Backwards and Onward

Happy 2012 blog fans and welcome, as the last pine needles embed themselves in the carpet, to a rather random review of the visual arts year in Wales.

And it was a good one, with lots of highlights:

There have been some mighty fine shows on offer this year and I’ve been lucky to see a lot of them. In no particular order of favouriteness here are some of the ones that tooted my horn:

Project Object at Oriel Myrddin in Carmarthen had everything going for it. I love it when artists are let loose on collections, or people are invited to talk about or curate objects that mean something special to them. This show came in four equally good parts and gave me the chance to come as close as I’m likely to get to the Aurora Borealis and slip a poodle into a public gallery. The Glynn Vivian unleashed David Cushway and some delighted individuals on their precious collection of ceramics. The resulting film,  Last Supper at The Glynn Vivian, shows how passionate folk become when asked to talk about the objects they love.

One would never have guessed that the Glynn Vivian team had been holding their collective breaths, waiting to get the green light for the new development project – the programme was as lively as ever. I’ve already written up my highlight here. The off site programme continues – follow it here.

Neil Mcnally was let loose on Newport Museum & Art gallery to curate a show – The Institute of Mental Health is Burning. Mcnally selected objects from NMAG’s fine collection, mixing it up with a host of artists. Those who went will have Goldie Lookin’ Chain’s Newport State of Mind (You’re Not From Newport) etched into their memory banks forever more. NMAG also brought us Dis-location by Andrew Cooper, an artist who never fails to engage my attention. Pete Telfer, God of Culture Colony, filmed Cooper talking about his work.

In mid Wales, Oriel Davies gave us two artists associated with the 2007 Wales at the Venice Biennale offering: Bedwyr Williams and Paul Granjon. Williams’ show, Nimrod, launched with one of his trademark darkly funny performances and the humour threaded through the exhibition, which coincided with the National Eisteddfod up the road in Wrexham – Williams took the Gold medal and went on to win the People’s Choice and Ifor Davies Award in an unprecedented hat trick.

Bedwyr Williams, Nimrod Oriel Davies

Granjon took over the gallery to create a workshop for unlikely gizmos with very willing volunteers for Oriel Factory. With a suite of his quirky drawings and a loop of films featuring some of his performances, inventions and songs to spur them on, the workshop elves came up with some highly inventive creations – none of which are likely to feature in the Innovations catalogue any day soon.

Across the Cambrian mountains, Aberystwyth Arts Centre has become an important venue for artists’ moving image with The Box seasons, but I’ve also enjoyed Visitor (still  on, if you’re quick) and Wild Thing.

Back in Cardiff Richard Higlett had his first solo show in Wales at g39’s temporary new home in The dairy, Pontcanna with Welcome to Your World. Higlett never fails to surprise and this show was no exception: a talking cat, the GPS (gallery of portable sound) car and a band (Bear- Man) playing from a hole in the gallery floor. Experimentica came back for its 11th outing at Chapter (where else could you find a man covered in mucus bouncing on a trampoline?) Chapter Gallery continued to surprise and delight with Pile and  The With Collective my personal faves.

Over in Penarth, Ffotogallery’s programme was as strong as ever, showcasing new and established talent and with complementary and engaging talks and the ever-popular Artists’ Book Fayre I’m so glad that this is my local. They’ll be bringing an international photography festival to Cardiff in 2013.

Artist-run spaces offered some really exciting shows and events this year: tactileBOSCH in Cardiff, continued to present rare opportunities to see performance, along with installations and painting shows that spilled out all over Cardiff for MOIST; Elysium ran another Bus Stop Cinema and disrupted the streets of Swansea; g39 hit Leipzig’s Spinnerei for the big Art Weekend; The Rhôd created a new series of site-responsive works in an old Mill in the hills of Carmarthenshire and created their own pavilion at the Venice Biennale (Rhodio). Swansea’s Supersaurus played host to shows by Gordon Dalton and Tom Goddard, while Supersuarus member Owen Griffiths dug up a football pitch to grow vegetables for Vetch Veg (sometimes you just couldn’t make this stuff up!)

