I admire the Humber Street Gallery for its policy of promoting artists who challenge the viewer even to the point of not having very much to look at. On a slightly damp and cold Tuesday afternoon in December this guarantees a solo exhibition, which is to say you can look at the whole thing without having to worry about bumping into anyone else. The location of this gallery is also a bit of a problem, situated as it is on the wrong side of the M25-style A63. Pedestrians seeking art from Hull’s Ferens Art Gallery to the Humber Street Gallery have to suffer a possible death by Nitrogen Oxide poisoning whilst waiting for the little green man to appear. A new pedestrian bridge is being constructed, which looks like an up-and-coming architect’s statement, but which I fear will become another vanity project deemed too costly to maintain in a few short years’ time. I bet people will prefer the NOx poisoning to climbing the ramps over the road. All of which has very little to do with Aniara Omann’s exhibition, but these days, given the dense impenetrability of commentary one reads about contemporary art exhibitions who knows? Who is to say that getting to the exhibition is not part of it? It’s all about relationships, between creator and receiver. If the receiver arrives in a foul mood, won’t that alter the exhibition (for them at least? Indeed, I’ve just bought a book (The Pursuit of Art by Martin Gayford) which goes into this very theme.)
In terms of commentaries, I felt this show was somewhat in desperate need of one, since there was little to actually see. Here’s a bit from the hand-out: [the artist] ‘has developed a new body of work that questions and tests our ability to conceive of futures and alternate realities. Working with objects and materials that are at once familiar and alien, the artist alludes to a radically different future, in which traces of cultural history are morphed and the boundary between the symbol and material is blurred.’
Here we have a narrative that struggles to elevate what is on show, and we find a common technique of the contemporary art pundit at play: the positing of opposites. In this short paragraph ‘futures and alternate realities’ (‘reality’ is only found in the ‘present’ or the ‘past’); we have objects and materials which at the same time can be ‘familiar’ and ‘alien’; we find that the future battles with the traces of cultural history and this is all morphed into a blurry symbolic and material something. All these opposites! Perhaps crossing the A63 is symbolic of the dialectic relationship between life and death.
So what of the exhibition? I seem to have got this far without actually considering the thing itself. I did suggest that there wasn’t much to see, and this could say more about me than it does about the exhibition. I suspect some exhibitions are meant to be transcendent, that is to say they hope to provoke thoughts (this one certainly did with our unnamed captioneer) which carry you away into the dialectical galaxy. This in other words is a post-Zen art. What do you think you are looking at? Is that a small blob of clear resin on the wall containing a small sea-shell or is it an eternally captured thought of our immanent mortality? We’re always thinking about our mortality after all, that’s the ultimate opposite: you can only think of death if you’re alive, Jesus notwithstanding.
On we go: Is that a bit of seaweed (more on this later) scattered randomly in the corners of the room? Are those bits of clothing stretched out on spindly, Bourgeois-esque legs? Is that really a large expanse of white painted wall with virtually nothing on it? Is that me looking a reflection in the lift wondering where the exhibition actually is? Questions, questions. But no answers I can think of.
Interesting local detail: the exhibition was sponsored by a new company from Scarborough that makes seaweed-based snacks. I wonder if that explains the presence of some otherwise rather superfluous strands of seaweed on the edges of the floor? Sadly the seaweed snacks, (looking later at the firm’s website) probably cannot be eaten by veggies, since they ‘could contain traces’ of crustaceans. That’s a shame, we have a fair bit of seaweed in Scarborough. It needs eating! Or maybe not!
Liverpool Biennial Tour: Place to Place, to 31st March 2019
Humber Street Gallery is carving out a reputation for showing contemporary art which in the confines of a relatively small space is curatorally at the forefront. It is just the right size to showcase stuff without being showy. It is intimate enough with the artist to be on human terms with him or her, without being subject to that grand pronouncement of revered but impenetrable curatorial greatness that larger galleries have to imbue their exhibitions with, which often end up as hell holes of vacuity and unmet expectations. We all know the feeling, we’ve all been there in white spaces populated by ephemera devoid of any interest whatsoever. Note that I could have said ‘of no interest’ but I chose to say ‘devoid of any interest whatsoever.’ A city the size of Hull I think deserves galleries like Humber Street, and it is to the credit of the City of Culture that it ever came about, but I wonder how long it will last. The footfall down Humber Street won’t be that great, and much to my sorrow the cultural part of this inner city urban regeneration project does not actually seem to be led by artists – what with the departure of the Kingston Art Group’s premises further down Humber Street – a pop-up gallery which was run by artists and now is refurbished into trendy premises. Well, property developers are no doubt interested in a ‘buzz’ from which they can extract higher rents, but they miss the point. Especially in Hull where this particular piece of regeneration could turn out to be just another ‘project’ which expires when bars can’t sell enough booze to pay the extortionate rent demanded by the rentiers. The refurbishment of Hull’s High Street is probably a case in point.
Anyway, 20th March was a lovely sunny day, and along with two other visitors I had ventured into Humber Street to see what was available. On show was the work of three women artists from respectively, South Korea, Turkey and North America (i.e. Inuk). Each reflected their vastly different cultures. The exhibition emanated from last year’s Liverpool Biennale. Liverpool is a kind of latitudinal soulmate of Hull, and the relationship and fate of the two cities, which followed greatly different fortunes couldn’t be more clearly exposed in the former’s desire to come to terms with its history. That was slavery of course. Hull still revels in Wilberforce and thanks to that man feels a moral advantage. Liverpool became rich (or more precisely certain denizens of Liverpool became rich) whilst Hull survived on whale blubber and fish and never competed in the slave trade. It’s all just an accident of geography – and that rather sums up this exhibition. What is the connection between South Korea, Turkey and what we used to call ‘Eskimos?’
