Well, here I am in Newcastle-upon-Tyne in the UK. Why go to Newcastle, you ask? The short answer is I was invited. The longer answer is that I was invited by Paul Stone and Chris Yeats from Vane Gallery. I met these two at the art fair "Art 212" a few years ago. I was completely taken with the work of one UK artist they had brought with them, Graham Dolphin. I bought one work and continued to stay in touch. We ran into each other at various international art fairs since then, and have had the chance to continue to discuss art and the art world.
Last year, Paul and Chris had an intriguing offer for me: would I like to come to Newcastle to participate in an Arts Council England program call "Inspiring Internationalists"? As the arts council material describes it, “'Inspiring Internationalists’ gives arts organisations the opportunity to bring to the North East an inspirational individual you have met during your travels, or have knowledge of and whom you believe will help your organisation". Though I make no claims to my inspirational qualities, I was thrilled at the opportunity to see a place I had never seen, and to be given access to an arts environment that was completely new to me. I said yes, and here I am. (Inspiring Internationalists blogsite)
My first visit was to Vane Gallery itself. Though I feel that I am reasonably up to date on Vane's program, it was good to see again the strong selection of artists that Paul and Chris had on the walls. Of course, there were strong examples of Graham Dolphin's drawings including a very fine fashion portrait using soldering lead as the drawing tool on an appropriated magazine ad, but there were other fine works up as well. Of particular interest to me were the works of Jorn Ebner. Mr. Ebner uses mixed media to create what appear to be landscape or architectural schematics. This cool exterior belies an emotional core to the work which seems to me to be passionate and communicative. I'm eager to see more. Video work by Claire Davies showed a clear eye for rhythm and color. The few works I saw were fine examples of using the video screen as an abstract expressionist palette. All these works and more can be seen on Vane's website. Check it out. http://www.vane.org.uk
Next up was the 800 pound gorilla in the Newcastle art scene, The Baltic (http://www.balticmill.com). The Baltic is a former flour mill built on the banks of the Tyne river which, beginning in 1998, was re-built and re-purposed to house a multi-purpose arts center. It is the largest gallery of it's kind in the UK outside of London. Newcastle shares a history with other cities that will sound familiar to many Americans. It has a strong industrial past that had created a remarkable architectural legacy that needed to be adapted to contemporary uses. Like DIA/Beacon in Beacon, NY, MassMoCA in North Adams, MA, or Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin, Newcastle saw opportunity in an aging industrial structure. Using generous national lottery funding at a time when British funding of the arts was particularly healthy, the Baltic opened its doors for its first show in 2002.
It is a commanding and dramatic space. For example, the galleries on the top floor are 11 meters high. It is a perfect space for large, contemporary work. Filling those big, dramatic spaces with work that fits the scale is the challenge. On view while I'm here were 5 substantial shows: Barry McGee, 2006 Turner Prize nominee Mark Titchner, Mona Marzouk, Barthelemy Toguo, and a collective of anonymous artists called "CutUp Collective".
Strongest for me were the ruminations on contemporary media by Mr. Toguo. Using a local newspaper as wallpaper, he edited out almost all text except for headlines, leaving the photos and a few details of dates and place. This redaction asks us to reimagine the context of the photos and their place in the news. Some photos reoccur and other slide in and out of view. I found it a completely absorbing work. Also being shown was a video by Mr. Toguo that showed him stripped to the waist, some unseen-but-awful wound causing bleeding around his groin, while he rhythmically and tirelessly chops at a log. The log is one of hundreds (if not thousands) which fill the screen. The chopping figure is alone in a field of toil doing a job that seems to make no progress and seems to have no end. It is as graphic a depiction of purgatory as I have seen, and was a powerful reference for the mind-numbing, back-breaking work that is done by the world's poor every day. Mesmerizing.
Next up was a small photo space called "Side Gallery". It is aptly named as it occupies a small 2 story space just inside a small alley. On view was a photo essay by the Welsh photographer, Rhodri Jones. At first I was unconvinced by this clean, classic show of straight documentary photos. But I confess, I was seduced. This show gained power, meaning, and complexity as I stayed with it. The individual photos had great balance, drama and composition, while the sequence of images drew a picture of the grand complexity of different cultures within China. I don't believe Mr. Jones is so well known within the US, but that should change. With the fascination for all things Chinese that has been happening in the art scene lately, this is a wonderful gimlet-eyed look at a foreign culture without sentimentality or showiness. http://www.amber-online.com