Online artists’ film platform, Outcasting is heading for world domination. Not content with presenting international content, Outcasting’s evil genius, Michael Cousin, has joined forces with, er, me and St David’s Hall’s exhibitions officer, Ruth Cayford to form Fourth Wall. Pedwaredd Wall CIC, which will be filling Cardiff with artists’ moving image this autumn, thanks to festival funding from the Arts Council of Wales. Watch this space for more info and a call for artists to submit.

Goodbye and Hello

2011 was tinged with some sadness as Swansea lost two inspirational women: Swansea Metroplitan University lecturer Susan Griffiths and Mission Gallery Director Jane Phillips. Both died too young and leave a big hole in the visual arts community.

We also said goodbye to arts education as we know it with some major restructuring of fine art courses and a few closures. I’ve already written about this here so I won’t bang on but I’ll be watching as things unfold over the next few years.

James Boardman, Light Corridor, CSAD degree show 2011

And last, but not least, of the farewells goes to all of my former colleagues at the Arts Council of Wales, who find themselves staring at an uncertain future following the recent major restructuring (more on this as it unfolds).

Meanwhile some new faces appeared on the scene and began to make their mark:

Amanda Roderick took over as director at The Mission Gallery under very sad circumstance, but her work to date would, I’m sure, make Jane Phillips proud. Ben Borthwick got into his stride as Chief Executive of Artes Mundi, which is scheduled for this Autumn in Cardiff. Up in Llandudno we said goodbye and good luck to Martin Barlow, who left Mostyn after steering its development into one of the finest exhibitions spaces in Wales. He is  replaced as director by Alfredo Cramerotti, who took over as the first major retrospective of Blaenau Ffestiniog-based sculptor, David Nash – Red,Black,Other – launched to much excitement.

And finally, we said hello to #0 of tant magazine. They’re currently inviting submissions for #1 so please follow the link.

    David Fitzjohn, TactileBOSCH Citizen 2011     Jonathan Anderson, Dark Star - Mission Gallery

It’s been such a busy year and I’m sure I’ll have forgotten to mention a lot of the wonderful things that I have seen. Please feel free to add your own favourites in the comments section.

In the meantime I hope you have a very productive and creative 2012.

How Dumb Are We? Kim Howells and Dougal

Penrhiwllythau by Paul Emmanuel

I did O level Maths at school, but I’d never set myself up as a mathematician for the purposes of punditry, so why did the Western Mail feel the need to ask Kim Howells, a politician who once went to art school, for a response to the winner of the Welsh Artist of the Year? And to do so by looking at Paul Emmanuel‘s winning work online.

That’s it. The final straw. I am so fed up with the way that the (admittedly tiny, circa 32,000) readership of the self-styled Newspaper of Wales are treated like unintelligent morons and that contemporary art is regularly denigrated, dismissed and misrepresented. It makes Wales look stupid and backward-looking and can’t, I am sure, do much to make the case for Wales as a lively, critically-engaged nation to which big companies would want to re-locate.

Of course my comments were taken out of context in the WM piece as, I suspect, were the quotes from Howells. I am sure that he would have been careful not to juxtapose his criticisms of the Turner Prize judges with a reference to my colleagues and I as the judging panel of the WAotY competition this year, as we’re skating towards libel here. Now, we didn’t all sit down and decide to come up with something controversial, to be seen as being ‘avant garde’ (a term that I don’t believe has been seriously used for many decades). We chose works that reflected current practice in Wales and rewarded artists at the top of their game in their areas of expertise. Paul Emmanuel was an obvious choice for winner. He’s taken seriously by those who really know about art and has carved himself an international reputation with his exhibitions in Taiwan, amongst other places. At home he’s been shown at the Glynn Vivian Art Gallery , the opening show of the Mostyn and had a stunning solo show at Oriel Myrddin

I’m just back from Venice and the 54th Biennale of Art. There, even tiny, economically challenged nations take contemporary art seriously and present it as such to appreciative audiences. They know it’s important to present a forward-looking face and to champion their artists and the arts in general. Isn’t it about time we did the same?

