The West Midlands Open 2014

Kweiseye is an art criticism blog written by Tom Kwei. If you enjoy this article, browse the archive HERE for more than 60 other critiques of both artists and exhibitions. Any questions/queries/use: tomkweipoet@gmail.com

Housed within the Birmingham Art Gallery, The West Midlands Open 2014 (running till 15 Feb) is an exhibition of artworks by practising and emerging artists from across the region. displaying an impressive array of pieces, including painting, sculpture and photography.

Seeking refuge from the insane German Market crowds that currently plague Birmingham, myself and my girlfriend visited the exhibition last weekend, finding some really interesting stuff amidst the quiet. More information on the show itself can be found here.

‘Zero Zero’ – Anthony Butterfield (2013) 

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From across the wide spaces of the hall, this caustic, near hallucinatory photonegative-esque image really stands out. Through its alien landscape and simple conceit, the painting is one that invites the viewer to come nearer to engage and stare, its bold tones revealing new layers of complexity the closer you do.

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The grass for example (see above), seems to sprout under scrutiny. What at first appears a neon wash reveals to a dense convincing weave of roots evoked through light yet vivid scrapes. The lawn seems to hum with production, with all the small stems subtly suggests a new direction. By having so much hidden detail throughout, it is easy to become entranced in one section and forget the rest. Such as the smouldering trees:

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Their trunks ablaze with a menacing hellish colour. Their own dense red playing melding against the bubbling lava of the orange ground around them. Disregarding any true accurate portrayal, the trees become compelling rushes upward with their brushstrokes aggressively visible. Though, as if to belie the latent energy deep within this painting, between the wild oaks we see a calm, incorrigible sky. Its blue nothingness a smart antithesis to the manic energy elsewhere.

 Castle Drongo – Ian Gibson (2014)

In this wonderfully contorted piece, Gibson calls upon a style slightly comicbook to display the archaic nature of old institutions.

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Or maybe it’s just more of a rumination on the limits of shape. Regardless, I love the fact that this dramatic reimagining seems to not only defy logic through the malleable nature of its pattern, but the fact the various turrets pass through the other as if nothing were there. Everything else in the painting seems normal, and is displayed in an interesting technique of great delicacy. Indeed the forest from above feels more of a seascape, with the mountains at the back ushered through in delicate ghostly blues. The contradictory shape though still remains, and for as long as I stared at ‘Castle Drango’, I felt some definite familiarity but couldn’t place it.

Then it clicked, as, to me, it looks like a heart. The various ventricles and fist-like shape reminiscent of the organ. As to why, I couldn’t really say, perhaps it’s a metaphor? Institutions are nothing without their people? That feels right, but isn’t exactly fun. I much prefer just dwelling on the goofy yet entrancing confluence of its shape.

‘The Love Of Three Oranges’ – David Paul Gleeson (2014)IMG_2722

A work of mind bending detail. This solemn portrait of great precision is quite a sight to behold.  Three oranges rest upon two stacked crates below a single light, with all the permutations of shade delivered in incredible skill.

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From the skin on the fruit themselves, to the light that filters through the first box and down onto the second, the effect is one of peace and calm. With everything from the upside down writing on the top box, to the staples that keep it together realised with a wonderful eye. In its adorning caption, Gleeson states that he wishes to create still life work that obtains a certain portraiture in nature. With its consummate skill and high tangible intensity for such an everyday sight, ‘The Love of Three Oranges’ succeeds.

‘I am sorry to inform you…’ – Dan Auluk 2014

The final piece I’ve chosen is difficult to really analyse without sounding (even more) pretentious. So here’s what the Birmingham Art Gallery have to say:

This piece is a framed rejection letter from the 2010 West Midlands Open. The screwed up letter is the remainder of a brief and deliberate performance in response to the rejection. Through the rejection letter’s submission and acceptance into West Midlands Open 2014 it has been transformed into an artwork.

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I love this idea. As to the actual acceptance subsequently into the competition through it, that doesn’t really matter to me personally. It’s more the statement of that impulse awakened during rejection.

