It’s Saturday afternoon and a trip around a couple of galleries in Newcastle. First stop was the University Gallery, Northumbria University, which has on show a selection of paintings from the Ruth Brochard Collection’s self-portrait competition. On the eve of deadline for submissions I sent a painting in to the competition but it wasn’t accepted!!! Looking around the work on show, which included additional paintings by selected artists, I can sort of see why.
Some of the painters on view I didn’t know but quite a few were established names. Might there have been a bias in selection towards those more familiar art world names, such as Maggie Hambling, Celia Paul and Marcelle Hanselaar. I don’t know. Generally I liked the work (though actually I didn’t like Maggie Hambling’s paintings that much), you couldn’t argue with the inclusion of most of the paintings in the exhibition, whether on the grounds of the painters handling of their materials or draughtsmanship or imagination. And I don’t want to sound sour do I?
After the self-portraits it was off to Baltic 39, the Baltic’s new exhibition space on High Bridge. Actually its not all the Baltic, the city council has one floor of artist’s studios and Northumbria University are involved too. What’s on show at Baltic 39 is contemporary art, the sort of stuff you find written about in Art Monthly or what it seems you have to make if you want to be a member of Axis the artists network. I liked a couple of works on show, all by young artists (one floor was students work). It seemed miles away in character from the stuff up the road at the University Gallery.
Not that the newly acquired paintings of the Brochard Collection are slight or undemanding. On the contrary Celia Paul’s winning self-portrait, suggests to me deep and scary self-esteem issues, a lingering effect of her time with Lucian Freud perhaps. I don’t expect (but could be wrong) that the work in the Brochard exhibition will be the subject soon of an article in Art Monthly. I have though just done a search on Axisweb and some of the painters included in Brochard are Axis members. Maybe I’ve misrepresented Axis and misunderstood the recent review of its membership criteria which saw removed anyone whose work was merely ‘modern’ rather than ‘contemporary’.
What’s the difference? A definition I found, although I’m not sure if its one used by Axis, is based on historical time; modern being made roughly between 1870 and 1970, contemporary from 1945 to the present. This is a pretty broad definition however. It takes no account of materials or methods used or what the artist is responding to in making a work (nature or advertising or psychoanalysis). Without any aesthetic dimension surely any work of art produced today is contemporary. Axis cannily avoids providing its own definition but its membership criteria clearly asks for work that has a ‘critical framework [which] is contemporary rather than modern’.
To be honest, I get a bit baffled by all this, particularly when I look at some of the work of painters on Axisweb that in subject matter and execution could, on the face of it, have been painted at anytime during the 20th century. Perhaps something else is going on here. On another walk around Newcastle about a month ago I noticed posters advertising an exhibition of paintings (or prints of paintings) by Rolf Harris. The posters declared Rolf to be the UK’s most popular artist. You hear this sort of hyperbole a lot in the arts. I recently heard similar sounding claims made for Lucian Freud but Freud’s painting is quite different from Rolf’s attractive, loosely impressionistic work. And I imagine Axis would have welcomed a membership application from Freud whilst rejecting one from Rolf.
John Berger wrote that the serious artist is always pushing him or herself to discover something new through their work. Anything less than that is presumably just picture making. Now I think what Rolf does is make attractive, accessible pictures; they don’t challenge us to think about anything lofty like the human condition of or what it is to be human, which is arguably what Freud can make us do. And this could quite reasonably be why in my imagined scenario Axis reject Rolf but accept Lucien. But stop 100 people in the street and show them a typical Rolf and a typical Freud and ask them which they would rather hang on their wall I bet the majority would go for Rolf.
For me the question all this rambling speculation throws up is what’s the purpose of art and on what basis do we make judgements about it and the artists who make it? Is it the popularity of the artist; the amount people will pay for the work; the accessibility or the obscurity of what the artist is trying to say. I have no idea but I do have a concern that work which seeks to be difficult (or contemporary) as a way of proving its worth risks become removed from wider society and the preserve of a moneyed elite that itself stands aloof from the rest of us. And that can’t be good, can it?