“The British Art Show”

Mappin Art Gallery

Neither expected nor intended to prove anything,“ William Packer’s The British Art Show, currently at the Mappin Art Gallery, Sheffield, then travelling to Newcastle and Bristol, is a selection of ”the best or most interesting of current painting and sculpture." Preeminently British in his refusal to theorize about his 112 artists, Packer aims to please. His choice is catholic, more polemical in its omissions than in its inclusions. Yet there are underlying assumptions—a certain cultural chauvinism, a respect for craftsmanship in traditional materials and modes. most of all a token acceptance of recent movements, combined with a feeling for the eccentric.


If the term “avant-garde” scarcely applies to 20th-century British culture, one reason could be that the conditions for an avant-garde on European or American lines have never existed in Britain. Another could be national temperament. “England dislikes and mistrusts revolutions,” wrote Pevsner, adding that this was an advantage in politics but a weakness in art. Now that late modernist criticism has temporarily mislaid the concept of an avant-garde, however, it is time for a re-examination of the “provincialism problem.” The British Art Show is a missed opportunity to do this. Packer’s heart lies not with the avant-garde but with The Rest. (They have no name; “provincials” implies inferiority, while “natives” sounds like some lost tribe of aborigines.)

Now and then one of The Rest accidentally slips into the avant-garde encampment, like David Hockney. But not often. Their territory is easily defined. Borderline cases employ abstraction as a means to suggest places and relationships. Howard Hodgkin’s In the Studio of Jamini Roy and Kenneth Draper’s Reflections on a Transient Meeting Place are good examples. The Hodgkin succeeds despite having been framed by a passing gorilla. Draper’s subtly colored, intricate structure suggests devices to fix co-ordinates of place or time, like maps or cameras or books, yet is itself a mournful souvenir, recalling nothing. To buttress a composition by locating it in real life is as British as Dr. Johnson, who kicked a stone to refute Bishop Berkeley. Norman Stevens’ mesh structures turn out to be gates and barns, while Gerard Wilson’s studies in perspective just retain their identity as objects of furniture. David Walker-Barker draws sheer quarried landscapes, with geometric structures superimposd over the entire surface like a diaphanous skin. Unlike Norman Adam’s flower paintings or John Foster MacFarlane’s violent analyses of birds, these quarry drawings do not exult over life or death but simply testify to a stunned vision of a world where distance, measurement and solidity no longer obtain.

That Romantic watercolors are unfashionable is not an issue with The Rest; more important is an integrity assessable by “tone of voice.” Comparing the “bad” paintings of fishermen or hanggliding by embattled primitives like Laetitia Yhap and Jeffery Cap with those of flimsier faux-naifs —confused Stephenie Bergmans, tinny Patrick Hugheses, over-dramatic Maggi Hamblings—it is easy to apply the required “Style est l’homme” test. Ultimately all moral victories are Pyrrhic, however. The process of reconciling treatment, content, sign-systems and viewer—since that is what “tone of voice” implies—may have to ignore an urban audience entirely. Compared, for example, with Anthony Green, John Bellany’s impassioned Expressionism seems self-consciously ritualized and unapproachable, with playing cards, shipwrecks, a wheel of fortune, starry skies and bird-head figures. In Green’s The Beautiful Dream/Madelyne Joscelyne alone Bathing a tuxedoed male watches a middle-aged woman in her bath, surrounded by appalling pink plastic and a horrid cacophany of carpeting and flowered wallpaper. His erotic fantasy intensifies the presence of each sacred utensil and appliance. As humor encapsulates satire, Green’s ironic stance is justified. His impossible dream contrasts perfectly with Bellany’s heady life-or-death mysticism, yet his is an art of surfaces, Bellany’s of depths. And while Green is a Royal Academician, Bellany retains his Scottish roots.

Obscurity is a major issue with The Rest. Sculptors Tony Carter, Michael Kenny, Lloyd Gibson, Martin Naylor and Keith Reeves find it difficult to locate a comprehensible rhetoric; in most cases an appeal is made to some subtext, either narrative or performance.

In content two painters approach eccentricity, but strike a balance between the known and the unknown. By a system of private geometry Victor Newsome laboriously draws subjects which are increasingly antiseptic and repulsive. Drained of life, egg-shaped heads with lidless eyes sink below water level in closed rooms, metaphors of narcissism. Michael Andrews’ A Design: The Garden at Drummond from Higher Ground is a large, possibly unfinished painting showing four figures in fancy dress, reminiscent of the Beatles in Magical Mystery Tour, looking out over the grounds of a country house. The colors are drab, the paint is applied in patches, the landscape is a visual conundrum, observing one type of perspective only to drop it for another and yet another. The entire effect is of a significant and timely image, like a great photograph commenting on the state of Britain, a place where bewildered Watteauesque revellers lack the equipment to cope with daily life.

Stuart Morgan