic beauty, created fractured communities which were blighted by crime and isolation: a far cry from the original utopian ideals.

Another remarkable piece in this exhibition is undoubtedly Francis Bacon’s Head VI. With echoes of Munch’s The Scream, the painting depicts a pope trapped inside a box with an agonised look on his face, evoking a sense of claustrophobia and entrapment. Yet while he is acutely aware of his circumstances, the children on the Heygate estate play on, seemingly unaware of their confinement inside this modern ghetto created by those in a position of power.

Somewhat Abstract is on at Nottingham Contemporary until 29th June. Entry is FREE. For further details, including information on talks, tours and other events, visit the website

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Powerful figures: Geoffrey Farmer’s Let’s Make the Water Turn Black at Nottingham Contemporary

geoff2Walking into a gallery filled with classical sculptures can be somewhat unnerving. Forms that suggest strength and power stand static while the cold, white marble is strangely death-like.

As with Frankenstein’s monster, it is easy to imagine a bolt of electricity reanimating these frozen figures. It’s an idea that played on my mind when I went to see Canadian sculptor Geoffrey Farmer’s latest installation, Let’s Make the Water Turn Black, which opened at Nottingham Contemporary earlier this month.

Inside, the figures that greet you are indeed white and motionless. Created from salvaged objects and old movie props, some playfully reference traditional sculpture. One even has the muscular limbs and noble face typical of the art form but it has been deconstructed: its body is made up of a mechanical-looking frame, a horn has been placed in its ear and a carrot has been stuffed into its mouth. Seemingly disparate, the sculptures spring to life as different coloured lights flash across them, animating even the cabbages that appear to grow from the solid, white gallery floor. Other characters, created with mop hair and light bulbs for eyes, suddenly come alive in a way that is both playful and sinister.

As well as the transformative lighting, a soundtrack made up of field recordings and Foley sounds perpetually changes the mood in the gallery and abstract electronic soundscapes contrast with the cheerful, half-remembered 1940s radio ditties.

The exhibition takes its name from Frank Zappa’s 1968 song Let’s Make the Water Turn Black which follows the story of pair of young brothers who lock themselves up in the garage and amuse themselves with all sorts of revolting games. The childish humour shifts to something darker as we learn that one of the brothers is in the army while the other is ‘taking pills’. During a recent visit to the Contemporary, Farmer said that he was interested in 1960s LA and his installation perfectly captures the dichotomy of this era (free love and peace versus war, drug casualties and the horrors of Altamont and the Charles Manson murders).

Let’s Make the Water Turn Black runs until 5th January. For details on the exhibition, and the events that have been organised around it, visit the Contemporary’s website.

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Review: Charlie Phillips captures a forgotten Notting Hill

Jamaican-born photographer Charlie Phillips, whose Urban Eye exhibition is currently showing at the New Art Exchange in Hyson Green, worked as a paparazzo for many years and lived by the code ‘shoot now, ask questions later’. His naturalistic portraits depict people going about their daily lives, occasionally stopping to peer into the onlooker’s camera.

Phillips captures life in post-war Notting Hill when immigrants from around the Commonwealth arrived in Britain hoping to make a new life for themselves. The Notting Hill they inhabited is a world away from the gentrified version we know today. Here, buildings stood in ruins and the bleak, urban landscape was one that was all too familiar in a city that was still feeling the effects of Hitler’s Blitzkrieg.

The newly-arrived immigrants injected a sense of vitality into war-battered, monochrome Britain. In Crowd Scene, Notting Hill Carnival, Phillips captures the moment when people of all backgrounds get together for a joyous celebration while in Kebab Shop Dandy, a gentleman dons his finest clothes and poses outside a rough-and-ready looking takeaway. There were the places where different communities would all congregate, notably the ‘Piss House Pub’ which Phillips says was ‘a meeting place for different working class people, both black and white, Caribbean and Irish’.

It is impossible to separate Phillips’ highly personal portraits from the socio-political movements taking place in London at this time. In Notting Hill Couple (pictured above), a young black man and a young white woman stare directly into the camera and their defiance is startling, reminding us that not so long ago a relationship like this would have been out of the ordinary. In this community, racism – both casual and institutional – simmered away and when coupled with the grinding poverty faced by many people, it proved to be the catalyst which led to the eruption of the notorious riots of 1958.

