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One of the things I always try to do when visiting Newcastle is visit the Laing Art Gallery where, as well as discovering new artists and art works I can visit some old favourites. The city centre location makes it easy to access, being a short walking distance from the Monument metro and bus stations, and the free entry is enticing to those looking for cheap things to see and do. The open, airy feel of the first floor sculpture area and the circular layout of the second floor rooms make the gallery easy and pleasant to wander around without missing anything out. My last visit coincided with the Northern Print Biennale: 2009 Print Awards, which contained "the best in contemporary printmaking, selected by a distinguished jury from more than 800 entries received." (www.twmuseums.org.uk/laing/) This contained many different types of prints and I found it very interesting seeing not only the subject matters and styles of the different artists but also how they chose to make their prints. Continuing the print theme was an exhibition of local naturalist and artist Thomas Berwick, with pictures (or tale-pieces) from guide books of mammals and birds and a book of fables, some simply illustrations of individual animals and some showing comic scenes. These were mostly displayed as individual pages of a book of just these tale-pieces printed when Thomas Berwick realised their popularity. The prints were very small, but the provision of a box of magnifying glasses made them much easier to see. My favourite was an image of a merchant who had over charged Thomas Berwick being driven to the gallows by a devil. Apparently the merchant was so alarmed at recognising himself in the print that he immediately repaid the disputed money. Glass cases contained step by step examples of how the print blocks would have been made, as well as the illustrated books the tale-pieces were originally created for and information on the life of Thomas Berwick. Also present was The Great British Art Debate: My Native Vale. This had large prints of some of the locally born 19th Century artist John Martin's works combined with images of modern Newcastle, such as the civic centre and Millennium bridge, on three walls, created by artists Simon and Tom Bloor. The public were invited to take an image of a location that meant something to them, or to choose one from a selection of local history books provided, photocopy it on to luminous pink, yellow or orange paper and stick it somewhere on the walls to put something of their own perspective of Newcastle into the artwork. I enjoyed looking through the books of street name origins and architectural history, and felt a sense of pride in seeing my selection of the arches of Newcastle University placed atop a craggy mountainside next to the city centre multi-storey car park. Some of John Martin's unadulterated works were present in the permanent gallery, including one of my favourites of the gallery, The Bard, showing the last welsh bard calling a curse onto the British army from atop a mountain on a wild and imposing natural background. Next to this the dramatic Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah has an addition I have never seen anywhere else for any painting, a relief of the image in metal with the elements rendered into three dimensions which has a sign reading "Please touch". Being able to touch this and feel the contours of the image whilst looking at the painting adds an extra dimension to an already impressive artwork. One of my favourite things about the Laing is the wooden bench in gallery D, on either side of which three details from paintings in the room are carved, and I much enjoyed finding which painting each image had come from.
Apologies for the appalling title but needs must. The Cézanne bit will be explained later, the seasoning bit will be explained now. I use a seasoning reference because the Laing Art Gallery (LAG) is all about balance. Sometimes it gets it right, sometimes it gets it wrong, but overall the taste is okay. The reason for this being that the “gallery” as it calls itself often seems unsure as to whether it is a gallery or a museum. Now, whilst this can make the visit interesting, particularly when taking kids, it can detract from the impact of some of the displays. This works both ways; the display cabinets that clutter almost all of the individual galleries often diminish the impact of large visual artworks, conversely, the points of interest and explanations that the cabinets offer can be spoiled or are easily distracted from by the works around them. Today, however, after a long break, I found the balance just right. As a local I found the place by my normal method “Shanks’ pony.” This is the best way to get there. The gallery is just at the edge of the main commercial area of Newcastle city, it is two minutes walk east from the “Monument” metro station in the city centre and is just five minutes west from a cinema car par/ park and ride found just to the east of Newcastle. As the place reels into your view you will be forgiven for thinking that it has been sucked up by some unknown and literally