You can make up your own mind about the Welsh Artist of the Year competition by seeing it in the flesh at St Davids Hall until 06 August 2011.

I’ll be the Judge of That – the Art Competition Minefield

The Table of Fraught Deliberation

A fortnight ago I spent two days closeted in a room with four colleagues, passing judgement on some 400 artworks, trundling before my eyes in the hands of a human conveyor belt. It was the eleventh Welsh Artist of the Year (WAotY) submission.

Now I’ve fought shy of this kind of judgement since I nearly presided over a village Easter egg decoration competition. Luckily then my Health Visitor warned me off and told me of a midwife who’d been drummed out of Dodge by angry villagers after a Bonny Baby competition. Why didn’t I remember that when the very persuasive Ruth Cayford of Saint Davids Hall asked me to be a judge? Luckily I had back up in the shape of Walter Keeler, Christopher Brown and Owen Griffiths and Ruth feeding us biscuits (the closest I’m ever going to get to a rock rider was asking for lemon puffs).

The sugar rushes were definitely necessary as the human conveyor belt ferried the 2D submissions past our eyes and we finally grasped the enormity of the task ahead. There are always so many things to take on board – the space, the audience, the balance of the overall exhibition – but the overwhelming feeling was that all of the judges wanted to ensure that the selected artists would be well represented by their work, and sometimes that involved some tough decisions – all consensual I might add.  But before you get over excited, I’m not going to emit any behind-the-scenes leakages, though I hope, by the power of the blog, to point up some things to think about when attaching cash money to a submission and sending it in, hoping it’ll be picked for exhibition or even to win.

As the submissions rolled past, what left me a bit perplexed was the very variable quality of works submitted, even given that there’s a built in duality to the competition as it’s open to amateur and professional artists. There were a few terrible framing and mounting choices, some effectively killing off the content; photographs that were cockled, badly cropped or that had slipped on the their mounts; works that I was familiar with in the context of the body of work they come from that looked odd as sole images.

The 3D works were also a bit of a challenge: some came with such complex installation instructions that it was clear that the entrants hadn’t considered the space in which they might be shown, others were impossibly fragile. And again the out-of-context nature of single works often fought against their ambition.

Meanwhile the new media category pointed up the problems of showing film or sonic work, originally intended to be embedded in a wider body of work and shown/experienced in a white box gallery space.

So here are my pointers, for what they may be worth, and I hope that with some time elapsed since the arrival of the rejection letters, this advice will help future applicants to sharpen up their submissions and win, win WIN!

  • Consider the context of the exhibition and the constraints of the space where the work will be shown – will it work? Will people be able to see it and understand it (especially if it’s one of a series)?
  • Take a long cool look at your submission: Does it do you justice? Is this the work you would like to represent your practice?
  • Ask a critical friend to have a look and give you honest feedback – what are you not seeing because you’re so familiar with the work? Are there flaws that could be dealt with or other works that would be more appropriate?
  • Consider the ultimate presentation: Are your installation requirements easily achievable? Are mountings/frames/plinths working with or against the work?
  • Does your technology work? Test CDs and DVDs on different computers and platforms and make sure that they open on everything.
  • For moving image work: Is it as crisp and tightly edited as it can be? Do sound and image quality match up?

Of course rejection is tough and we’ve all been there. My toppest of top tips is to go outside, kick something that won’t bleed, then ask for feedback and take it on board for next time. There are so many opportunities for you to send your work out into the world, with a cheque attached, that it’s worth taking a bit of time in considering which of the many open competitions and exhibitions would be the best investment for you.

And if these top tips are preaching to the converted, but you’d still like to get cross about something, have a look at what Maya Ramsay about has to say about pay-as-you-show opportunities in the latest Axis rant  The Art Lottery.

The Welsh Artist of the Year winners will be announced on Sunday05  June

Update: And the winner is… Paul Emmanuel

Congratulations to Paul and to all the category winners, the runner up, Pamela Rawnsley, and all the honourable mentions.

Other open submission shows to check out:

Mostyn Open 2011 21 May – 09 July

National Eisteddfod of Wales, Wrexham 30 July – 06 August