Plymouth Art Weekender

 

Arts writer Peter Stiles reviewed September’s Plymouth Art Weekender, an arts festival in 2015 with over 400 artists and 86 events on show.

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The Plymouth Art Weekender is the first event of its kind for the city. I’ve been a regular visitor to the city’s arts events over the past 30 years and recently it seems as if someone has found and turned on a stopcock releasing an outpouring of new visual arts activity. Buildings have sprung up headline grabbing exhibitions which would have been inconceivable not so long ago seem to be becoming regular events and there is a general hard to put you’re finger on it feeling that Plymouth’s arts scene might be about to become something special.

With 86 shows and events happening as part of the Weekender, it was impossible to visit each and every one in the couple of days that I had and the trick was to see enough to gain a flavour of the event overall while allowing enough time to concentrate on a few selected highlights. Walking from venue to venue an accumulation of images and conversations began to run into each other, forming streams of ideas. As I looked at more and more work I wondered whether at the end of it all I would discern an overall pattern, a direction to the flow.

The first thing I saw was a disappointment. Richard Woods has become one of those artists whose work crops up everywhere. No series of temporary public art installations seems complete without one of his floor or wall pieces. Walking around “Kissing Gates 1 – 5”, the geometric wooden structures that have been placed on the lawn of the Royal William Yard, it was possible to imagine that they had been made in order to fit into the curtailed space of a modern built environment. Perhaps the raw wooden blocks might have been played off against the machinated surfaces and straight lines of concrete and glass. But given their location, there seemed to be no reason for their existence. The rectangular forms tilted randomly on the uneven ground and were dwarfed by their surroundings.

In contrast, ‘Synapsid” by Karen Tang seemed perfectly at home in front of the new Plymouth School of Creative Arts. It works best walking towards the “belly” so that the “arms” seem to reach out and enfold you. The location outside a school re-enforces the suggestion that this menacing alien life form began life as a children’s cartoon. The red cladding of the new building sets off to a treat the acid yellows and greens of this new pupil… or member of staff?

 

‘Kissing Gates 1-5’ by Richard Wood at Royal William Yard

Artist Rooms, Gerhard Richter at Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery

Any discussion of where new art is placed within the city should include “Behind Closed Doors” by Christina Adair in the Oasis project’s cafe on Manor Street. Led into a tiny room, which must function as the project’s place of quiet retreat (it is adorned with prayers and homilies), you are invited – with great courtesy – to sit in a comfortable chair while a cheap tv is switched on and a pair of headphones handed over. Given the grim nature of the descriptions of Christmas sex, I was grateful for any refuge and comfort on offer.

One of the attractions of events such as the Weekender is the variety of sites and venues; from cafes and street corners to established venues such as the Museum.

The first painting in the exhibition – or more accurately – a photo of a painting (of a photograph), depicts 2nd World War Mustangs flying in formation. As a child, Richter, who was born in Dresden, watched the RAF’s firestorm from his bedroom window. The inhabitants of Plymouth and Dresden share a past in which their respective cities were  bombed and burnt. An image of RAF planes gives different associations depending on where you come from. For some people the image is menacing, for others, heroic. However, the way in which Richter has painted the planes gives the spectator little idea how the artist would prefer them to be seen. The painting  seems to be an attempt to drain the image of emotion, which counter-intuitively, increases the force of that image’s  effect.

Richter’s 48 paintings of black and white photographic portraits of great European figures are painted in a similar detached manner. In the context of images from the 2nd World War, the portraits can be seen as a lament for a shattered cultural history. But the way in which they are painted seems to be directly at odds with such an emotional statement. The history of Germany in the 20th century – (and Richter was bought up in East Germany, escaping to the West shortly before the wall went up in 1961) is one of extremes, but in contrast to the violently expressive work of other painters of his generation, Richter’s paintings are oblique and understated.

Anthony D’Offay described Warhol and Richter as twin giants of 20th century painting. There is a large painting of Brigid Polk, Warhol’s secretary, in the exhibition which, although it serves to link the two artists also illustrates some of differences between them. Polk’s face inhabits the bottom left hand corner of Richter’s canvas in a way that would be alien to Warhol. Warhol’s consistently invites us to prostrate ourselves before a central dominating figure. Richter’s uncertainties make him hesitant to impose such overtly hierarchic pictorial structures onto his material.