plonked randomly in its place. It is an old building in the style of the Dobson or Grainger buildings that dominate the city but it has found itself surrounded by poured concrete abominations housing bars, the clientele of which, favour tipped hair and matrimonial bus stops. The single biggest problem of this is that you will probably be denied the true front of the building. Due to recent builds around it, the symmetrical columnar windows and ornate entrance are now relegated to the side of the building. Here they have become neglected, “filled in” and dirty; no doubt when the building was first built the entrance was magnificent. Now however the entrance is improvised and pretty nicely so. To the side of the building has been added a glass entry through which you can gain admittance to the shop. I was going to describe this entrance, sat as it is below the buildings phallic tower, as testicular but on second examination of the building and myself this no longer seems appropriate. Consequently I will not suggest that you enter the testicle. Inside you will find a shop on two levels one selling books and prints, basically the general Rothkos and Monets that end up above nice living room fireplaces. The second level sells interesting and locally-made (presumably) ornaments and the like. These all look fine but the price, which will exceed your estimation by fifty quid, will probably put you off. Next is the action and the first gallery. Entering this the immediate impression is of colour. This arrives due to an immense painting some twenty metres ahead of you. This is "Papua" by Gillian Ayres and it grabs your attention like a peacock in your living room wearing the national dress of an insanely vibrant African nation. You find yourself immediately drawn to it such is its vibrancy. This is an example of the LAG working to good effect. This is particularly the case when you see the presentation cases spread throughout this first room; none of them impair the impact of the painting. Stopping to explore the cases you will find pottery, statues and Chinese metal works. The exhibits tend to change from time to time but as examples; today I saw a "circus dinner set" released by Clarence Cliff under the set name “Bizarre.” There were also examples of Jazz-style tea sets by Mailing and son. These looked great and I wanted them until I read the accompanying note, which described th em as unpopular in their day and impractical. What an opinion! I decided not to smash the glass and do a runner. Elsewhere on this floor you will find a Henry Moore entitled “Seated woman with a thin neck,” the neck of which is indeed very thin and not noticed until the title points it out. There is a Lowry in which the usual figures make their matchstick way around, this time they almost ignite around a church, which, if it were me, would be positively vertiginous given the slope of the street it calls home. It’s definitely worth taking time to scan around this room, if not on the way in then on the way out, as this was when I discovered some great bronze sculptures by A. Drury and my favourite painting on this floor, an oil on canvas called “Icarus” by J. Armstrong, a work that put me in mind of Magritte. Next the only way is up, and it is the stairs where the first over-seasoning occurs. There are paintings all up the staircase but they are misplaced and difficult to appreciate, particularly given the lighting which often glares in the wrong way rendering some works virtually invisible. This is a shame as there are a few good efforts, not least of which are the paintings of a pre-Tyne Bridge Newcastle quayside. These help to prove to some that there was a Newcastle before Brown Ale and football. At the top of the stairs lies a circular landing from which the other galleries can be accessed. This landing in my mind is the unofficial “Gallery of the female”, as it seems that all of the pictures feature females of various ages -indeed much of the pottery on view is ladylike in form and pleasantly so. The undoubted star of the lot is “Holy Motherhood” by Thomas Cooper Gotch. Here the lighting excels, bringing out the fantastic iconoclastic nature of the scene and its inhabitants. From here I usually head left and try the Barbour gallery. I do this b ecause two of my favourite installations of recent times were sited here. One was a pasture scene created out of greengrocer’s false grass, pins and thousands upon thousands of green paint strip cards. I fail to remember the name of the female artist and I’m sure the point of it passed me by but the name of it was “Sod’s Lawn” and all I could think of was “How bored do you have to be. . . “ Hilarious it was. Next to this was a wall-mounted contraption the purpose of which was to repeatedly lower and raise a paint brush into a clear tub of white paint. Again I wondered " Is the american invasion of channel four on friday night quite enought to justify considering . . . I am clearly no art critic. Today the Barbour Gallery had the theme of “Edwardian Newcastle.” Inside we had paintings depicting life at the time, it covered the development of the suffragette movement, social reforms, education