Liverpool Biennial 2012:
Walker Art Gallery (19)



Art My final brush with National Museums Liverpool is the Walker Art Gallery and a reminder of projects otherwise ongoing. It hasn’t escaped by noticed that the last Public Art Collections in North West England I’ve visited was Towneley Hall Art Gallery & Museum in the Summer 2010 (written up in 2011), and it must seem doubly strange to attentive readers that I haven’t yet approached what’s arguably the most local of the venue in Edward Morris’s book, especially since it’s not as though I’m out of the place. That’s because I’m purposefully leaving it to last, making it the finale, because it has such resonance for me and because frankly I know, or at least I think I know the collection so well, it seems fairer to regard the other venues first. Their time will come. Soon. Soon.

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Of the Biennial themed works at the Walker, the most accessible, certainly the most iconic in marketing terms is Patrick Murphy’s Belonging. From glancing through his website, we can see that Murphy trades in a large scale interventions and installations in bright colours, sometimes applying new architectural features to buildings or else creating massive projections of simplistic images. His Strata illuminated the windows of a disused council headquarters, perhaps the soberest of architecture in its modernist utility now with all the colours of the rainbow turning it into a cathedral of light both night and day. He's producing a design via web voting.  In promoting Barnsley’s bid to host the 2013 city of culture, he projected an animation of a whippet, a symbol of working class culture to the side of Cannon Hall.

Belonging looks to be a continuation of that and a series of works begun in 2008 featuring birds. For the Biennial, Murphy has produced a hundred and fifty brightly coloured plastic pigeons, which have been distributed across the exterior and interior of the building, most visibly near the main entrance and in the cafĂ© and shop. Passing through the main entrance you can also hear them hilariously cooing, but just quiet enough that unless it’s pointed out to you, your sensibilities just turn them into part of the audio landscape. Like his whippets, pigeons are another stereotype of northern life, which is odd, because there are just as many in Trafalgar Square as there are anywhere else. But the title is obviously meant to indicate that these are homing pigeons, given sanctuary on this occasion by one of the houses of art.

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My love and hate relationship with the John Moores Painting Prize continues this year’s exhibition. I think I can admit now, with two year’s distance I didn’t think much of the previous edition, which is why it ended up being slipped in at the end of the infamous Day One post, apart from it genuinely being the last exhibition I saw that day. This year’s selection is better. There’s certainly more work which seems to have some original thought behind it rather than found its inspiration in the canonical painters, presumably because as one of the judges Alan Yentob explains in an accompanying video at the venue about the selection process, they were looking for work with some original thought behind it rather than found its inspiration in the canonical painters.

Becoming a one man judging panel, the piece I’ve chosen for the people’s vote is Bernat Daviu’s Overall Paintings. It’s displayed near the entrance to the exhibition, presumably because it looks like nothing else in the exhibition and like seeing an amazing actor in a first audition then realising you have three weeks of other candidates who you know won’t be as surprising, I knew it would be my favourite right through until the end. That’s why the whole process of art in competition is unfair. One person’s sensibilities may be a photo realistic imagine of a war zone or another’s the silhouettes of a police riot team painted on the side of a coke can or another person might love the reproduction on canvas of a typed letter from an artist to himself commission the creation of the work for the competition.

But none of them have the bare faced cheek of submitting what amounts to a sculptural work to a painting price which has traditionally, predominantly been two dimensional. Liz Elton’s Twisted could equally be put in that bracket, but as the artist explains in her notes (an edited version of the catalogue is available as a pdf), that’s the remains of what was really a performance piece utilising what we must assume was a relatively traditional work. Daviu has created something which has to be hung from a clothing rail on the wall of the gallery, making it an installation too. It might not be my favourite John Moores selection ever, but it’s certainly one of the most perverse. As I stood in front of it, I imagined Yentob grinning and stroking his beard and considering if he could convince the BBC to let him have an hour of imagine... to justify their decision.

What we have here is three brightly coloured painted boiler suits hanging from wooden coat hangers. There’s a yellow one, a red one and a blue one and they’re arrange in a haphazard way as though they've been left behind by workers at the end of a day. At first I thought they really were boiler suits, but the information card indicates we’re “simply” looking at acrylic on canvas which indicates they’re unwearable clothing created using an artist’s traditional trade tools. There’s not much more to them other than the choice of colours which bespeak of old posters and old printing methods which were incapable of producing realistic shades. This is rather a dirty yellow of the kind which would appear when inks from darker colours had accidentally bled in on a newspaper advertisement.

The artist explains in his statement that in his paintings, he reduces everything to their most abstract forms which he sometimes later turns into garments. Daviu’s chosen this form because “both the Monochrome and the boiler suit are emblems of the Modernist utopian project in Russia after the Bolshevik revolution (1917), in which art was to become a functional and practical tool for the construction of a new democratic society. The Overall Paintings represent historical relics of a previous era, as well as pictorial symbols open to performative interpretations.”  In other words, contrary to the prevailing mood, the artist has chosen a historical perspective. Another artist might have taken the easier to decode option of simply painting them all bright orange, but instead it’s an abstract painting glancing back a hundred years for its inspiration.

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