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Vanessa Bell (1879 – 1961)

Kweiseye is an art criticism blog written by Tom Kwei. If you enjoy this article, browse the archive HERE for more than 60 other critiques of both artists and exhibitions. Any questions/queries/use: tomkweipoet@gmail.com

A lesser known member of the influential Bloomsbury Group, Vanessa Bell’s paintings are subtle wonders rather than bombastic projections. Airy medleys of the passing world around, which, through their suggestions of the multiplicity of perspectives possible within a single view, signal a kinship to the work of her sister, Virginia Woolf.

‘On the Seine’ – 1921 

(c) Henrietta Garnett; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

In tones of deep sepia that never threaten to get above a mild brightness; this meditative, progressively hypnotic as you look at it painting, finds Bell playing expertly with reflection and depth. ‘On the Seine’ is a Matryoshka doll of a thing, a picture that peels deeply off into compelling inner segments through its weaving of bridges. The first of which giving way beneath its simple eaves to a second with an intriguing set of hollowed circles supporting the curve.

This insular, kaleidoscope effect, in which one bridge loops over another (and presumably another further on), evokes a real sense of levity. The water, imagined wonderfully through stammered brushwork, holds still, with the bridges seemingly floating weightless atop their own reflections rather than being cemented through the Seine. Even the leaves appear disembodied, hovering branchless above the crossing.

By reflecting the bridges against themselves this way, the delineation between what is surface and what is mere reflection becomes difficult at the forefront of the work and near impossible at its rear. The effect is one of second-guessing, a peaceful scene that is still abstracted slightly through an interesting visual twist.

Regardless of this however, there’s a real serenity to behold here. I especially love the fact that Bell posits the Seine not as the iconic Parisian river meandering past monuments, but a simple flow, one passing beneath bridges of nowhere in particular.

‘Frederick and Jessie Etchells Painting’ – 1912

Frederick and Jessie Etchells Painting 1912 by Vanessa Bell 1879-1961

From an earlier period of Bell’s career when she was attempting to expunge as much detail as possible in favour of color and design, there is restrained Fauvist element to this painting. Whilst nowhere near as wild as that group, (Click HERE for an earlier article about a forgotten Fauvist, Raoul Dufy), the exaggerated palette succeeds in drawing our attention to the fact that is very clearly a painting, one of which is of people who are very clearly painting.

Frederick in an eased pose as he jots, his suit and beard more standout than his non-existent eyes. Jessie far more stooped, her canvas leant up against the bag for support. Though their own images are away from view, a picture behind Jessie suggests a previous work, one of either a man beneath a streetlamp or an ostrich.

It is the body language though that I love most about this work, the fact that without any facial expressions at all Bell still manages to imbue the two busy artists with so much character. Perhaps this was possible as Vanessa Bell knew the two personally. Whilst living in Asheham House, near Lewes in Sussex, in the summer of 1912, artists came to stay including, briefly, Frederick Etchells and his sister Jessie. Bell supposedly thought Jessie ‘a nice character…and very silent’ but found Frederick difficult, and their visit was a strain. Something unintelligible in this soothing image of inward contemplation.

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Edvard Munch (1863 – 1944)

Kweiseye is an art criticism blog written by Tom Kwei. If you enjoy this article, browse the archive HERE for more than 60 other critiques of both artists and exhibitions. Any questions/queries/use: tomkweipoet@gmail.com

As a Naturalist, a Symbolist and often an Impressionist in-between, Edvard Munch’s back catalogue is a fascinatingly disparate patchwork, one united for the most part through its delicate interrogation of mental trauma. Predominantly noted for these evocative images of existential anguish, such as the oft parodied ‘The Scream, Munch’s skill also shone within his more mannered depictions. And whilst the first piece here is indicative of such restraint, the latter stands as testament to the Norwegian who once claimed, ‘Without anxiety and sickness I would have been a rudderless ship’.

‘Rue Lafayette’ – 1891 

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Within this bustling depiction of a French boulevard, Munch plays well with contrasting techniques to convey a sense both of motion and immediacy. Whilst the man and his balcony up top could hardly be said to be of extreme artistic precision, their individualised detail juxtaposes well against the abstract run of life that unfolds below the admirer. Crafting both a sense of height and wonder.

Through the sheer flooding of light within the image, an effect created by a rain of colour consisting of dabs or loosely applied parallel gasps of paint, there is something celebratory and joyous about Munch’s vision of ‘Rue Lafayette’. A feeling that invites the viewer, almost like the watcher himself, to just pause for a minute and take it all in.