Charlie Phillips: The Urban Eye runs until 7th July.

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The Lives of Others at Derby’s Format Photography Festival

By David Welch

At home I’ve got an old, disposable camera which I have never had developed. It dates back to my student days and no doubt it would make me cringe if I ever discovered what was on it. The pictures are probably as far removed from art as it is possible to be – and yet they mark a distinct point in time and an insight into an ordinary life.

I was reminded of this camera when I read about the work of Thomas Sauvin, who is just one of the photographers whose work will be exhibited at next month’s FORMAT International Photography Festival in Derby.

As befits a former industrial city like Derby, the theme of this year’s festival is Factory: Mass Production and it’s an idea that resonates in the age of digital photography.

Sauvin, who is French but lives in Beijing, explores the fascination we have with other people’s photographs in his exhibition Beijing Silvermine. He has collected thousands of negatives which shed light on the lives of Beijing residents in the years after the Cultural Revolution up to 2005. These images not only document the sometimes quirky but often uneventful lives of people they also give us an insight into the massive socio-economic changes that have taken place in China during this period.

In a similar vein, Notes Home is a collection of postcards which have been sent by factory workers from holiday destinations like Skegness and Morecombe. The technicolour images of the British seaside recall impossibly hot summers of ice-creams and fun, while the messages on the back give us a glimpse into the lives of ordinary people.

Reflecting the festival’s theme of mass production is David Welch’s Material World which asks us to think about our compulsive desire to consume. One of his pictures depicts a huge tower of cardboard boxes balanced precariously in a shopping trolley. Online companies like Amazon make it easy to buy almost anything with the click of a button – but perhaps seeing those boxes piled high might make us think twice about how wasteful it can be.

The festival opens on 8th March and runs until 7th Aprill. The exhibitions take place in a host of venues across the city, including the Quad, Derby University and Derby Museum and Art Gallery.

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Celebrating the elaborate costume of China’s Miao community

miaoNottingham’s Chinese New Year celebrations got underway earlier this month with a dazzling display of textiles at Lakeside Arts Centre.

The exhibition, which is curated by Xuesen Zeng, is an homage to the embroidery of the Miao community, who live in south-western China.

The Miao people, who are cut off by the mountains, have no written language so they use highly elaborate garments as a way of identifying their heritage and beliefs. As you might expect, the ceremonial costumes are particularly impressive, for example the wedding and festival dresses are made up of many layers and ornate silver jewellery.

Like many artisan techniques, China’s rapid industrialisation could signal a decline in Miao craftsmanship. Increasingly, people are now working long hours and do not have the time to hand stitch these beautiful clothes. Moreover, if members of the younger generation do not learn these embroidery skills, they could be lost forever.

The exhibition, which is in the Wallner Gallery, runs until 10th February. Entry is free. For more details on the Chinese New Year celebrations in Nottingham visit the Lakeside Arts Centre website.

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Review: I Is AnOther at New Art Exchange in Nottingham

How do you define Jamaica’s cultural impact on the rest of the world? Its music, of course, has been hugely influential, along with its food. But the small island’s contribution to fine art is rarely considered; it is simply not on the radar of many western critics. This is despite the fact that artists, both those living in Jamaica and those who have moved to other parts of the world, are creating a rich body of works which reflect its post-colonial identity.

In the year Jamaica celebrates 50 years of independence from British rule, Nottingham’s New Art Exchange celebrates some fine examples of the country’s art in the second part of an exhibition called I Is AnOther, which has been curated by Rachael Barrett and which runs until Saturday.

The life of a Jamaican immigrant living in Birmingham is vividly portrayed in a series of paintings by Hurvin Anderson. In Peters 2, he uses primary colours to depict a barber shop. In the 1950s many newly arrived Jamaicans set up these shops in attics as a way to make extra money and meet other people from their community. But the image Anderson creates is remarkably devoid of people; instead he concentrates on the space itself which perhaps reflects the community’s attempts to create an identity in a place that would be out of sight when stood on the street.

