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Be There Saturday Sweetheart: The New Art Gallery Walsall

August 1, 2011

VALUE FOR MONEY: ★★★★

SERVICE: ★★★

OVERALL EXPERIENCE: ★★★★

It has been over ten years since the unveiling of The Not-So-New Art Gallery in Walsall, by none other than Her Majesty the Queen, but it is still something of a novelty in the area. (I was not even aware of its existence until recently.) After 13 years in the making, and at a cost of £21m, you would surely expect this state-of-the-art gallery to be at the forefront of the Black Country’s creative and cultural scene.

It has to be said that the architecture does not do much to suggest that this is an art gallery, either (nor the fact that its design was the result of a rigorous, international architectural competition).

On the wharf in the centre of Walsall, however, it does stand out. It is just a few minutes’ walk from public transport stations and over the road from Crown Wharf and Retail Park, where you can park your car for a reasonable charge (although it is a nightmare to get around Walsall’s one-way system). And, true to its aim of providing everyone with ‘access to culture and to the nation’s art collections’, it is completely free to wander around.

(As you’ll know, this is enough to entice me!)

As you walk in, you’ll find on your right the reception desk (where, if you sign a form, you’ll get your very own Photography Pass sticker! I need to stop being so excited by that). You’ll also notice the large, red construction placed proudly in the centre of the entrance hall.

EPPY DADDY BATTLE BOT. Image © The Artists and New Art Gallery Walsall.

That’ll be Bob and Roberta Smith’s Eppy Daddy Battle Bot, supposedly a reimagining of Jacob Epstein as a three-metre-high, 1950s-style, wooden robot. It sets the tone for the rest of the gallery which, as I discovered shortly afterwards, is home to a sizeable chunk of Epstein’s impressive archive of work.

Just beyond the reception is the Gallery Shop, which had all sorts of toys and gifts and bits and bobs we couldn’t resist.

Image © New Art Gallery Walsall.

And right in the corner of the ground floor is Disco: The Family Gallery.

Image © New Art Gallery Walsall.

This is just one of the conscious nods towards family entertainment that can be seen through the Art Gallery. There are period costumes to dress up in, video screens to watch, toys to play with and things to draw on. Admittedly, Zoe and I got a bit caught up in it, too.

“Err… I think that little boy wants to play…”

If you can drag yourself away and take the stairs to the first floor, you’ll come across the Art Library. This is a real haven and a goldmine of information for students and lovers of art; complete with art books, magazines and a computer suite for research.

Image © New Art Gallery Walsall.

But if you’re feeling lazy, there are always the lifts. You can take it right to the fourth floor – the balcony.

Image © New Art Gallery Walsall.

Until October, this floor is also home to the Leo Fitzmaurice exhibition, You Try to Tell Me but I Never Listen. This is, according to the description, Fitzmaurice’s representation of the ‘visual noise’ of the 21st century.

Image © The Artist and New Art Gallery Walsall.

He has covered the walls with over 3000 flyers and leaflets, and multiple copies of the same flyers have been folded together to create a sense of repetition and motion. The general theme of this exhibition seems to be to do with advertising and materialism, and the excessive amounts of printed material we subconsciously register on a daily basis. The effort that had visibly gone into this exhibition is impressive, but I couldn’t help feeling that once you’ve seen one of his pieces, you’ve seen them all.

A trip to the third floor, on the other hand, is highly recommended. This is Mark Titchner’s metal masterpiece, BE TRUE TO YOUR OBLIVION.

ERGO ERGOT (2006). Image © The Artist and New Art Gallery Walsall.

This enormous exhibition is in fact part of the Home of Metal project, which can be seen at various locations around the Black Country at the moment. I remember seeing some of Titchner’s work on my trip to the Wolverhampton Art Gallery; his trademark style of song lyrics, slogans and statements is unmistakeable.

I SAW A LIGHT (2010). Image © The Artist and New Art Gallery Walsall.

In this more extensive exhibition, however, there is a far wider range of media – from woods to metals to textiles – and the use of new technologies to make his art more interactive. One piece, Be Angry But Don’t Stop Breathing, includes microphones and a PA system, which allows visitors to use it as a sort of cathartic heavy metal soapbox.

BE ANGRY BUT DON’T STOP BREATHING. Image © The Artist and New Art Gallery Walsall.

We were never entirely sure what we ought to do with it.

Image © The Artist and New Art Gallery Walsall.

Give us a song, Zoe!