and industry. It was a good display and kids had the chance to dress up and play with toys of the day. This for once was a great example of how a mix of gallery and museum can work together. The place was not cluttered, everything was arranged so it could be explored and appreciated in its own right. My favourites in the room were an insane and sinister leather motorcyclists cap and mask that looked as if it was straight out of a Hieronymous Bosch. My other favourite items were two paintings by Ralph Hedley called “Meal time” and “Geordie ha’ad the bairn.” ( rough trans: I say George would you mind awfully tending to the infant) Put together they showed the role of men at the time. Comparing the two scenes to now one scene has changed completely but I’m not so sure if the other has. You’ll have to see what I mean. Another thing about this room is that it has a window looking straight out onto some of the scenes depicted in the room. This is unintentional, I’m sure, but it is a brilliant way to compare now and then. As far as I can see the only difference is neon and alcopops. Next came an absolutely brilliant gallery housing pieces by a range of new artists short-listed in a competition sponsored by a beer manufacturer. In the centre of the room is an enormous sculpture. This is a black-clad rider with a bin for a head, mounted on a large horse made of carpets jumping over a paper display. Unfortunately I couldn’t find any details of the artist or the title, though I daresay the previous sentence was probably close. The other displays featured large photographs of human interaction the aim of which was to create a narrative in the mind of the onlooker. The pictures were great and were emotionally saturated but a narrative failed to develop in my mind, with the exception of one entitled “May” featuring a lady I rather liked the look of. Another reminded me of a self-help brochure as issued to geriatrics by the NHS. The artist was Gemma Iles and I do apologise to her, by the looks of the ones I’ve seen I’m sure other examples of her work are great; I’m just shallow. Another photographic display was by Dan Holdsworth. These were the opposite of the previous artists work in that they were absolutely saturated scenes devoid of humans. They were primarily industrial and in particular they were of intersections of all sorts, roads, pylons etc. Strangely this gave them a greater sense of emotion or rather a less forced sense. They gave me the overall impression of isolation. In the same room were two paintings by the winner Tim Stoner. These were two eerie silhouette paintings, painstakingly created by gradual build up of unidirectional paint strokes. As they were silhouettes the most striking features were the massive yet anonymous presence of the subjects this was reiterated by the technique used to create the works which added or eliminated depth in the pictures. In “Eternity” a bather is seen emerging from a pool, the paint strokes are all linear and parallel moving either from the frame to the centre of the work or vice versa giving a real depth of field and motion and no doubt contributing to the title. The opposite was the case with “Folk” which portrayed male and female figures dancing in a ring. In this picture the paintwork is vertical creating a loss of dimensions and a sense of being in one plane. This sense is made all the more potent by the fact it is a group and they should have depth, this makes the scene all the more sinister. The next room houses 3 DVD films on three screens covering the same scene from slightly different angles and set a few seconds after each other. This is by Fabienne Audeoue and John Russell and is entitled “John Russell kills Fabiene Audeoue in the style of William Burroughs.” Suffice is to say you need to be there. The last three featured artists are D. Burrows, DJ Simpson and Simon Bill. The first shows household scenes of disorder such as the spilled results of a booze session. These are staged sets that are then photographed. They have a cartoon sense of colour which spills over into the gallery in the form of felt splash stains that litter the floor around the pictures. Kids will love this. DJ Simpson has created a monster of a picture/sculpture using a black laminated board mounted on wood onto which various routing and carving techniques have been applied to etch an abstract pattern form a distance it appears flat but up close it has an intriguing sense of texture and distribution. Again it is difficult to explain. If you get to see it try to imagine a ball bearing rolling along its tracks. Finally Simon Bill offered five white ovals with images added to them. These are visually pleasing but other than that I have no comment su ffice is to say I found one highly erotic and it wasn’t the one of a monkey. Moving from this gallery I found the Hogarth Gallery. This is a collection of works featuring political satire from the last few centuries. This is where the gallery firmly becomes a museum and is a stark contrast to the previous room. In this room, paintings by Hogarth of political hustings and the like sit alongside front covers of private eye. It takes a while to get