In Chicken Wire, part of the Country Club series, Anderson portrays a tennis court from behind a wire fence in Trinidad. The straight lines of the fence cut across the angles of the tennis court with the viewer placed firmly on the outside, hinting that this aspect of Caribbean life, which is aimed at tourists, is something outside his own experience.

Western art collides with Jamaican art quite literally in The Afflicted Yard. Strewn among the debris of filthy rum bottles and old televisions is a piece of wall bearing a stencil painting, Balloon Girl, which was created by Banksy when he visited the island.

In a bizarre series of events, Peter Dean Rikards – the artist behind The Afflicted Yard project – decides to unmask Banksy. He also persuades a group of people to remove the slab of wall with the picture on it, telling them that white people will pay a lot of money for it. The fact that they have not heard of Banksy somehow renders his art useless; they are ripping it apart because they have been told it is worth a lot of money not because it has any aesthetic value for them. However, this also hints at the fact that money is also the dominating force in the commercial art world.

In Packaged Rites, Ebony G. Patterson remembers the 73 people from the poverty-stricken Tivoli Gardens community in Kingston who were killed by the police and army. Printed on bright, bandana-like fabric, the faces of the dead are obscured by scarves. These people have no identity yet they have been immortalised on highly individual pieces of fabric. It is significant too that Patterson uses textiles – a traditional folk medium and something that is wrongly considered to be inferior to ‘high art’.

Picture above shows Packaged Rites by Ebony G. Patterson (From New Art Exchange website)

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Evening of entertainment by students from Nottingham University

Students from Nottingham University’s many arts societies gathered on Friday evening for a one-off event of dance, art, music, comedy and entertainment.

Along with an exhibition featuring arts and crafts by student artists and members of the community, there were performances from a diverse cross-section of the university’s arts community. Some of the highlights for me was a glorious introduction to improvisational comedy from members of Improv (these guys could give some of the comedians on Radio 4 a run for their money), along with the live music from the very charismatic Cheshire Cat.

The idea behind the event was to link up members of different arts organisations so that they could pool their skills on future productions. It also aimed to raise the profile of the university’s theatre company New Theatre as well as being a fundraiser for its upcoming production of George Orwell’s 1984, which opens on Wednesday.

Organiser and third year student Martha Wilson, from New Theatre, said: “We felt that the theatre can be a bit exclusive so we wanted to introduce people from different arts societies and get them talking to each other. It’s a good meeting point and I’m happy that we have so many people here tonight.”

1984 is directed by Bridie Rollins and it is produced by Martha Wilson. For tickets see the website.

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Rebel without a Cause: Exploring Arthur Seaton’s Nottingham at Lakeside Arts Centre

There’s something about Arthur Seaton, the rebellious anti-hero of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, that has endured through the decades. Sat at his lathe in Radford’s Raleigh bike factory, he counted down the hours until it was the weekend, working hard only to ensure he had plenty of cash to spend on booze and smart Teddy Boy clothes.

Nottingham, like many other industrial cities in the 1950s, was on the brink of a seismic social change. Following the austerity of the war years, there was a surge in demand for consumer goods (like bikes) and teenagers leaving school with no qualifications could look forward secure employment with Raleigh or the nearby Player’s cigarette factory – something that would be almost impossible for a young person today.

It was also the decade when the first signs of a youth culture were beginning to emerge. Arthur did not want to settle down to start a family at his age and he describes his own parents as ‘dead from the neck up’. He wants to dance, drink and have affairs with married women rather than take on responsibility.

Arthur’s world is explored in a new photographic exhibition which opened at Nottingham University’s Lakeside Arts Centre at the weekend. This thoughtfully curated exhibition combines commercial photography with journalism and social commentary as well as stills from Karel Reisz’s film adaptation of Sillitoe’s novel, much of which was shot in Nottingham.

We are given a glimpse into what life was like in the Raleigh factory, along with recorded personal testimonies from the people who worked there. The long, tedious hours spent at the machine were punctuated by raucous nights in the pub, day trips to Skegness organised by the company and the excitement of the annual Goose Fair.

During the 1950s, Nottingham’s hard-drinking culture attracted national attention – just like it does today. Two journalists from the Daily Herald were asked by their editor to visit Nottingham and find out about the nightlife that inspired Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and some of their photographs form part of this exhibition.