Moving into the next room, there were more of Titchner’s industrial-style creations. There were two of these:

SO MUCH NOISE TO MAKE A SILENCE (MINOR) (2008). Image © The Artist and New Art Gallery Walsall.

Even the walls were a vast piece of artwork, as you can see in the background. There also featured The Chimes of Glory, another reference to metal and sound. The recurring theme in all of his pieces is one of communication, not only through sound but also through visual language. The heavy influence of Metal music and its culture is clear to see in Titchner’s work.

The real gem of the Gallery, however, spanning across the first and second floors, is the Garman Ryan Collection, gifted to Walsall by Jacob Epstein’s widow, Kathleen Garman, and sculptor, Sally Ryan in 1973. This very personal collection of art and artefacts spans across different cultures and eras, arranged in such a way as is impossible not to see the similarities between such ‘opposite’ pieces of art. It includes works by Van Gogh, Monet, Picasso and Constable, amongst many others.

This caught my eye straight away:

IT’S WHAT I’D LIKE TO BE (1998). Image © The Artist and New Art Gallery Walsall.

It is in fact by that-dirty-bed-woman, Tracey Emin, and is installed as part of theMake Room interventions into the Garman Ryan Collection. I think this just demonstrates the range of work that is included in the exhibition, which, at first glance, can seem a little bland and predictable.

Some installations looked right at home:

THEODORE: THE SCULPTURE OF HIS SON THAT JACOB EPSTEIN NEVER MADE(2009). Image © The Artists and New Art Gallery Walsall.

While others left us a bit bewildered:

BIN BAG 9 (2001). Images © The Artist and New Art Gallery Walsall.

Well, I suppose that is what contemporary art is meant to do – make you wonder why?

The main element of the Garman Ryan collection is, as you would expect, the relationship between Epstein and his family. There are countless sculptures of his, notably ones of his then-mistress Kathleen Garman.

FIRST PORTRAIT OF KATHLEEN (1921) and LOVE LETTER FROM JACOB EPSTEIN TO KATHLEEN GARMAN (1927). Image © Jacob Epstein and The New Art Gallery Walsall.

Despite the bulging, irregular eyes and unflattering texture, Epstein was clearly enamoured with his ‘Kitty’. It was only on reading examples of his tender, albeit illegibly scrawled, correspondence to her that I understood the depth of the connection between Epstein and Garman, and the significance of the Garman Ryan Collection to the Gallery. In fact, I only discovered afterwards that it was Epstein’s words – in 30-foot-high neon letters – that we sat and observed, perplexed, while eating our lunch outside later on.

BE THERE SATURDAY SWEETHEART. Image © New Art Galley Walsall. Taken from: http://www.thenewartgallerywalsall.org.uk

You’re probably wondering why we were eating our lunch outside, other than the fact it was a rather nice day (not in that picture, I didn’t take that). There is a café in the New Art Gallery, a Costa, but when we got there the queue was extending out into the gift shop and didn’t seem to be moving. So we popped over to the pub next door, The Wharf Bar. The view there is much the same as from the Costa; you can look out onto the canal and watch the odd barge come and go.

All in all, first impressions don’t seem to count for much when it comes to this gallery. On the outside it looks cold, harsh and uninspired, but the interior is actually more ‘log cabin’ than ‘concrete jungle’. Not all of the artwork was to my taste (why would it be?) but there were plenty of surprises throughout the exhibitions. The family room and gift shop mean that it is more than just a stuffy old art gallery for the kids who’ve been dragged along, and, judging from the queue in Costa, senior visitors are more than happy with it, too. It’s definitely not what I was expecting from Walsall. If you’re thinking of visiting, you can check out the website to help plan your trip.

I leave you with an extract from one of Epstein’s letters to Kathleen Garman, dated 1928:

‘How despondent a note from you I have and can only echo you for this long wait gets worse and worse. I think forward and always the happiness that seems so far off though certain mocks me. We think and feel alike and write and write our thoughts that are the same. With you I have every joy and every happiness. I have had such delite as I’d never dreamed possible and if I could only hold you again sweetheart I’d want nothing more. …My nights are my worst time. I lie awake and think of you. Last night, Sunday, was wonderful moonlight and I thought of you, picturing how you were, how fascinating you looked on the balcony beside the lake in the moonlight and the lantern lights. Very romantic!…. I’m glad you enjoyed the orchids and I look at the ending to your letters. I am always yours Kitty. Be there Saturday sweetheart.’

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