To celebrate Bluecoat’s 300th anniversary, director Bryan Biggs has curated a retrospective exhibition with a selection of works from 100 of the artists who have exhibited in the building since 1911. It is an opportunity for Bluecoat to celebrate its achievements and reflect on its standing as an institution. It is a chaotic show, with lack of space dictating the inclusion of a lot of small scale pieces, but there is a continuous allusion to social issues in some of the works which are very pertinent to today.
One of the most important art-historical pieces in the show is John Latham’s Firenze (1967). Latham is one of the most influential British conceptual artists of the post-war period, infamous for his Skoob Towers in which he set columns of books alight. Firenze consists of a pile of books, destroyed and obscured by expanding foam and penetrated with a rusty pipe and fragments of wires. Latham saw books as representing learnt knowledge, stating ‘knowledge is an illusion people have’. He saw knowledge as unstable and easily ignored, and his concern with the misrepresentation of information is eerily relevant to our current political climate.
There is a predominance of 1980s socially-minded painting in the show, such as Peter Clarke’s Myrtle Gardens (1982), an expressionist monochrome painting in oil and collage depicting a now demolished tenement block. These paintings jar uncomfortably with some of the more recent works such as Rowena Harris’ Fingers scrolling, fingers scrolling, fingers scrolling, fingers 2.0 (2016), a small wall-mounted sculpture consisting of accidental iPhone shots embedded in silicone resin and circled by a wonky brass wire. This is a beautifully executed work, but seeing it exhibited alongside these paintings is a reminder that contemporary art is subject to an ever-evolving fashion cycle. Whilst some of the 1980s paintings now seem clunky in their handling of social issues, some of the more recent works are somewhat oblique in comparison.
Bluecoat is a grade I listed building dating to the 18th century, and has bore witness to periods of great social and political upheaval, including the industrial revolution and Liverpool’s ‘managed decline’ in the 1980s. Imogen Stidworthy’s Barraslackbarrabang (2009), can be read as a complex meditation on this history and how it relates to themes of class, race, trade and language. A nine-minute film and accompanying transcript, it was filmed in two historic Liverpool pubs and features local residents speaking backslang, a form of English developed by the Victorian working class involving adding extra vowels to words, and broadly used by criminals to avoid detection in 1980s Liverpool. In the audio the use of backslang renders the speech indecipherable and the viewer is instead absorbed by the accompanying images; intimate close-ups of the speaker’s hands and faces along with footage of the surroundings of the public house. A poster in the pub commemorates the invention of the railway, an event intrinsically tied-up with the development of backslang. At one point, the camera pans in on an ornate chandelier covered in cobwebs. The slow deterioration of these once opulent spaces points to the fragile nature of the networks of trade that made Liverpool’s Victorian grandeur possible, and the impact their disappearance has had on people’s everyday lives.
This is a sensitive, exploratory approach to reflecting on social issues. As we enter a time of extreme uncertainty, this show left me wondering how current social and political issues might impact on artistic practice in the near future, and what new approaches artists might take to exploring them.
Public View, Bluecoat, Liverpool, 4 February 2017 – 23 April 2017.
Laura Rushton is an artist based in Liverpool.
Photo: Jeremy Deller, ‘History of the World’ (1998).