Mixing ceramic sculpture and work described as ‘hand tufted wall hangings’, Caroline Achaintre’s work now occupies the space in the De La Warr just next to the coffee queue. I think they call it gallery two but I’m usually rushing by for a caffeine fix and in too much of a hurry to read the signs. I think it says how much I liked the display by Achaintre that I not only stopped but I paused, took in and inwardly digested too. I left having forgotten to get a coffee.
Taking its cue from modern art responses to non-Westerm cultures, Achaintre’s work unashamedly draws heavily from the well of what might be called primitivism. We’re conjuring emotional connections here, not attempting to represent the world as is. The entry notes talk of face masks and carnivale; I saw those but also monsters, fears and friends. I’d love to see what could be done by casting shadows with these pieces. Others may see nothing at all and want to storm by for their coffee and sea view. For those who stay, there’s also a nice audio featuring young people’s responses to the work.
“I thought it was tomorrow”, the voice on More Radio said as the car splashed through another puddle. She meant the summer solstice and the official first day of summer which is, apparently, today and not, as it appears we were both taught at school, tomorrow. The rain continued to fall hard regardless.
This is Bexhill. It was very wet in Bexhill. It was so wet that a group of European students who had walked along the seafront were taking refuge in the De La Warr Pavilion and using the dryers in the toilets in a forlorn attempt to return their clothes to wearable. At least they seemed to be enjoying themselves. What with jokes about the weather and then forming an orderly queue they’re well on their way to passing any current or future British citizenship test.
This is a hard exhibition to write about. This isn’t because the works are poor or the curation substandard but because the people who have created the art on display may not consider themselves artists, and their understanding of their ‘work’ may differ radically from that held by the viewer. The makers, as the exhibition calls them, are people with neurological impairments and they have been supported in creating the pieces for this exhibition by Project Artworks who are based in Hastings. The result is a show of quite striking originality, one in which not only the art but also the way of thinking about the creating, viewing and purpose of art lingers long after you’ve left.
One of those featured is Albert Geere. Geere has been a resident of institutions for 80 years. The pieces shown here are vibrant, colourful; they play with simplistic lines and stark shapes. They make you smile. They all feature buildings. Block buildings, as if by a child, with little else to be seen. The art and his story can be separate but once they are entwined new ways of seeing and engaging become possible.
Others also use colour. For example, Michelle Roberts whose work is in the end room covers the canvas with shapes, animals and objects. They are all brightly rendered and come across almost like a technicolour reimagining of the earliest cave art.
Alongside this there are mighty abstracts which fizz and zing. The energy of their creation seemingly still alive now. These are paired with more considered, smaller scale drawings. The range is phenomenal, the standard uniformly high.
There are two video installations. One shows four members of the programme visiting a church on Romney Marsh that functions without electricity. The other, more interesting, shows the makers themselves at work. It is, like everything else, compelling and leaves questions about art and purpose hanging.
New works are being created throughout the run of the show. I was unfortunate enough to be there on a day where nothing was happening. I will be going back though. This is an exhibition with few equals. It deserves, and needs, to be seen.
Magnum is possibly the only photographic agency that anybody not particularly interested in photography stands an outside chance of having heard about. Formed in 1947 and focusing primarily on the human interest side of reportage and documentary its pre-digital archive has 68,000 prints covering the span from its foundation to the internet. From that vast collection three people have been asked to select images that bring out specific areas of interest. The result is this excellent exhibition at the constantly engaging De La Warr Pavilion.
Elizabeth Edwards (historian and anthropologist according to the notes) is the only one to clearly itemise her selection. We get ‘Viewpoints’, ‘Anxieties and Pleasures’, ‘Watching’ and ‘Absorption’. The distinctions are a little arbitrary and some prints could clearly be in any of the four sections. What Edwards does well is show how human passions cross the class divides of post-war Britain. That Magnum way of capturing individual and collective emotions really does come through strongly in this opening third.
