Monday, 27 June 2011

Heard the one about the Painter and the Pistol?

Hidden Paintings of the West Midlands

Once upon a time we knew what to expect from the BBC. While  entertainment  naturally dominates  the schedule there's always been a place for programmes in which  someone who gives the impression they know what they're talking about leads the viewer on an educational journey. Sadly these programmes are becoming a rarity.

Not content with foisting the lazy opinions of comedian David Mitchell  on the nation on Thursday's Question Time the beeb, last night, gave us an arts programme fronted by another comedian Nick Hancock. Now Mr Hancock seems like a nice chap and we all know he's a passionate Stokie but do these qualities  make him the most suitable person to send in search of the Hidden Paintings of the West Midlands?

From the outset things didn't look good. 'This is a programme about art' our host began before reassuring the viewers - who he must've feared were already deserting in droves - that he's not Brian Sewell. No kidding. What next, Alan Carr on the saucy secrets of the San Marco frescos?  Harry Hill explaining the overlooked slapstick in the paintings of Caravaggio? It's a thought but  let's see where Nick Hancock begins his journey.

Surprise, surprise it's at the Britannia Stadium. Now this may be a Premier League arena with the loudest fans in the land  but, as far as I'm aware, it's never been associated with the arts. The excuse for this barely disguised love-in between Old Nick and Saint Peter, it transpired, was to take a look at what the Stoke City chairman described as a historical record of our industrial heritage. This turned out to be a fairly ordinary landscape and, unfortunately, it set the tone for what was to follow.

After a quick dash down the canal to Middleport it was off to the Black Country to examine some of the earliest images of the industrial workplace. These were dealt with in short shrift before two ex- steelworkers were given the opportunity to reminisce about the conditions they worked in. That they belonged to a completely different era to that being discussed didn't seem to matter and, anyway, steel was quickly dismissed in favour of the motor industry. Sadly Mr Hancock wasn't able to come up with many hidden paintings to illustrate his point (ie that cars were once manufactured in the Midlands) so it was back to the Potteries.

Here things began to get interesting - particularly for  viewers fond of those true crime programmes that occupy the schedules of certain TV networks - and, once again, why wasn't I surprised? The paintings Mr Hancock had come to discuss were by the Edwardian  artist John Curry who had a torrid affair with their subject, Dolly Henry, before shooting her dead and ending his own life in 1914.

Curry, we learn, worked for Minton before securing a place at the Royal College of Art leaving behind a wife in Newcastle-under-Lyme.  He was 'utterly enslaved' by Dolly, we're told, even declaring his love for her with his dying  breath. One suspects  this tragic tale of domestic violence, murder and suicide was always going to be central to the programme but it's a shame it rarely rose above the level of a bad joke the punchline of which was 'He should've stayed at Mintons.'

Not Included. Dudley. JMW Turner. 1832. Lever Gallery

The show closed with a man perched precariously atop a converted camper van painting the post-industrial landscape of the Black Country. Once again we were told it was a historical record - which is more than can be said for the programme itself. Where's Arthur Berry? I wondered. Where's Reginald Haggar? Where indeed is Turner's famous painting of Dudley Castle? OK it's not hidden and it isn't in the West Midlands but surely a painting of a town in the throes of industrial change, once described by  Ruskin as a 'clear expression of what England was to become,' deserved some kind of attention. Sadly not because Hancock, let's not forget, isn't Brian Sewell.

Monday, 13 June 2011

Staffordshire University AMD Show 2011

Show and Tell

Dr Astrid Herhoffer says she’s proud to lead a faculty where talent is nurtured and encouraged to grow. On the evidence of this year’s Arts, Media and Design show she has every right to be as, once again, Staffordshire University demonstrates the potential of art to surprise, inspire and transform lives.

