Letter from Leeds
Leeds Art Gallery
October 2013 to April 2014
January 22 to February 22, 2014
Henry Moore Institute
Dennis Oppenheim: Thought Collision Factories
November 21 to February 16, 2014
The cultural center of the city of Leeds can be found in a pair of museums located on the Headrow, a prominent avenue adjacent to the majestic Victorian City Hall: the Leeds Art Gallery and the Henry Moore Institute. Around the corner is &Model, a rough-and-ready raw space gallery started by a group of art professors from the Leeds Metropolitan University, including the collaborative team Nathaniel Mellors and Chris Bloor, and James Chinneck and Derek Horton. Liam Gillick has in the past expressed his pet theory that Yorkshire has been singled out in the UK to produce the nation’s most notable visual artists: Damien Hirst, David Hockney and Henry Moore are all from the Leeds-Bradford region. Gillick’s theory is that each of these artists has a plain-talk approach to art that allows them to be more accessible to a British public that has always been a bit cagey about contemporary art. Despite Gillick’s assertion, the three venues above present a combination of conceptually challenging exhibitions, or cast shows involving traditional genres that don’t really play to a public merely comfortable with the status quo.
Nocturne at the Leeds Art Gallery (through April 2014) is much more than its simple premise suggests. A direct statement of an exhibition, it presents the work of John Atkinson Grimshaw, George Shaw, Jack Yeats, George Sauter and Walter Greaves. Set in a single room, the canvasses form a round-table discussion on the hazy boundary between night and day—the idolization of “verdurous glooms.” The conversation lies mostly between Grimshaw, the Leeds based Victorian painter who lends a gothic sensibility to his renderings of what were contemporary scenes, and George Shaw, a 2011 Turner Prize nominee whose images of desolate suburban ruins have a similar lyrical melancholy, sans the Victorian saccharine historicism. Tree Shadows on the Park Wall, Roundhay Park, Leeds (1872) is reminiscent of René Magritte’s series The Empire of Light (1950-54), in its surreal combination of brightly articulated shadows on a park path, against a twilit sky. Grimshaw uses the conceit of the Nocturne to play capriciously with light sources in his claustrophobic canvas. Meanwhile, Shaw presents a return to nature in his work The End of Time (2008-9). The nemesis of the nocturne, artificial light, has been rendered null and void with the demolition of a small suburban home, whose foundations now sit in the semi-darkness that was ubiquitous before Edison.
Curators Patrick Morissey and Clive Hanz Hancock presented a more polemical framework in the exhibition Crossing Lines at &Model. The curators have declared a general renewed interest in “the non-objective” in the 21st century, the exhibit feature sixteen British painters who work in this mode of abstraction. Artists such as Andy Wicks, Giulia Ricci, Frixos Papantoniou, Alex Dipple and Marion Piper take a multifaceted approach to image and object making, exploring pattern, line, edge and texture. The show is quite encyclopedic in its explorations of form, but most of the works resonate harmoniously; Ricci’s delicate, and ethereal honeycomb patterns provide a soft response to Papantoniou’s incisively colored sleek hard edge compositions. Add to this the injection of another fifteen artists in the form of a show reel of digital video and sound work in Parallel Lines that complements the visual mode of representation with extended forms encompassing extra sensorial interaction. Parallel Lines features the work of Anthony Braxton, Rebecca Hart, Jamshed Miah, Laura Eglington and Ad Reinhardt’s ironic manifestos, The Twelve Technical Rules (or How to achieve the Twelve Things to Avoid).
Two machines designed to embody idea production inhabit the galleries of the Henry Moore Institute. An exhibition of the American conceptual sculptor, Dennis Oppenheim, titled Thought Collision Factories presented the artist’s Rube Goldberg-like contraptions. Utilizing flares, fireworks and a cotton candy machine, these pieces are fascinating, even delightful to look at, but at the same time it is difficult to share/comprehend Oppenheim’s Cold War enthusiasm for archaic aluminum slides, gears, gaskets and wheels when every woman, man and child has access to all human knowledge in a pair of glasses or a wristwatch and can at the very least set up a basic operating platform on any computer. His interest in fireworks and flare-based outdoor installations is a different matter. The documentation of his various pyrotechnic projects, large scale ephemeral incendiary displays featuring pithy phrases such as “Go Further With Fiction” (1974) or “Mind Twist” (1975)—meant to be viewed from afar and integrate text into the landscape, exemplify the exhibition’s main goal of presenting Oppenheim as an artist whose practice inhabited and served as a nexus between sculpture, conceptual art and language. The exhibition is wonderfully thorough—sketches, maps, photographs and measured presentation drawings of the mechanical pieces and related works line the walls. The videos Machine-Gun Fire (1974) and Echo (1973) and the sound Piece Ratta-callity (1974) provide a simpler and more poignant representation of the artist’s process and his contribution to contemporary discourse than the oddly dated dinosaurs in the main rooms.