The next section has been chosen by photographer Hannah Starkey. The opening image is a self portrait by Eve Arnold. Already this feels different. Arnold’s shot is not reportage in the way that what has gone before is. It is a hidden moment revealed by photography. And that, in some way, is Starkey’s motivation. She uses the archive to show a narrative of women’s era. It is a very engaging selection and perhaps the one out of the three that would reward multiple viewings.
The final portion is curated by artist Uriel Orlow. His concern is the people on the margins – best summed up by possibly the most striking image in the whole exhibition: Philip Jenes Griffiths’ shot of marines landing on a beach in Vietnam – immediately in front of three local young women who watch with various levels of interest whilst they sunbathe. Again, the standard is high, and the images beautiful in their documentary black and white way.
All in all this is a very smart way of enabling what could be a tired archive – Oh look, dear, it’s another Chris Steele-Perkins shot, I wonder if it’s Blackpool beach again – to be seen again with fresh eyes. It is revelatory. And at the bargain price of completely free it is well worth a diversion to Bexhill to see.
The hundredth anniversary is bringing forward a fair amount of memorial for the first world war. Ranging from idiot politicians saying we should celebrate how clever the Brits were in fighting a just war against fascism 25 years early to more sober reflection on both sides of the ‘was it worth it’ divide there has also been an increase in ‘new’ documentary footage – in particular the photographs taken by the soldiers themselves have come to a kind of prominence.
BBC Four ran a Hidden Histories telling the story in a general way of the men who carried cameras (often officers as even new ‘budget’ cameras and film were not cheap) and now at the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill is a small, but revealing, selection of images taken by Dr Fred Davidson (some of whose photos were in that documentary I believe).
Davidson had been in the Royal Medical Corps since 1912 so he didn’t sign up in a flush of patriotism in 1914. He did his photographing in the period before the army cracked down properly on cameras and illicit photography. The selection on display covers many aspects of the war: posing for the camera, digging in in anticipation of an attack, the aftermath of a bombing and recovering after being injured. The final shot is poignant in a good way: that lovely looking nurse is the future Mrs Davidson. Their grandson is the author who has collated the images for a book and this exhibition.
My younger son was with me as I looked over the photos. He was a bit quiet and one photo in particular troubled him: a French town street with its windows blown out and buildings left in ruins. “Why did they do that?” he asked. A hard question to answer in a way that a five year old will appreciate and obviously the other photos provide no help – but they do show that whether or not one comes down to believing the war could ever be worth the cost these were real men with real lives. It may be wearisome to hear it again but it’s important that these up-close and personal records keep their place in the mind’s eye whenever we hear politicians far from any front line talking about how we should celebrate, or remember, our war dead.
Welcome to Britain. Welcome to painting. The wind whipped across south coast but within Bexhill’s monument to modernism all was calm allowing the reflection to enjoy this charmingly eccentric selection of works showcasing the variety of modern painting.
The 21 artists featured are all living and working in Britain right now although there are no doubt many names missing. I’ve just read a Financial Times review which laments that the curators have focused on the second division. But that phrase does this survey disservice and not least because in the generations covered by the show all sports have moved away from having second divisions – it’s all Championships beneath Premierships now. At least there is nothing here that would belong in League Three.
The picture that entices you in is Adrian Wiszniewski’s The First Anachronism of the Day. The vibrancy and vitality of the colours are almost obscene in how they get your attention. And it’s that which sets the tone. Colour and tone jostle with more considered works – representation has a tussle with abstraction. The range of ideas is boggling given that we are talking about one modest gallery space here.
On the far well there is Sophie van Hellermann’s Field Day. That would be my take home piece. It almost feels like there are too many thoughts trying to be expressed. But to my eye it comes together beautifully.
Throughout, this doesn’t feel like the kind of art that’s going to win Turner Prizes or start a revolution but nor is it Keep Calm and Look at a Biscuit Tin. Something in between then: a dynamic look at how a centuries-old tradition is finding meaning and purpose. And it is fun to see.
(As an aside, a thank you to the staff at the Pavilion who were very welcoming to a windswept dad with his two young children – it was their first visit to an art gallery and everybody was very cheery and helpful.)