No better way to start 2014 than a little trip down south and despite appearances this isn’t Barcelona or Venice but dear old Margate. Somehow whilst the west of Britain was being battered by severe storms we enjoyed some bright sunshine though the coat gives away the fact of the cold wind. Nonetheless Turner Contemporary beckoned, though the Turner/Constable show was a little disappointing…relatively few works by the two of them and, despite the presence of Girtin, Crome and Towne amongst others, a bit of an academic exercise rather than a satisfying exhibition. The Dorothy Cross show was more engaging though again overall it seemed a tad ‘bitty’. Still lunch overlooking the sunlit harbour was pretty good! Onwards south to Dungeness…both myself and Sarah have always had a hankering to visit the place and especially to take a peek at Derek Jarman’s cottage.
Neither disappointed…though again we were blessed with some absolutely dramatic light conditions that showed off this extraordinary landscape to great effect. Of course the photos of Prospect Cottage usually show it in splendid isolation – its not quite like that in the flesh. Though the opposite side of the road is a barren and strange vista.
Further down the road the weirdness of Dungeness is racketed up by the presence of the nuclear power station…and the very tip is wild and windy in the extreme. Or so it seemed as the afternoon light took on an even more foreboding aspect…
All this on the first of our two days away…and I hadn’t yet got to either of the shows that had been my pretext for this trip…
The English seaside pretty much is a busted flush as far as economic buoyancy is concerned…and that was the case even before the current ‘triple dip’ (I know technically it isn’t so but I like the sound of it and anyway it may as well be so far as the naked eye can detect…). And this weird and shabby ambience is especially evident is a place like Ramsgate. Not that on a good day it doesn’t have charm…Tuesday last was one such day (see above). It was second stop on our trip, just for a few minutes to stretch our legs and say we’d been there. Nowadays it’s one pretty much on its own in terms of the ‘South Coast Art Offer’, Margate has Turner Contemporary – sadly it seems Ramsgate never got a ‘big name’ – and then going round the bottom comes Towner in Eastbourne, De La Warr in Bexhill and Jerwood in Hastings.
Mixed feelings really about Turner Contemporary…there’s no denying the attractiveness of the location at the end of the wide and rather handsome bay that once made Margate the premier (indeed the first) Seaside town. And the architecture acts as an effective punctuation to the existing buildings that cluster around the base of the breakwater. The entrance and the cafe, especially on a sunny day, reflect the water appropriately and the interior spaces show both respect for location and views whilst also providing good interior spaces for contemporary work.
Inside the shows were something of a mixed bag…with the main gallery space devoted to a modest selection of Carl Andre’s work in the form of a mini retrospective. It is amusing to think that back in the day he created such controversy and indeed outrage (duly documented here). Now his work seems refined and polite and ever so slightly obvious. Those cedar block pieces still look handsome enough and ‘fit’ into the historical narrative whilst the floor pieces are pretty much well crafted exemplars of material display. Perhaps more challenging are the text works, part visual art, part concrete poetry, that seem more in tune with recent art practice being more romantic and quixotic than the classical physical work. To my mind the show was a fair romp through his output but a wee bit too cool and self satisfied to be a real treat…and I could have lived without the guff quote from Andre (see it here) that provided the seemingly obligatory nod to the Turner connection. In the other gallery the ‘lets make this connect to Turner’ trope really got going…a set of Turner’s ‘Powerpoint’ slides (my friend Simon’s rather witty assessment of the sheets of drawings and sketches that he used to illustrate his RA lectures) were displayed to counterpoint Italo-German artist Rosa Barba’s exhibition where they were “connecting Barba’s exploration of different viewing positions with Turner’s much earlier investigations”. Her show was an occasionally (very occasionally) fun run around current art student preoccupations with analogue film…I’d go on but read this if you can bear it.
What the Gallery lacked, especially as a genuine regeneration visitor attraction, was any address to either Turner properly or to art of the kind that will bring in regular and repeat visits. In an apologetic aside (on the ground floor next to the loos) were three rather nice twentieth century paintings related to (broadly) the location – a Jeffrey Camp, a lovely Ivon Hitchens (are there any other kind) and an artist not previously known to me Thelma Hulbert. More like these would bring in the punters!
Oh and where does Raymond Baxter, he of the BBC,motor racing correspondent and latterly Tomorrow’s World presenter, fit into all this…would you believe he was Carl Andre’s Uncle…go figure?!
For some years now my friend Simon and myself have taken the occasional ‘boys cultural trip’. We get about the UK on a regular basis visiting venues within the day’s drive time but just once in a while we’ve taken off for a couple days to get further afield. This week we did our most ambitious yet…the South Coast and over the Channel to mainland Europe in the form of Brugge and Oostende. We had intended to wheel down to Lens to visit the new Louvre extension but hadn’t bargained for the French closing their premier NE cultural attraction on a Bank Holiday!
No matter – a combination of nifty footwork and luck (we accidentally chose the best weather days of the year to date) saw us spend day two in Belgium (Bank Holiday but the Museum’s all open!) rather than France. Either side of that we took in Turner Contemporary at Margate on Day One and the De La Warr Pavilion (see above) and the Jerwood Collection in Hastings on Day Three. Taken together with the Mu Zee in Oostende these venues provide an excellent ‘compare and contrast’ as regards the cultural offer at the seaside.
By far and away the smartest of these four is the newest and the shiniest – the Jerwood. It also happens to be the one private institution in the group. This confers special privileges on it in that the ‘vision’ is undiluted by outside interference and, one imagines, by budgetary restrictions rubbing up against external expectations. That’s not to say that, as I’m sure will be the case, that those running the Jerwood couldn’t use more cash but simply that the parameters are understood and shaped more effectively. And like another venue that we are rather fond of, Compton Verney, there’s a sureness of purpose running right through the place…the staff are helpful and informed and the cafe is a delight. Looking out over the fishing centre, it served up a superb seafood platter (and less one think that shouldn’t be too difficult given its location, my pal’s sausage and mash was pretty fine too…).
What of the art though? Well any gallery whose collection display opens up with a William Gear painting gets my vote. Bill Gear is one of the forgotten heroes of the modern movement in the UK…though latterly (and sadly, as so often, after his death) he’s enjoyed a bit of a revival. Here there are two pictures, both to my mind particularly interesting as they fall outside his ‘classic’ style of zig zagging lines, usually in black, contrasted against vivid patches of intense colour. The first, on paper, is a cascading parade of black flecks and marks set against more ‘trademark’ blue and yellow patches in a tachiste manner. It is boisterous and lively and full of movement. The other, shows a side of William Gear that I was personally unaware of – a form of expressive minimalism that for all the world reminded me of a Goya! If you reversed it, straightened out the line and lost the head…then you’ve an idea of the Gear…oh and introduced a red line along the diagonal… OK so maybe not then but that’s what I saw. The collection majors on figuration and abstraction of the 40’s and 50’s…other highlights include Keith Vaughan, Barns-Graham and a lovely little Craigie Aitchison. You can see the lot here. In the beautifully constructed ground floor galleries a mini retrospective of the work of William Scott was a real treat. It’s Scott’s centenary this year and there’s a large show touring that I hope to see at the Hepworth in a few weeks time so more of that in a future post I suspect. Suffice to say these two late paintings were amongst some real treats at the Jerwood.
Taking a few days out now that teaching is done to get away to the coast with my friend Simon. Our first stop yesterday was Turner Contemporary in Margate where this picture was taken…the caption was actually painted onto the wall behind the piece and the strong light reflected off of the varied tinted walls of the pavillion to rather good effect.