On the ground floor, Suki Seokyeong Kang seems lost in what many of us would consider Japanese idioms – simple geometric forms, blinds, windows, coolness, subtlety with a bit of organic bamboo thrown in to soften the crisp, hard edges of aluminium squares and rectangles. Behind every clean metallic surface of Zen-like structures lie tell-tale signs of organic disorientation – you can have your hard-edged metallic forms, but they are tamed by what lies beneath, which is (or was) living, cellular growths oblivious to human design (even if harvested and made into mats). I liked the contrast. I like the suggestion that there is, even today, a lurking organic structure which underpins and could even disrupt the neatness of ‘smart’ living (i.e. that which is dependent on silicon chips and brain dead humans).
On floor one we meet Inci Evinva, who combines spontaneous drawings in ink with a 30’ (or so) video projection which, according to the caption shows “new approaches to seeing and listening.” Always be wary of ‘new approaches’ is my advice. Re-enactment of Heaven “explores the concept of heaven in its relation to religion, the popular imagination and government institutions and reimaging the place of women within it.” That’s a bit of a mouthful and I’m not sure you the viewer wouldn’t have picked any of that up by looking at the art as opposed to the caption. A picture, or more accurately a story of heaven has a fairly limited vocabulary, whether you read Dante or the Koran (give me Dante any day). And how does ‘government institutions’ fit in with a concept of heaven? I think the curator has run off here with his or her imagination a wee bit. In other words, the artist has presented us with a jumble, and maybe being forced to explain what is going on in her art has thrown up a few suggestions which are, well, a jumble. A jumble that is which may have a singular causation, namely the idiotic fantasies of our male dominated society. I’ll settle for that. Or maybe I won’t. Having recently had the chance of once again getting my nose up close to a Bosch (attrib), namely the Last Judgement in Bruge’s Groeninge Museum I can see similarly disparate figures floating around, tormented by their unconnectedness, which is to say Bosch most notably foresaw how despite our common shapes and sizes, Hell takes care of everybody individually. If there’s something of this in Evina’s work, I have no idea whether it has a deliberate antecedent in Bosch. But then again, perhaps all artists have an unacknowledged antecedent in The Master of Human Dystopia.
On the top floor it seems quite a different story. Annie Pootoogook – what a wonderful Inuk name – takes us into a domestic life, a domestic life I guess lived above the Arctic Circle but familiar to us in the sense that the spaces dwelt in now have four walls and all mod cons, not the image of igloos and seal blubber one normally associates with northern latitudes. Her pictures are unashamedly ‘naive’ and untutored but are direct and uncompromising. What is this life that has relatively recently been drawn into the homogenised world of consumption, a life that has borne witness to the near end of traditional culture? Now, even the polar bears scavenge the bins. But this is progress, it is the footprint of neo-liberalism in advanced form, making a consequential impact on an inconsequential culture – which is to say that the particular culture in question has no influence and no say, it is merely a recipient of forces it can’t control. Well, that’s my reading. I don’t think you’ll find Prime Minister Trudeau doing much about it.
Richie Culver: No one knows me like Dawn from the Job Centre – to 27th May 2018
What to say about outsider art? When does outsider art become insider art? Could any old crap called art just be– errr – crap? Or is anything, whatever it is . . . . hang on! Why am I asking these clichéd old questions? After all, when the Turner Prize appeared in Hull last year, the promo line was “Whatever you think of the Turner Prize, you’re right.” So now you can be right and wrong at the same time, but only if you meet somebody who has the opposite view. Then you’re both right. And wrong. Richie Culver, in the sparse, bare galleries of the Humber Street Gallery is expressing something and it matters not that he can’t paint, or perhaps he has chosen to paint this way after three years at art school. Perhaps what he is saying about working class life can only be accurately portrayed in a naive style. He certainly cranks them out. Of the 21 pieces on show, 15 were produced in 2018 alone. And the exhibition started on the 16th March. Dawn at the Job Centre might well be interested in knowing whether Richie is seriously job hunting. Given the cartoonish, 10-minute each treatment of the works perhaps this is not an issue. If the painting is shall we say not impressive in a classical sense, does the subject matter warrant attention? The title of each picture is painted as a part of the picture, often with the title of a newspaper included too. This lends an immediacy to the pictures. ‘She’s a miracle’ (2017, 152cm x 122cm, acrylic on polycell on canvas) chosen as the illustrative picture for the exhibition’s publicity leaflet certainly has a sense of movement. The dog could be a mix of whippet and staffie, but that only adds to the working class credentials of the dog, racing along under the glorious appellation of Racing Post’s ‘Dog of the Year.’ I’m not sure I’d want one of these pictures on my walls, but then I’m middle class. Perhaps this work will go down well in the home of metro elite types, keen to connect with an unvarnished reality. There, the pictures might invite dinner party guests “to look at the fleeting yet significant relationships we encounter as well as our strive for success against adversity.”
In gallery one there are three works by Tim Noble and Sue Webster, who are ‘internationally acclaimed artists’ who ‘present three light installations from their prolific back catalogue.’ Should you miss the exhibition, there’s always Hull Fair in the autumn. There you’ll find working class art par excellence.
Whilst down Humber Street, once the centre of Hull’s fruitmarket and a long neglected part of the city, you might come across a dark building which used to house exhibitions by members of the Kinsgton Art Group. They were here long before the gentrification process began – the usual story in fact, crumbling semi-derelict buildings taken over by artists only to fall prey to the rentiers’ squeezing out creativity. The fruitmarket area – now basically just one street left standing – will one day be pretty to look at but thoroughly inoculated against anything that doesn’t smack of prettification. So, keep up the good work Richie Culver. And let’s see whether the legacy of the City of Culture supports more artists than consultants.