Neither the book nor the film makes any attempt to sentimentalise working class life in urban Nottingham. The warren-like slums of St Ann’s, Radford and Lenton were over-crowded and rife with gossip. Towards the end of this exhibition there are images depicting these houses being cleared to make way for new developments outside the city, notably the Clifton estate and were seen by many, including the residents, as heralding a new era of clean housing with indoor bathrooms and large, open spaces.

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, which is free, runs until 10th February. For details, including opening times, see the website.

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Sherwood Art week opens on Saturday

The annual Sherwood Art Week opens on Saturday when shops and businesses will be giving artists from the area the chance to showcase their work.

During the week, the shop windows on Mansfield Road will come alive with paintings, ceramics, textiles, photographs and much more.

Anita Wakefield, who is chair of the SAW organising group, said: “There are 90 artists involved this year. There is such a creative buzz in Sherwood and it is wonderful to have the opportunity to bring the community together through exhibitions, workshops, art in the shops and the Secret Garden Craft Fair. Everyone involved, from the organisers to the artists offering workshops, is volunteering, which really demonstrates the creative energy and vibrancy of Sherwood.”

Some of the highlights include:

Saturday: Art Marquee at Sherwood Festival at Woodthorpe Park from noon until 6pm.

Monday – Friday: Have a Go Workshops from 10am until noon; 1pm – 3pm.

Friday – Sunday: Exhibitions in community venues.

Saturday: The Secret Garden Craft Fair at the United Reformed Church on Edwards Lane. There will be more than 40 stalls, food, music, kids’ area and exhibitions. It takes place between 11am and 6pm.

There will be an information stall at Room Full of Butterflies on Mansfield Road throughout the week for more details.


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Review: Mika Rottenberg at Nottingham Contemporary

The first thing that struck me when I visited Nottingham Contemporary on a rainy Bank Holiday Monday was the sound of violent sneezes. It was not a member of the public suffering from hay fever – but rather a short film entitled Sneeze, a comical piece in which reddened noses shoot out cuts of meat and a live rabbit.

It was a light-hearted introduction to artist Mika Rottenberg’s exhibition at the Contemporary. Rhyming pleasingly with her other works (Cheese, Squeeze, Tropical Breeze and Mary’s Cherries), it foregrounded the human body and its functions while also raising a wry smile.

Around the corner is Squeeze, a 20-minute long film which sees women from around the world engaged in menial tasks. A dream-like landscape gives way to documentary film footage of Chinese women massaging the hands of Mexican workers harvesting lettuces and a woman being squeezed until she becomes so pink she can dust the colour off to make blusher.

The clunking sounds and repetitive nature of the women’s work reminded me of the mechanical processes in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. In Rottenberg’s film, the end product is not as significant as the process: the blusher disappears down a hole while the lettuce is mashed to a pulp. The piece alludes to the Marxist idea that identity is bound up in the ‘means of production’, although Rottenberg says it is in the poetic sense rather than the political. In this way she also hints at the similarity between mass production and creating artwork. Human identity is infused in everything they produce, no matter how throwaway the product is. But unlike art, these products will not normally be put on display in a gallery and there is a sense in which the product, and by extension, the person who made it is lost.

These themes are echoed in Dough, a short film set in a strange factory in which women use their bodies to create a strange, flesh-like dough. Again, the end product is not important; it’s the part each person plays on the assembly line. Bodies take on the role of machines once again echoing the idea that products are inseparable from their makers.

This all makes a claustrophobic world where the work is tough and without rewards; however it stands in contrast to another short film, Tropical Breeze in which a female body builder delivers boxes of fruit juice while drinking it herself. She then wipes her lemon-infused perspiration onto tissues which are marketed as ‘lemon-scented moist tissue’. There is a sense of real power here not only in the physical form of the body builder and her acrobatic colleague but also in the way she is able to consume and manufacture products, putting her firmly in control of the process.

Alongside Rottenberg’s exhibition is a gallery devoted to the satirical cartoons of James Gillray (1756 – 1815) which are on loan from the V&A. Pompous, puffed up politicians, European relations and the scandals that permeated both high and low society will certainly resonate with modern audiences – and his deft sketches are delightfully comic.

The two exhibitions, which are free, run until 1st July.

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