So, having sojourned to Leeds City Art Gallery to view the opening leg of the British Art Show 8, I have to say I was both taken aback and not a little surprised to see the adjacent Henry Moore Institute holding a retrospective of the work/life/leaps of the British-based Romanian sculptor Paul Neagu (1938-2004). At this point I should say that my reaction was not due to the qualitative output of the artist, but alas I knew him, (I make the Shakespearian reference entirely deliberately), visited his studio and he taught me - by example, with passion and through dialogue.
I remember him very clearly. Paul was magnetic, stylish, passionate and creative, totally committed and unstoppable in an argument; he also suffered considerable ill-health and passed at an entirely untimely age, so it was my fond memory - tainted with some sadness - that deterred me from entering the show at first sight and instead headed for the bright lights (no exaggeration), of British Art Show 8. But this text is not a critique of either, but a discussion of both as the sensation of each seems sharpened by the other. The aesthetic argument that the juxtaposition of complementaries, (blue against orange, purple/yellow, red/green etc.), heightens the senses, is not a new one, but I don’t think I have seen two more complementary concurrent exhibitions in recent years.
So why the title? Well the ‘Brains’ (not solely of course) are Neagu’s in the equation; the intelligence of this retrospective, entitled ‘Palpable Sculpture’, is plain for all to see, his ideas are embodied through drawing, and unlike many, the drawings are not coy, they are architectural and anticipate the problems of making, much like the ‘Boasting Drawings’ of a mason or carver. From compartmentalised edible bodies made of cake, through to wrought and concatenated/hyphenated forms that aspire without futility to defy gravity; it is clear that Neagu was a great draughtsman, thinker and maker with a plethora of outputs across an impressive range of media (see also Neagu’s ‘Generative Art Group’), all in all his work in its totality comes across as a tour de force, therefore an emphatic must see.
The ‘Stains’ in the title of this piece very definitely belong to Jessica Warboys, whose sea and sand-washed pigmented canvases (Sea Paintings), offer us a poetic and cute indexical link to the locations she works with. Warboys’ art-jetsam sits (or floats) somewhere between Jackson Pollock, Richard Long and William Burroughs. The works are conceptually elegant and epitomise a veracity of process that is difficult to dispute - inevitably though the predetermined material choices evident in the works relate primarily to pigment and substrate, (does anyone remember the amazement at producing their first tie-dye? I am not being cynical here by the way), and reveal more about the artist’s angle of entry, than about media, Land Art or the craft of painting. I could also see these at even larger scale, without too much difficulty, (how about as a backdrop for the Vaughan Williams opera ‘Riders to the Sea’?...) but I digress.
The ‘Automobiles’ or more accurately singularly described in this instance ‘Automobile’ is in evidence in the form of a quintessentially English 1979 1275GT Mini car; over the duration of the BAS8, Birmingham-based artist Stuart Whipps will restore the hulk of this rather unprepossessing vehicle as a public performance/spectacle, and by the end of Le Tour we will – apparently - have the collective, accumulated privilege of having witnessed the resurrection of this Issigonis classic – we wish him more luck than others had in putting the Humpty-Dumpty British motor industry back together again - the elegance and grittiness of the artist’s analogy makes me wince at the memory; 1970’s Britain.
Before you say anything, at this point I will readily admit that to pick out two from the abundantly rich selection of artists in the British Art Show 8 is errant nonsense, but my point is this: the artists are symptomatic, compare and contrast and be reassured (as I was) that the quality is there in both. The British Art show is also reassuringly international – the works have generally been made in the UK during the past five years – and, whilst not wishing to mount a political hobby-horse, the diversity of culture delivered by both BAS* and Neagu is worthy of mention (Neagu was in the first British Art Show incidentally).
If ever one needed an apposite riposte to those of us who remember just a bit too much about the past, the creativity populating the British Art Show generally stands up well against the under-reported brilliance of Neagu.
In 1959 the author, and then New Yorker columnist, Peter De Vries, very cleverly said, ‘Nostalgia…ain’t what it used to be’. In this instance though, I, for one, am thankful that it still is.