around them all and there is a lot of repetition and unless you’ve studied history or politics or you have an interest in satire this room is eminently avoidable. Next comes a room that will interest anybody with a keen interest in the architecture of Newcastle. This is the John Dobson display featuring watercolours by the man that helped to shape the way Newcastle looks today. Now unless you know Newcastle very well these will only really be of interest from a draftsmen point of view. But if you are a visitor there is a chance that you may have arrived at Newcastle by train. If so take a look at the paintings of the proposals for the central station. The initial plan features two portecochères (the painting will explain) and the later ones feature one. Now having seen these get yourself back to the station and imagine it with two; a classic example of the ambition of our forefathers tempered by cost and practicality if ever I saw one. The next room houses the permanent collection. In here the problem of identity emerges. There are some extremely dramatic paintings that lose their voice due to the cabinets in the middle of the room. Of these the one that wins the battle for supremacy is “The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah” by John Martin. This is quite simply stunning. It is a picture of two parts, the intense red of the destroyed city and below this and to the fore the scene of those fleeing the city. On first view it is all about this contrast until the exquisite detai l of the foreground reveals itself, it is a great picture and it has regularly been voted as one of the gallery’s best. Another noteworthy effort is “King Alfred in the camp of the Danes” by D Maclise, this is another vivid effort absolutely riddled with detail and action though of a much more sedate manner. Then there is the Cézanne “Auvers” that the gallery has on loan. You almost miss it there is so little hoo-haa about its presence. This though helps because it is such an understated picture that it needs its own quiet little place to be seen. I’m sure a few keystrokes on your part could find much more about the painting than I could ever tell you so please go ahead. After this you can find the children’s gallery, which is basically a play area for kids to have a good old rattle about in or whatever it is that they do, though they do have to be supervised. Finally there is the History of art on Tyneside gallery, which leads you to the pleasant and by all reports very tasty tearoom. This display is a museum with a gallery sneaking into it. It is crammed with detail but unfortunately it is too crammed in a tiny place. On the plus side it has got loads of interactive bits and bobs and it doesn’t just focus on art. Fashion is in there and once again pottery has its play. All in all this is the bit kids will probably like the best. As for the art it can get a bit repetitive with lots of very well meaning pictures of hardy Geordies and the like but nothing that really stands out. At least this is what I thought until I reached the very end of this section and saw two paintings that revived me. One was “Portrait of Hugh Gailskell as a famous monster of film and land” by Richard Hamilton. The second which perhaps summed up and solved the gallery’s main dilemma was entitled “Interior of the central exhibition hall, college of arts, Newcastle-up on-Tyne” by Robert Soden a brilliant picture based in Newcastle that combines industry with the abstract, in a painting with a sense of many directions and yet none. The LAG’s problem is this; it has to try and juggle. It needs to represent the people of/and place in which it lives but then again it does need to bring in outside elements. Too much ponce and the locals won’t come, too much local stuff and the ponces won’t come and any gallery relies on both. Luckily the LAG seems to be getting by. The modern sections are usually handled very well and the permanent bits are good enough to stand repeated viewing. Any major tinkering that needs to be done is purely cosmetic. This is what I mean by “best served lightly Cezanned,” its good as it is but just a touch here and there of something special can really make something good into something great.
The Laing Art gallery is easily one of the best galleries I have visited. It has a fabulous display of art on Tyneside, with models of northern people from all ages, photos, videos and even a model of the fabulous Tyne Bridge! It was recently home to the Lindisfarne Gospels exhibition, and also has exhibitions from local artists, as well as international exhibitions. It is inexpensive to visit,(the gallery is free and a nominal fee is charged for special exhibitions) and the staff are very friendly and helpful. The cafe is clean, the waitresses helpful and on the walls are beautiful paintings, and there are also cases of sculptures and artifacts. I recently took a friend from Australia who was here on holiday, and she was very impressed. On the main staircase is a fabulous painting of the Tyne Bridge as it was being built. For anyone with a love of art, or a strong pride in Newcastle, I would highly recommend visiting the Laing art gallery.