Apart from the portraits of Gilbert and George (George was born and raised in Plymouth) the other link to Plymouth lies in the gun metal abstracts that summon up waves, ripples and the receding lights of grey oceans. Richter is such a varied artist and the works available to the Artist Room scheme so extensive that it would have been possible to have put together a very different exhibition. It is a tremendous achievement to get Richter’s work into Plymouth, but even more so, to have constructed a show that begins a conversation with the city with such sensitivity.

There were a number of shows that either opened over the Weekend or continue past it.

Entering the show of the graphic work of Ivan Chermayeff at Peninsula Arts my initial impression was that it was something that would be very useful to the university’s graphic design students but of less interest to the casual visitor. Then as image succeeded image, and I realised how much of the work was about New York, the cleanliness of the line and energy of the colour began to feed into my general impression of New York life – a city that I’ve never been to but which, like everybody else, I feel I know.

After a period of admiring the speed at which he conveys complex ideas, the deceptively simple designs and the variety of styles and media that he has mastered, I made the obvious connection between Matisse’s paper cuts and Chermayeff’s simple slabs of colour and from that point on, felt the impact of the show decrease. But after pulling myself together at the realisation of how ridiculous it was to compare anyone’s work with arguably the greatest art works of 20th century, I began to enjoy it once more.

Although I think the work remains a collection of single ideas – rather than adding up to something that appears to be more than the sum of its parts it is still a hugely impressive collection. How lucky his New York clients were to have him, and how much would Plymouth give for someone with the seemingly miraculous ability to establish a city’s identity using a few crisp lines.

The neon signs by Tim Etchells at Plymouth Arts Centre spell out slogans “optical illusion/political confusion” or “start the revolution, start the revolution, start the revolution…” . They wouldn’t look out of place in a particularly nasty kind of smart clothes shop or restaurant. There should be a moratorium on the use of neon slogans in contemporary art. Bruce Nauman, Jenny Holzer and THATS IT. MORE THAN ENOUGH.

The installation also includes a number of speakers ordering you about – telling you to “Step Away” and a sentence repeated on different handwritten pieces of paper. It was a terrible moment when artists realised that all they had to do in order to justify their most brazen attempts to achieve attention, authority and status was to say that their cold, slick presentations were ironic; a critique or deconstruction of the language of power. In bleaker moments this sleight of hand seems like contemporary art’s core principle.

Ivan Chermayeff ‘Cut and Paste’ exhibition at Peninsula Arts (credit: Plymouth University)

Tim Etchells performs at Plymouth Arts Centre (credit: Dom Moore)

‘Tombstone’ by Keith Harrison at Prime Skate Park (credit: Dom Moore)

It comes as a great relief to nip around to the Batter street entrance of the Arts Centre and step into a room created by the “Back in 5 minutes squad” which is filled with black plastic debris and flickering monitors. Heart’s power ballad “How do I get you alone?” is blasting out at you and after Tim Etchells it’s like a strange brush up and shower deluging you with tack, washing away all that sterile ambition and leaving you refreshed, invigorated and ready to resume your journey through Plymouth.

Later that evening I go back for a performance by Tim Etchells and the violinist Aisha Orazbayeva, wondering whether I have been too harsh or failed to see the interesting qualities of his work. After over half an hour of feeling hectored and bullied by the repetition of meaningless phrases I am ready to weep with boredom until the event ends; there is a moments silence in which I stifle a sob – followed by rapturous and prolonged applause from a large crowd who have obviously thoroughly enjoyed the performance.

 

On the Saturday there is that magical combination of sunshine, ocean and city which it is lovely to amble through, coming by chance on individual pieces from the wide variety of shows on offer. Everyone will have their own list of favourites, things that they remember. My list included Juneau projects, Reuben McCormack, Lizzie Lloyd, Ryan Curtis, the Plymouth Hand Book and, as a reminder of the persistence of the visual arts within the city, a visit to the New Street Gallery was repaid by a wonderful landscape by the late Derek Holland.

On my return to the Royal William Yard I call in at Ocean Studios and marvel at the new facilities and quite extraordinary buildings. I pay one more visit to the Richard Woods sculptures to see if I’m mistaken (I’m not), then notice an arch cut through the boundary wall of the yard. The sight before my eyes when I go through it is heart wrenchingly beautiful. An island floats up before me, a great bowl of stone cradles the bay; it has to be one of the best views of a city in Britain.

And if this is where the Weekender, that flow of images and conversation, that rush of visual stimuli leads you – if you fetch up here – then the time has been well spent.