Nottingham has a brand new gallery for contemporary art. This is by no means just regional news. Of all the comparable openings in recent years – Gateshead, Milton Keynes, Walsall, West Bromwich – only the Baltic has consistently mounted exhibitions to draw audiences from across the country. I think – hope – the same will be true of Nottingham Contemporary.
The building itself is modestly funded, strategically positioned to add lustre to the Lace Market quarter and entirely free to all-comers. Designed by the renowned architects Caruso St John, it has strong community ties, an international programme and enough pulling power already to be first port of call for next year’s British Art Show before it goes to the Hayward Gallery in London.
About the building itself, the news is not so great. Caruso St John have designed some of the most beautiful public spaces of late, notably the New Art Gallery in Walsall. Nottingham Contemporary is not among them. The exterior is fetching enough – fluted concrete surfaces, evoking waves and organ pipes and gently riffling pages, some in gold, some in pale green imprinted with a pattern of Nottingham lace.
And the whole edifice slips very subtly into one of the most awkward sites imaginable: a chunk of sandstone cliff once topped with a park that it had its share of the city’s drugs and muggings. Viewed from the street-level entrance, it looks like a modest, one-storey building. Descend by the steep steps down one side to the trams below and all four storeys become suddenly visible.
But the elegance is all on the outside. Inside is bare concrete, apart from ceilings soundproofed with what looks like fungal growth in hues of oxblood and plum. Nothing seems rationally orientated, there is no sense of seclusion in the uppermost galleries, no clear flow between them and these four oddly angled rooms turn out to be the prelude to nothing.
For the largest space by far is a theatre downstairs – vast as a basketball stadium, complete with bleachers – designed for performances and lectures. Having no natural light, it is useless for any kind of art except video (and even then the double height is too lofty), bringing into question both the choice of site and the project’s original priorities.
None of which was decided, incidentally, by the current director, Alex Farquharson, who is responsible for the good news – namely that the opening show of Hockney is tremendous.
Now you might say that Hockney is a safe choice – conservative yet radical, figurative yet advanced. Which other British artist is so skilful and ingenious, so popular, stylish and appealing? Which other living painter has created images like A Bigger Splash – that stunning diagram of Sixties California, of blazing sunlight and cool water, of liquid blossoming into frozen chaos – that have so completely entered the public imagination?
But there are better and worse phases in any artist’s career and the virtue of this show is that it concentrates on what are arguably Hockney’s greatest – certainly his most inventive – years, following his life story from the Royal College of Art in the early Sixties to Los Angeles, Africa and Europe and ending, fittingly, on the crest of A Bigger Splash.
And it is a tale told in pictures: a portrait of the artist as a young man in love with other young men when homosexual acts were illegal, trying to find male models to paint, going to the movies, to Soho parties, reading Walt Whitman and CP Cavafy, pondering Renaissance painting while dancing lightly through the latest American art.
It is wonderful to see We Two Boys Together Clinging, painted when Hockney was only 24 but already famous. The boys in question – inchoate, potato-shaped, innocently child-like – are half-scrawled on a wall, with all the obvious connotations. But they are also embraced within the title words, quoted from Whitman, and a scarlet heart fluttering against the surface keeps the issue of perspective – as well as high and low art – in play. Ancient and modern, cave painting and pop masterpiece, this remains one of Hockney’s most poignant works.
A year later and he’s in America drawing palm trees and pools so dextrously one senses the Californian colours even in sharp black and white. In Wilshire Boulevard, two figures are silhouetted against a wall by the eponymous signpost: shadows at high noon or real people paling in the heat? In Santa Monica, water pours into the pool with all the silent poise of a Piero. The paintings sparkle with humour – vaudeville, slapstick, sight gag and pun, running all the way through the satire of A Rake’s Progress to the attic wit of Egyptian Head in which the ancient profile, in all its hieratic fixity, is being gently softened – undone? – by an amorphous Constable cloud.
Pictorial conventions are Hockney’s passion. In a journey to Switzerland, two figures hare along in a car as the mountains behind them transform into flag-edged maps. A Bigger Splash takes off from both Seurat and Leonardo. Not the least pleasure of this show is watching Hockney invent new equivalents – new pictorial notations – for everything he observes.
A Lawn Sprinkler shows this to perfection: the grass a mesh of systematic lines (and what is grass, after all?), the sprinkler’s spray a million motionless particles lying semi-transparent upon the canvas. You can see the jets are getting out of hand, but the disorder is exquisitely analysed even as it erupts. The picture’s drama lies in describing chaos with mesmerising control.
The work is an inspiration –and so is the show, with its infinite variety of mark-making acts. It stands as an encouragement to each and all of us to draw the world for ourselves. In this respect, as in many others, Nottingham Contemporary could hardly have made a better start.
Portrait of the old master: Tim Adams interviews David Hockney earlier this month
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