Upon closer inspection however, the romanticised clamour below proves to be little more than streaks, with the bottom left section in particular being realised in the briefest of brushes. Everything is perched on just enough detail for it work and evoke a certain passing beauty, from the horses stooped with their carriages to the rooftops that amass further down the diagonal balcony line. The divide of which casts off from the base of the canvas, past a scribbled bouquet and towards the further horizon.

‘The Murderer in the Lane’ – 1919

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Disregarding his earlier Impressionist preoccupations, Munch evokes a subtly disturbing vision here through a distinct frostiness in his bold brushstrokes. The sky is especially evocative, with its crisp icy blues juttering around the lifeless upturned branches. Indeed, with such detail throughout the work, you could be forgiven for missing the two figures that in of themselves blend into the landscape. The eponymous murderer sketchily rendered and synonymous in skin with the lane, whilst in the background lays his victim, who passing more perhaps for a fallen tree trunk than a body, is slumped unnervingly behind.

With the killer’s frame heavily cropped as if he was fleeing the scene, the entire painting is given an uneasy menace suggesting the act was one committed recently. No light is shed as to why or how the victim was murdered,  we are rather presented with the simple hollow dots of a guilty man facing us slightly askew. Or, perhaps this person has nothing to do with the image, but it is merely the title that becomes suggestive of so.

In spite of the death though, everything remains unerringly beautiful and moving, which in a way compounds the distracting effects of the lifeless corpse. In the background a small factory of sorts purrs along besides what I assume is an outcrop of water, one that flows and tangles in a soft ridged way. Life simply goes on in spite of this daytime murder.

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Andrew Wyeth (1917 – 2009)

Kweiseye is an art criticism blog written by Tom Kwei. If you enjoy this article, browse the archive HERE for more than 60 other critiques of both artists and exhibitions. Any questions/queries/use: tomkweipoet@gmail.com

As a Realist of Regionalism whose scenes hold great nostalgic qualities in spite of their empirical display, Andrew Wyeth’s art is always beautiful and oft inquisitive, regularly prodding at ideas of perspective and space. Both these featured images show his hallmark attention to detail, with each holding a visual quirk that helps to centre and propel the image.

‘Soaring’ – 1950

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A sight as wonderful as it is rare within painting, Wyeth takes us upward with the birds as we pass over a small farm residence surrounded by a milky nothingness. In the classic Wyeth manner, the animals are evoked with an astonishing eye. The central bird in particular being given real grace in the detail, with its pitch strokes on the left wing resolving to a complex mess of feathers amid the right. A further vulture’s undertow blazes a stunning delicate silver against the unseen hanging sun.

The canted angle of the birds drifting inward from the left and the tiny house down below creates an interesting level of visual disorientation from the off. The height is felt immediately and impressively, with the dulled vista of the background keeping our attention fully with those that are soaring.

Whilst criticisms of lack of pictorial ambition are often volleyed at Wyeth, praising his technique but deriding his message, I think this piece in particular achieves a profound sense of serenity outside of a direct message. Through placing such rampantly connotative animals as vultures above such an innocuous setting, Wyeth robs them of their menace and invites us to share in the experience. There is a quietness here then to enjoy as the birds move on across the landscape, a solitude both inviting yet impossible to really imagine.

‘Brown Swiss’ – 1957

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Another rural scene of great reflection and abandon. I’ve always loved the way here in which Wyeth employs grand arching brushstrokes to suggest a sense of depth and darkness along with his surgical eye. The branches to the right of the house for example seem to be anchored within the paint itself, aching up out of the background. With the brown that dominates the righthand side of the image a great patchwork of wrinkles and darker tones, as pockmarked and scarred as the house itself whose fence ominously retreats to nothing.

The house comes to us as a viewer through ways of a glorified dirt puddle, with the majority of the canvas focused on the hazy marshland around the ‘Brown Swiss’ as opposed to the eponymous residence. Similar to the aforementioned ‘Soaring’, there is a distinct quietude here, with the stillness and purity of the reflection below suggesting a derelict scene. Indeed the way in which the water just decapitates the head in the sense allows us not only to appreciate this solidity, but also points our gaze directly at the wonderfully evoked building. A place that is oddly unusual on inspection; its four tiny windows all seeming broken in someway, with maybe a Christmas tree of sorts huddled before the cracking fresco and long stains of rust.

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