From the outset the surprises come thick and fast provoking a range of responses. On the one hand there’s the restrained beauty of Margit Kiviniemi’s  painterly surfaces that appear to have rusted and the towering grandeur of Heather Silcock’s billboard-sized urban fox.
On the other hand there’s something  sinister about the text that is etched, filed and framed in Stacey Booth’s piece Welcome to the Wonderful World which plays on our willingness to share even the most personal thoughts on social media networks. Similarly unsettling is  Kristy Styles’ domestic chiller, La Maison Etrange,  which bristles with the kind of menace you might expect from David Lynch.

Debbie Mills with her exhibit Innocence. Photo by Horace Wetton

There’s also pathos and humour to be found. Debbie Mills’ childlike den, looking sadly abandoned, invites the viewer to crawl inside and hide from the crowds. Nearby, Rachel Bradley may be in the frame of her video projection but she’s also hiding –in this case masquerading as Ziggy Stardust – in a performance that’s both amusing and oddly affecting.

Elsewhere there are collapsing skyscrapers and chairs that appear to be climbing the walls but there’s much more to this comprehensive exhibition than fine art. With strong showings from across the faculty, ranging from textiles and ceramics to graphic design, I’d urge visitors to set aside the time to take it all in.

Of particular note is the Photography display. Among a hugely impressive offering two to look out for are Matthew Basham and Daisy Harper. Basham’s visceral work displays a streak of Surrealism while Harper’s sumptuous colour images exquisitely capture the fluidity of dance.

For all the departing students represented in the show this is the culmination of an exciting journey and the beginning of a new one. It’s been well documented in recent months that these are difficult times for the arts but lecturers Ian Brown and Sarah Key are confident Staffordshire University is prepared for the challenges that lie ahead. So too, you’re left feeling, are today’s talented graduates.       

The Art, Media and Design Show 2011 continues at Staffordshire University’s College Road campus until June 18.
A Version of this post originally appeared in the Sentinel Monday June 13 2011

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Reprieve for Stoke Museums

But What Does the Future Hold?

Visitors to the Potteries Museum will welcome the news that Stoke-on-Trent City Council has postponed the introduction of admission fees to the home of the Staffordshire Hoard. Since February £7,500 has been received in donations from the public prompting the council to delay the introduction of the controversial charge until after the summer.

Announcing the decision cabinet member for economic development Mark Meredith said "We have been receiving donations, although at a level that is slightly below what we were  hoping for, but we are approaching our busiest time at the museum. We are therefore looking at extending the donation period to see if donations maintain their success with a view to continuing with our preferred option of keeping the museum's admission free."

This is good news as is the report that the campaign to save Etruria Industrial Museum, symbolized by 9 year old Jack Fowler-Evans, has been given more time to explore the possibility of creating a body to run the important heritage site. Speaking on this subject Councillor Meredith said it was "inconceivable" that the museum could close. So what happens next?

Well, as we have heard from the former elected mayor, the council's "preferred option" is to continue with the policy of free admission at the Potteries Museum and he personally considers it "inconceivable"  that we could lose an asset such as Etruria. This will be reassuring to many people but what trust should we place in the words of a man whose political journey led him from the Militant Tendency to the leadership of a bizarre coalition that brought only deadlock when the city needed direction?

Compare his statements from 2007, when announcing ambitious plans for city centre regeneration, with those of last week when the council embarrasingly scaled down the proposals to little more than a 60 minute makeover. Given these facts, along with the flip-flops during  his period in office, it should come as no surprise that questions are already being raised about the long-term feasabilty of the council's commitment.

Martin Tideswell, writing in the Sentinel believes the postponement of admission fees is only delaying the inevitable and goes on to argue that cultural attractions need to market themselves more successfully. While I'm not sure about  his suggestion that the Potteries Museum should celebrate the achievements of the likes of Robbie Williams and Phil 'The Power' Taylor  there is some merit in his thinking given the wealth of heritage in the city that is often overlooked.

These are difficult times and the coming months will prove crucial in determining the city's relationship with its  cultural assets. Yes we need to look at how we promote ourselves and see if this can't be improved but at the same time we must remind those in elected office that the city's heritage belongs to us and must be preserved for youngsters like Jack Fowler-Evans to pass on to the next generation. Are you listening Comrade Meredith?